Insecurity: Senior lawyers divided on call to bear arms

 

In this report, Vanguard’s Law & Human Rights examines few key provisions in the Firearms Control Act (2004), a legislation that regulates ownership and possession of firearms in the country; scrutinizes the attitude of various countries of the world to firearms ownership; tracks past and present campaigns by few top public office holders and corporate bodies against the stance of the extant legislation together with the perspectives of few top lawyers on the desirability of liberalizing firearms at a time of extreme insecurity in the country.

On February 1, 2024, a lawmaker representing Delta North, Senator Ned Nwoko began a public campaign for civilians in the country to own and carry firearms for self defence.

Nwoko who spoke as a guest on Arise TV’s Morning Show said the campaign was necessary following  the rising waves of insecurity in the country.

Indeed, in virtually every part of the country, people do not feel safe.

Farmers in the Middle Belt, the North West and the North Central cannot go to their farms. It is risky to travel by road or trains as the routes have been taken over by bandits and kidnappers.


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In Plateau State alone, between the eve of Christmas and the end of 2023, over 200 persons were killed, more than 300 injured, about 10,000 were rendered homeless, in a carnage that went on for more than two days despite over 30 distress calls to the security agencies.

Available statistics from the Nigeria Security Tracker created by the US Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) revealed up to 2,700 deaths in less than 10 years due to insecurity in Nigeria, excluding many acts of violence that were unreported or under-reported.

Similarly, findings from a research conducted in 2020,  according to a former Director of the Department of State Services (DSS), Mr. Mike Ejiofor, had revealed that Nigeria had a record of 6.1 million illegal arms in the hands of civilians, implying that three out of every 100 Nigerians have firearms.

Standing on available data, Nwoko said it is undeniable that the North-East geo-political zone of the country has been entrenched in a humanitarian crisis for almost two decades due to the Boko Haram insurgency while the North-West has been dealing with illegal mining, ethno-religious violence, and banditry.

He said the four other geo-political zones in the country are not better.

According to him, the South-West geo-political zones is contending with surge in armed robbery, kidnappings, extrajudicial killings, clashes between herders and farmers, ritual killings, and banditry, the South-East grapples with ritual killings, secessionist movements, kidnappings, conflicts between herders and farmers, attacks by unidentified gunmen, and banditry, while the South-South is still troubled by militancy, kidnappings, and environmental unrest.

He argues that whereas, Section 14 (2) (b) of the 1999 Constitution stipulates that it shall be the duty of government to protect lives and property of citizens, the existing security measures in the country have not been sufficient in safeguarding the various communities in the six geo-political zones, stressing that the time was now to liberalize ownership and possession of firearms in the country for self defence

The lawmaker said he had already sponsored a bill that would assist in liberalizing ownership and bearing of arms in the country if passed into law.

He said the bill is presently awaiting First Reading in the National Assembly.

The desirability of the bill is however a subject of hot debate in the polity.

Firearms Control Act 2004

Ownership of guns in Nigeria today is controlled by the Firearms Control Act (2004).

The Act has 38 major provisions with three schedules which discuss comprehensively eight major issues including licensing of firearms, its sale and transfer, public armouries, import and export, manufacture and repair of arms, enforcement of the Act, regulations and other powers with savings.

Specifically, section 9 of the legislation restricts gun ownership and possession to those with a license from the President or the Inspector General of Police while Section 6 (2) provides that no such license should be granted to certain categories of people including persons under the age of 17, persons who are of unsound mind, persons with eyesight problems, and persons that have anger control issues, and that only the Inspector General of Police can grant a license to make and repair arms.

According to Dr Reuben Abati, former spokesperson to ex-President Jonathan Goodluck, whereas constitutional provisions constitute the basic law, part of the insecurity challenge in Nigeria has been the failure to implement and enforce the Firearms Act.

“There are firearms and ammunition of different brands and capacity in millions of unlicensed hands.

“The Nigerian government is not sure of the number of guns already in circulation in Nigeria.

“Our borders are porous, and there are all kinds of local gun manufacturers in hidden places manufacturing and repairing arms without any license.

“In many parts of the country, live ammunition is sold in underground markets and Nigerian security agencies have no quality intelligence as to how that ecosystem works,” he added.

What obtains in other countries of the world?

Available literature however reveals that of the 195 countries of the world, over 150 have gun licensing laws which allow private citizens to posses certain kinds of arms for self-defense, hunting and sport shooting.

Notable among these countries are the United States of America, United Kingdom, Canada, Brazil, Chile, China, India, Cambodia, Israel, Japan, Croatia, Denmark, Czech Republic and El-Salvador.

Even in Africa, countries such as Botswana, Djibouti, Gambia, Kenya, Lesotho, Liberia, Mozambique, Namibia, Rwanda, Senegal, Sierra Leone, South Arica and Swaziland have legislations permitting private ownership of firearms.

