Recently, I came across a report of the United Nations Regional Centre for Peace and Disarmament in Africa on the alarming proliferation rate of Small Arms and Light Weapons (SAWL) in the country that appalled me. The report stated that out of the 300 million illicit weapons in circulation in the country, about 4.5 million light weapons are in active use. Frighteningly also, the reported stated that 1 in 45 persons in the country has an illicit weapon in their possession. The report further warned that the number of illicit small arms and light weapons in circulation in Nigeria has reached an alarming propor-tion adding that if urgent actions were not taken it could have dire consequences on the country and the sub-region.
It is no more news that we are currently battling internal conflict in Nigeria, especially in the North where banditry, kidnapping and incessant violence has become the constant headlines every day. And all these acts of violence are evidently being fueled by the proliferation of illicit arms. Undoubtedly, the proliferation of SALW is one of the major security challenges currently facing our country, the Afri-can continent and indeed the world at large. The trafficking and wide availability of these weapons fuel communal conflict, political instability and pose a threat, not only to our national security, but also to sustainable development. In some reports, Nigeria is ranked one of the highest in the list of countries with highest gun deaths and injuries globally.
Before we can fully comprehend the dangers that SALW poses, we need to understand what SALW is. Broadly speaking, the term refers to any weapon that can be carried by one or two people. Examples range from military-style guns—pistols, carbines, assault rifles, and light machine guns – to grenade launchers, mortars, mobile anti-tank guns and rocket launchers, and shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missile launchers. Munitions used with these weapons (such as bullets, grenades and missiles), landmines, and explosives are also encompassed by the term. The International Committee of the Red Cross has determined that small arms are the principal cause of death in conflicts. In fact, these arms are thought to be responsible for 90 percent of recent war casualties. Small/light arms are cheap and portable, and are used by all combatants, whether it is the state militaries, militias, and insurgents. It is the preva-lence (i.e., the widespread proliferation of these arms) combined with their indiscriminate use that renders them responsible for so much of the killing.
There is a thriving global black market in SAWL. These arms are particularly attractive to smugglers, as they are cheap, and easily concealed and transported. In South Africa, the easy availability of weapons from across the border in Mozambique and Angola has led to a dramatic increase in armed crime. The secretive nature of arms smuggling makes it impossible to know with any certainty the magnitude of the traffic, but some have estimated that it accounts for as much as half of all light weapons transfers. The licit and illicit traffic in small arms are closely intertwined. Arms that are originally exported legally, but are not properly tracked or secured, often fall into illegal circulation. Theft or capture of state secu-rity forces’ arms are also a major source of black market supply. Sadly though, the millions of people who are often caught in the crossfire of warfare or become victims of armed crime are women and children. And now in Nigeria, the victims are the most impoverished Nigerians living in rural communi-ties. Disturbingly also, the light weight and small size of these weapons has made it possible for chil-dren to be recruited or compelled to become soldiers. Child soldiers were particularly exploited in re-cent wars in Liberia and the Sudan.
Undeniably, the proliferation of SALW poses serious challenges to both international and national se-curity. Human Rights Watch found, for instance, that the proliferation of SALW to both sides of the conflict in Burundi in the past had been responsible for fueling tensions and made possible the com-mission of serious human rights abuses. However, SALW has been difficult to estimate and much more difficult to control. Most governments do not publish statistics on transfer of small arms; worst still are private companies who are highly secretive about arms deals. Much of the trade is carried out through black markets and other illicit transfers. Coming home, the inability of successive governments and the law enforcement agencies to check the supply and the demand factors of the proliferation of SALW in Nigeria has heightened and worsened the security situations in the country. In our clime, the availabil-ity of small arms has had a direct influence on the escalation and sustenance of insecurity in the coun-try. Similarly, private dealers and some military government contractors deliberately violate arms sales laws and policies for commercial gains.
Noteworthy, arms and weapons do not resolve conflicts, but as it is now, it is very difficult to control arms proliferation within Nigeria especially with our porous borders and seemingly profitability in its sales and use by political thugs, cultist, insurgents, militants, and armed robbers/gangs. Curbing it in-deed would be a herculean task. It would take tremendous political will on the part of government to ensure that these weapons cease to be in use or in circulation within the country.
Firstly, government should invite youths or anyone who have these arms and buy it at an exorbitant price from them so as to destroy them. Secondly, control on the illicit trade is possible for the govern-ment. Strengthening of existing legislation, implementing new and effective controls, tighter national law enforcement and customs policies, marking of small arms and ammunition, the development of national registries of gun ownership and transfer, and the establishment of stricter verification mech-anisms on the final destination of weapons transfers would go a long way in ensuring that the illicit trade in arms is curbed.
On the international scene, codes of conduct on arms transfers can help ensure that legally traded weapons do not fall into the hands of those who abuse human rights and threaten peace and stability. In the past, supplier nations have been too quick to sell weapons to anyone who would buy them, and as a result, have armed abusive regimes and provided weaponry for repression. Codes of conduct, which would prevent future transfers of military equipment to such regimes are especially gaining ground in the U.S. Congress, the European Union and within the international community. Also, there are a number of other practical options for control. Limiting ammunition production and transfers holds promise as a means of reducing violence, while the post-conflict destruction of surplus weapon-ry would prevent arms from being recycled to other wars and to criminals.