Analysis: Nigerian state’s call to arms could spur state of anarchy

Authorities in Zamfara issued the call for self-defence as bandits continue to unleash terror across northern Nigeria.

In Zamfara state in Nigeria, bandits have killed at least 250 people and abducted thousands more in the first half of 2022 alone (Al Jazeera)

On Sunday, the government of Nigeria’s northwestern state of Zamfara issued a directive for its citizens to “prepare and obtain guns to defend themselves against bandits”.

While a number of state governments and top military officers have made similar calls in the past across parts of the country, this seems set to be the first formal process.

“Government has directed the state commissioner of police to issue licence to all those who qualify and are wishing to obtain such guns to defend themselves,” Ibrahim Dosara, the Zamfara commissioner for information, said in a statement on Sunday, on behalf of the state’s Governor Bello Matawalle.

The commissioner said the efforts would be handled by the 19 traditional rulers in the state who would be given 500 forms each to distribute in their emiratis to people without criminal records before the forms are sent to the police for vetting.

Guns are an everyday topic of dialogue in Zamfara, one of the hot spots of insecurity in a region sometimes referred to as the “Wild Wild West”, where banditry is rampant. Bandits have killed at least 250 people, abducted thousands more and razed many villages to the ground in the first half of 2022, in the state alone.

But the latest tilt in the discussion – to granting citizens permission to carry arms – could open up a state of anarchy across Nigeria, which is currently battling multidimensional insecurity challenges, researchers and analysts caution.

While the numbers of weapons in the possession of non-state actors vary, it is generally acknowledged that between five to six million small arms and light weapons (SALWs) are in circulation.

And Matawalle’s instructions could increase the proliferation of them, says Murtala Ahmed Rufa’i, an expert on insecurity and a history lecturer at Usman Dan Fodio University in neighbouring Sokoto.

“Giving access to citizens to acquire weapons means you are opening a new chapter of violence – an eye for an eye,” Rufa’i told Al Jazeera. “It is not a decision informed by knowledge or reality of what is on the ground.”

“By saying everyone should [get] a weapon, you are indirectly saying you cannot provide security of lives and property. Then the question is, as a governor, what are you?” Rufa’i said.

The power to issue licences

Security agencies in Africa’s most populous country are currently overwhelmed in containing attacks from different groups across its territory. In March, Nigeria’s defence chief Lucky Irabor revealed that 80 percent of the army has been deployed across the country’s 36 states, weakening its capacity to effectively fight in the most insecure areas.

Under the country’s federation-style of governance, supervisory power over its security agencies lies in the presidency, so state policing is currently not allowed under the constitution.

To fill in the gap, vigilante groups have taken over the responsibility of protecting themselves and other citizens. While they help in repelling attacks by armed groups on vulnerable communities nationwide, human rights groups and civil society say they are also engineering fresh headaches – more clashes and human rights violations.

Since the return of democracy in 1999, vigilantes have been agitating for restructuring Nigeria’s federal system and more recently, secession. Others  – like the Civilian Joint Task Force in Borno, epicentre of Boko Haram’s operations, and Amotekun, backed by the six governors of the southwest region – are a response to the current surge in insecurity and receive state support.

Their emergence has contributed to an increase of SALWs available nationwide.

Meanwhile, licensing of private firearms remains a preserve of the president under Nigerian laws and five separate bills on regulating firearms are currently under parliamentary review.

For now, states need authorisation to issue those licences from their police commissioners, who report to the federal command in Abuja and need its approval.

In 2019, President Muhammadu Buhari revoked the licence of all private weapons across the country, but this decision put him on a collision course with lawmakers who cited the insecurity nationwide as a reason to allow vulnerable citizens to carry arms. The order has been barely enforced.

But the embargo on firearms licences is still in force, Zamfara police chief Ayuba Elkana said after Matawalle’s comments.

And Irabor, the country’s top general, agrees.

“If what I read is true, I do not also think that the governor has the power to instruct the commissioner of police to issue licences because the commissioner of police does not have the powers to issue licences, ” he said at a military event on Monday.

Demand and supply

Since 2011, when the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) staged an intervention in Libya to unseat the late leader Muammar Gaddafi, a constant stream of SALWs across the Sahel has energised fresh and evolving crises in the region.

“The conflicts outside are seriously affecting the proliferation,” Lagos-based James Barnett, a non-resident fellow at Hudson Institute in Washington DC, said. “It is a West Africa challenge: there is instability across the five Sahel countries, and it is a huge challenge with the weapons flow.”

A lack of government capacity to intercept the flow, corruption within the law enforcement agencies and porous borders have exacerbated the situation, but armed groups have also attacked security installations and carted away weapons.

Early this year, the Nigerian police after an internal audit said it could not account for 178,000 pieces of ammunition in 2019.

A directive that citizens can bear arms will increase demand within the country for what is already in constant supply within and around its borders, experts say.

Nigeria’s banditry problems grew out of decades of intercommunal clashes and climate change. Despite the proportion of violence being witnessed regularly, a military approach will not resolve issues, experts warn.

“The government has no option than to go non-kinetic,” Rufa’i said. “We should know that some of these problems are a result of social, economic and political injustice. If you don’t address the underlying factors, no amount of kinetic approach would work.”

“The concern is not [just] about adding more weapons in circulation because there are already a lot of weapons in circulation in the northwest,” Barnett told Al Jazeera. “The concern is by divesting the security responsibilities, the government is giving the green light to untrained people to kill bandits. It will lead to more intercommunal clashes and will exacerbate many of the grievances that drive this kind of conflict.”

Already, residents of the state are concerned that Matawalle’s directive might cause a breakdown in existing peace agreements brokered by the government with some bandit factions or that armed groups may now see civilians as an existential threat and respond with more violence.

“The bandits have local and international connections,” Rufa’i told Al Jazeera. “Already, we are seeing the synergy between bandits and other sects across different parts of the northwest. It is very easy for them to extend their invitation of these terrorist groups to come to their aid.”

Source: Al Jazeera