Available statistics also incidentally reveal that most of the countries that allow private ownership of firearms are not facing the legion of security threats that Nigeria is currently experiencing.

Past efforts to liberalize firearms ownership

In line with what obtains in majority of nations of the world, Senator Nwoko is presently pushing for the review of the extant legislation on the firearms control in the country.

Nwoko however was not the first person to make a case for liberalization of firearms ownership in the country.

Vanguard’s Law & Human Rights reports that in September 2012, after several doctors had been kidnapped even while on emergency and call duty within hospital premises, the Nigerian Medical Association (NMA) called for a review of gun ownership legislation to allow private citizens own arms for self defence.

The doctors had reasoned that potential perpetrators were less likely to attack if they knew their victims bore arms, even as they disagreed with observations that arms ownership was a call for anarchy.

Also in 2018, a member of the Nigerian Senate, Senator Kabir Marafa (Zamfara Central) while contributing to a debate on insecurity in the country, called for the liberalization of firearms ownership and possession in the country.

According to him, “Maybe what we need to do is to liberalise gun control. Let everybody own a gun so that when you are coming to my house, you will know that I have my own gun while you are coming with yours”.

In 2020, when terrorists were dealing with his people, a former Benue State Governor, Samuel Ioraer Ortom had called on the Federal Government to grant licences to responsible citizens to carry sophisticated weapons such as AK47 rifles to defend themselves against terrorists, bandits and other criminals who have been attacking innocent people.

In 2021, former Governor of Taraba state, Darius Ishaku, and a former Minister of Defence, Bashir Magashi, had also canvassed that the people should be allowed to carry arms in self-defence.

In 2022, Zamfara State Governor, Bello Matawalle, had directed the state police commissioner to issue gun licences in each of the 19 emirates in the state to those wishing to defend themselves, even though the directive was snubbed.

Similarly, a frustrated former Katsina state Governor, Aminu Masari, once told the people of the North West state to buy guns and defend themselves following spate of killings in his state.

Although Masari had the support of a group called Katsina State Innovative Thinkers Initiative, his call was opposed by the Katsina State Chapter of the Coalition of Northern Groups.

Other state Governors who at one point or the other called for the right to bear arms include the late Governor of Ondo State, Rotimi Akeredolu, SAN (with regard to Amotekun), and former Zamfara Governor, Bello Matawalle.

Also, on August 4, 2022, the day he inaugurated the state-owned security outfit known as Community Volunteer Guards in Makurdi, Governor Ortom promised to send a written application to former President Buhari to approve the issuance of licenses to allow the guards to carry weapons, including AK-47 and AK-49 rifles but he was snubbed.

In May 2023, Honourable Alhassan Ado-Doguwa  (Doguwa/Tundun Wada Federal Constituency) made a similar call.

Following the massacre of over 200 persons on Christmas Eve in Plateau State, security expert and former Director of the Department of State Services (DSS), Mr. Mike Ejiofor, also called for the liberalisation of gun ownership laws in Nigeria to enable citizens to protect themselves.

Ejiofor said legalising the carrying of arms by Nigerians will not cause anarchy in the country as many believed.

The former DSS chief, who disclosed this in an interview said the government should encourage the citizens to defend themselves, given the increasing cases of insecurity across the country.

He insisted that he had mentioned in a conference some years ago that there was the need to liberalise the carrying of arms for Nigerians, and that he still maintains the position to this day.

Nwoko, recently on Arise TV’s Morning Show declared that he had proposed a bill to radically review the extant legislation on firearms ownership in the country.

“What I am trying to do specifically is to have a system where people who are willing to carry arms are given the opportunity,” he said but not without fulfilling a set of conditions.

Perspectives of top lawyers on liberalisation of firearms ownership in Nigeria

Top lawyers who spoke with Vanguard’s Law & Human Rights including former Abia State Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice, Prof Awa Kalu, SAN, indefatigable rights activist, Mr Femi Falana, SAN, Chief Mike Ahamba, SAN among others appear to be divided on the issue.

According to a respected silk, Dr Reuben Atabo (SAN) said he supports the argument that every Nigerian should carry gun “since the primary aim of government in protecting lives and properties has been eroded by subsequent governments.

“Furthermore, I will equally support that every Nigerian should undergo training to handle arms at least for a period of three to six months.

“This will go a long way to reduce the incident of kidnapping and unwarranted destruction of properties.”

According to Lagos lawyer and respected silk, Mr Femi Falana (SAN), Nigerians have the right to carry firearms for self-defence.

“In the first place, it is not correct to say Nigerians have no right to bear arms.

“Apart from the fact that the penal code applicable to the North and the criminal code applicable to the South recognize the right to self-defence.

“We have to discuss the rights and proceed to examine the propriety. In other words, if someone aims a gun at me, and I can quickly grab another gun, I have the right to shoot.”

