Who owns the guns?
Ordinarily, the interception and seizure of a truckload of pump action rifles by operatives of the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) should be a cause for cheers and commendation for the vigilance and alertness displayed by the officers at their duty post. However, amidst lingering terrorism, kidnapping, armed robbery and other criminal activities, impounding 661 smuggled dangerous weapons raises serious questions about the security of lives and property in the country.
According to reports, the consignment said to have originated from China through Turkey, was intercepted by a roving team of customs officers along the Mile 2 – Apapa Road, Lagos. Questions: Who is importing or smuggling in pump action rifles? What purpose did such a person seek to achieve by the importation? How did these rifles successfully find their way into the country without interception before now? Is it the case that there might have been some compromise with security operatives at the port of origin, ports of transit and port of destination? Instead of applause, this incident raises fear and apprehension.
Only six months ago, the United Nations raised alarm over the proliferation of illicit small arms and light weapons in West Africa. A report from one of its agencies, at the time, stated that Nigeria accounted for about 350 million of the 500 million small arms circulating in the region; that is, 70 per cent of illicit weapons circulating in the sub-region are domiciled in Nigeria.
Behind this startling statistics are facts drawn from the nation’s socio-economic and political experience. One of such is that movements of arms, whether they are made public or not, are known to occur before elections. And this procurement as well as movement of weapons is done by people who have means and influence. In this regard, it would be recalled that years ago some governors, in their bid to become the sole masters of the political machine of their states, raised private militia groups and equipped them with arms and light weapons to terrorise political opponents. It is argued that the prevalent militancy in the South-South region is attributed to the Frankesteinian consequence of raising militias without having the financial means of sustaining them. Again, that these arms get to their destination in the country owes its success to the porous nature of the nation’s borders. Whether it is up north, in the east or west, or from the Atlantic, Nigeria’s borders happen to be the most compromised in the world.
Despite the efforts of the Customs personnel, there is still need to query this latest mode of operation. How, despite pre-inspection at the port of origin, did this consignment pass? Would it have been the case that there was collusion between officials at the port of origin and representatives of the importer? Nigerians are aware of the amount of money spent in acquiring hi-tech scanners for the ports, and as such officers can observe goods when being loaded, track them, and then stop its movement. Why wasn’t this the case until the consignment hit the street before it was apprehended?
Complex and highly networked as the illegal arms industry is, its dangerous proliferation in developing countries could be addressed through diplomatic means. Although the arms industry is sophisticated and run by the elite, such a sophisticated industry cannot exist outside the watch of national regulatory bodies and organisations. Those who run the business and organise the market are very well known people to the political authorities or state actors. In the same vein, the legal procedures for importation of arms as well as the means of circumventing the law are common knowledge to law enforcement agencies.
Notwithstanding this latest modest outing, there is the complaint of low quality intelligence at the Customs Service, no thanks to the character of some of its personnel. In the minds of the average Nigerian there is the misconception that the NCS is a financially self-enriching profession, where all-comers recommended by some godfathers can make a living. This is an indictment of an agency that occupies the nation’s ‘front desk’ position.
Despite the brazen flaunting of assault weapons, and notwithstanding the fact that the people involved are known, nobody has called for a census of weapons in the hands of these murderous marauders. This goes to show that the root cause of violence and unjustified killings is far from being addressed. As always, pruning the fringes of social malaise may not be the solution to the problem of insecurity.
This unpleasant incident has exposed systemic gaps in our ports and border security system. That the interception became public knowledge might have well been a case of a deal gone awry. Whilst praises from Nigerians should encourage the officers of the NCS to be more relentless in tracking down illegal importation and smuggling of weapons and other contraband goods, and then handing culprits over to prosecuting authorities, there is also need to sanitise the Customs. The false idea that the NCS is an exclusive profession reserved for a section of the country, and the consequent politicking of the activities of the operatives should be adequately addressed. There is need for highly trained and competent officers to affect the quality of intelligence at the nation’s ports and borders. With this, even though there may be leakages, such leakages would be drastically reduced.
Whilst this newspaper commends both the prompt detention of incriminated officers and other elements in the arms drama and the immediate commencement of a probe, relevant authorities should carry out a census of arms in circulation and recover illegal ones. However, for lasting resolution, authorities must go beyond local measures and appeal to international forces. Being a signatory to the United Nations treaty on the non-proliferation of small arms, Nigeria has a moral duty to ensure that the distribution of small arms reduces to the barest minimum if not totally eradicated. Countries that share the same aspirations towards non-proliferation of small arms could also establish collaborative efforts to address this in the best possible ways.