The unrelenting gun attacks on defenceless Nigerians seem to have spurred the Inspector General of Police, Ibrahim Kpotun Idris, into action to retrieve illicit arms in circulation.
This is a laudable step following the shocking report that Nigeria is awash with 350 million illegal small arms and light weapons.
What it means is that the undocumented guns in the hands of unauthorized persons considerably outnumber those in the possession of the military and paramilitary forces in Nigeria.
This illegal arms proliferation is a byproduct of the Arab Spring which threw up several militia groups in North Africa who migrated southwards after they were dislodged from their enclaves.
This macabre reality is what has translated into the serious erosion of the nation’s security, evidenced in the wanton killings of Nigerians by criminals who wield deadlier weapons than the conventional police.
That is probably why security agencies have seemed rather incapable of stopping the mass killings in Benue, Taraba, Adamawa, Zamfara, Southern Kaduna, Nasarawa, and other areas across the country.
However, on February 21, the Inspector-General of Police took a first step towards scaling back this problem when he gave marching orders to police formations across the county to immediately recover prohibited firearms, ammunition and weapons in the possession of all suspected militias, bandits, vigilante groups, neighbourhood watch and other groups or individual(s) or bodies bearing prohibited firearms and ammunition, illegal weapons and lethal devices, whether locally fabricated, modified or otherwise fashioned to kill.
He listed 19 firearms that should not be found in the possession of civilians, in line with Fire Arms Act of 2004. They include, among others, artillery, rocket weapons, bombs and grenades, machine-guns and machine-pistols, military rifles, revolvers and pistols, firearms such as pump action guns of all categories.
He gave a 21-day ultimatum for affected persons to turn in their arms to the police commissioners in their states.
Police spokesman, Jimoh Moshood, gave further insight into the strategies of the operation. He said police squads would carry out cordon-and-search raids and seizure from premises, hideouts, dwelling houses and uncompleted buildings.
He further explained that the returned arms would be examined by ballistics experts and those implicated would be invited for questioning.
There is no doubt that this move is a timely intervention ahead of the 2019 general election when some desperate politicians recruit private armies to neutralise their opponents in the contest for power.
But we are constrained to draw the attention of the police to certain indicators that its strategy in the mop-up operation might need some adjustment for the force to achieve maximum success.
Interrogating those whose arms had been used to commit crimes in the past is a likely disincentive for those in this category to return them. Approaching it this way could render the project dead on arrival. They would rather bury them somewhere to escape possible arrest in future. The danger is that they can be tempted in future to retrieve and use them for nefarious activities.
Also, even if a fraction of the millions of illegal arms in circulation was submitted to the police, how many ballistics experts are in its fold to carry out the checks? The force simply does not have the manpower.
So the police would do well to consider granting a general amnesty to those who surrender their arms and renounce violence.
Also, the police authorities did not say how they would tackle the issue of the country’s porous borders from where most of these illegal arms find their way into Nigeria. There are about 1,487 illegal and unmanned routes into Nigeria. How would they succeed in this mission if the borders are wide open for more influx, or if corrupt security officers at the country’s ports keep clearing containers laden with illegal arms?
The police also target neighbourhood watch groups and vigilance groups set up by sub-national governments to provide some form of protection against criminals and militia gangs in their localities. In mopping up from these groups, the police must find a way to secure the affected communities in order not to leave them vulnerable to attacks.
This is more so as the police have not revealed how they intend to disarm herdsmen and other ethnic militia who reportedly launch attacks in their hundreds, armed to the teeth.
Even trickier, in our opinion, is that some threatened communities already see the police hierarchy as biased and unwilling to rein in the so-called herdsmen. Self preservation is the first law of nature; if they do not see the police willing – and able – to provide security for them, they may not be keen to surrender their arms.
The police need to, first of all, gain the trust of all sides in the ongoing violence around the country. They would need to disarm outlaw groups who raid communities to plunder and kill before focusing on those using such arms for community policing and self-defence.
It is our considered opinion that the police need to rethink its operational strategies for this very important assignment to succeed rather than premise it on people volunteering their illegal weapons and cordon and search operations. These approaches are not in-depth enough for the kind of outcome the mission is intended to achieve.
We believe this kind of assignment needs careful planning, intelligence gathering and analysis, identification and surveillance of groups and persons of interest and inter-agency coordination. It is a task the police cannot do alone to the exclusion of other security agencies.
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