Prof Awa Kalu, SAN however said he was not in support of reviewing the Firearms Control (2004).

His words: “I strongly disagree with the notion that allowing Nigerians to bear firearms for self-defence is necessary or advisable. The situation in Nigeria, characterized by insecurity stemming from the proliferation of firearms in the hands of non-state actors, underscores the urgency of addressing the root causes of the problem. While proponents may argue for civilian firearm ownership with stringent regulations and training, I believe this approach is not appropriate or feasible given the current context and challenges facing the country.

“Several factors need to be considered when assessing the readiness of Nigeria to implement such a measure. Firstly, the capacity and infrastructure required to regulate and oversee civilian firearm ownership would necessitate significant investment and resources. This position is one the country is not ready to attain at the moment, owing to so many factors. Societies where the right to bear firearms have been practised are those whose climes have been prepared with mechanisms to manage and prevent misuse. Our situation here is different. Secondly, introducing more firearms into the civilian population in a country already grappling with insecurity could exacerbate the situation if not properly managed and regulated.

“Addressing the underlying socioeconomic factors contributing to insecurity, such as poverty and social inequality, is essential before considering measures that involve widespread civilian firearm ownership. A hungry man, empowered with a gun, may spell doom for any society.  Additionally, public trust and confidence in the government’s ability to regulate and oversee firearms are crucial prerequisites, which are currently lacking.

“Furthermore, obtaining accurate data on the quantity and distribution of arms in Nigeria is challenging due to various factors, including illicit trafficking and limited monitoring mechanisms. While efforts may have been made to assess arms possession, comprehensive and reliable data remains elusive.

“It is important to note that the Firearms Act already imposes restrictions on the types of firearms civilians can own, particularly regarding automatic weapons or military-grade firearms which are completely prohibited for civilians to own. While insurgents may possess heavier weapons, civilians are typically restricted to firearms suitable for personal defence and lawful purposes. The disparity in firepower between civilians and armed groups in such situations underscores the broader challenges of insecurity and the need for comprehensive security measures. Instead of promoting civilian firearm ownership, efforts should focus on improving law enforcement, addressing socioeconomic inequalities, and engaging communities to address the root causes of insecurity in the country. Nigeria is not ripe enough for such legislation and any attempt to impose such on her, would see a surge in criminality and insecurity, to such an extent never experienced before in the nation.

“It seems to me to sound like an irony that a country whose politicians cannot push for states to control a police force, think it easier to wish that individual citizens should be conferred with the right to bear firearms. The debate has been on for so long about empowering states to run a Police Force that can easily be empowered by statute for better security management. It seems rather puzzling that in a country where illiteracy is high, unemployment and underemployment rampant, with hardship afflicting many individuals, domestic violence on the rise, ethnic suspicion at a maximum rate, religious divide very wide, we seem to be convinced that mass ownership of firearms is advisable. Where would the firearms come from? Imported? Domestically fabricated? What about the training necessary for firearms management and control? I have no doubt that maybe in 20 years, when the circumstances appear right, that we can liberalise firearms ownership. But as things stand, when insecurity has created a semi-war situation, when bandits are on the prowl, when even herdsmen carry their weapons without consequences, I am not convinced that each Dick, Tom, and Harry should be able to own and bear firearms. Let us tarry!” he added.

Dr Reuben Abati, a lawyer and former spokesperson to ex-President Goodluck Jonathan said putting a gun in every hand may not be the solution.

“In a country where there is so much ingrained bitterness, and religious/ethnic divisions, as well as frustrations about the common patrimony and matters of justice, fairness and equity, the liberalisation of gun use would be an invitation indeed to chaos and nihilism.

“In a country where there is cultism even in primary schools, it would be mere wishful thinking to assume that persons younger than 17 do not already have access to guns. The menace of drug abuse has turned Nigeria into a bomb waiting to explode. Hunger angers the people. Mass unemployment has thrown many into depression with maniacal tendencies. Are these the people we want to give the freedom to bear arms and ammunition in the name of self-defence? In a country that in fact believes in witchcraft, the resultant anarchy could eventually lead to civil insurrection. We must not adopt a measure that can consume the nation,” he added.

Another silk, Dayo Akinlaja (SAN) also said gun ownership right to all is not the way to go as it could be abused in the country.

He advised that the debate on whether to liberalise gun ownership or not should be subjected to a summit by all stakeholders and be thoroughly discussed.

“However, with the increasing spate of insecurity all around the country, my resoluteness in that regard is beginning to wane,” Akinlaja said.

“I am at the moment tempted to believe that it is expedient that all options should be brought to the proverbial table for interrogation.

“Put succinctly, it is time we brought up this issue for public debate and resolution. With the benefit of statutory regimentation on how the right is to be exercised, we may be able to eschew some, if not all, of the worries that ordinarily plague the issue of the right to own guns by all.


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