In-depth: Guns Out of Control: the continuing threat of small arms

NIGERIA: Widespread availability of small arms a major security issue

One of several photos distributed by the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), a militant group claiming to fight for local control of the region's oil wealth
LAGOS, 9 May 2006 (IRIN) - The widespread availability of small arms and light weapons has helped stoke a decade of unrest in the region that produces nearly all of Nigeria’s oil, which is rife with hostage-taking, attacks on oil installations and fighting among rival militias.

Attacks on oil installations and hostage-takings staged in the Niger Delta since January by a previously unknown Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), have halved the Nigerian output of oil giant Royal Dutch Shell and cut 20 percent of the country’s daily exports of 2.5 million barrels. It has helped sustain the pressure on world oil prices, now at new historical highs of US$70 a barrel.

MEND claims to be fighting for the interests of the impoverished inhabitants of the oil region, who want a greater share of the oil revenues forming the mainstay of Nigeria’s economy. However, its demands include the release of Mujahid Dokubo-Asari, leader of the Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force (NDPVF) who was arrested by the authorities in September 2005 and is now facing charges of treason.

Security experts in Nigeria concede that MEND has grown out of the same system of militia forces the restive delta has spawned over the years, all dependent on an international criminal network trading in illegal arms and crude oil stolen from pipelines in the swamps and creeks of the region. “It is the same groups of fighters who had attacked for ransom in the past and tapped oil from pipelines,” said a senior Nigerian security official with briefs in the oil industry. “But now there is an attempt to build a political cause.”

According to a 2003 international consultancy study financed by Royal Dutch Shell, which runs the biggest operation of any of the transnational oil companies in Nigeria, violence in the delta claimed an average of 1,000 lives each year. The study predicted that Shell might be forced to end onshore oil production in Nigeria by 2008 unless the issues underlying the region’s violence were addressed. It is possible that the recent attacks and kidnappings targeting mainly Shell operations have even further hastened the process. Shell has been forced to close down its entire onshore operations in the western Niger Delta, shutting down the Forcados oil export terminal, one of its two main export terminals in Nigeria.

According to Babafemi Ojudu, a researcher who has investigated the small-arms trade in the country, the Niger Delta has long had easy access to small weapons, but growing violence and militarisation in the region has been a boost to the trade in recent years. He said smugglers operating out of Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Cameroon and Nigeria have always coordinated the trade. “Using fast boats, these smugglers cruise to ships in the high seas and obtain guns, the origins of which may be as far afield as Eastern Europe and Asia,” said Ojudu.


Photo: George Osodi/IRIN
Ijaw militants loyal to Dokubo Asari display their guns and magic charms in Okoronta village in the Niger Delta in July 2004
Dokubo-Asari told IRIN in 2005 that Nigeria’s Atlantic waters were indeed the main channel through which his militia obtained weapons. “We are very close to international waters, and it's very easy to get weapons from ships,” he said in the interview. “We have AK-47s, general-purpose machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades.”

Government and oil-industry officials say groups like Dokubo's NDPVF and MEND, which have popped up in the region in recent years, fund their weapons purchases by tapping crude oil from pipelines into barges for illegal sale to tankers waiting offshore. Nigeria was estimated at one time to be losing as much as 10 percent of its daily oil exports through such thefts, which are locally known as bunkering.

While the Niger Delta may be Nigeria’s biggest small-arms problem, it is not the only one. Nationwide, the illegal circulation of small arms, sent in by smugglers across the land borders of the neighbouring countries of Benin, Niger, Chad and Cameroon, has had an impact not only on widespread armed banditry but also on ethnic and religious violence that have claimed more than 10,000 lives since 1999.

Another key arms-smuggling route into Nigeria is the Lagos-Benin coastal axis extending across West Africa as far as Liberia and Sierra Leone. In November 2003, customs officials intercepted a lorry carrying 170,000 rounds of ammunition concealed in a cargo of charcoal that had crossed the border from Benin into Nigeria. It was pronounced one of the biggest hauls ever in Nigeria.

An equally worrisome source of weapons is Nigeria’s northern borders with Chad and Niger. Nigerian security agencies say remnants of rebel wars in both countries have drifted southwards with their weapons into Nigeria over the past decade. Operating in large bands of 30 to 50 armed men, they engage in banditry on highways in northeast and central Nigeria. “They are even hired as mercenaries to fight in land disputes or in communal or religious conflicts in the area,” said a Nigerian army intelligence official.

Many experts say Nigeria’s problems with small arms and light weapons date back to the country’s 1967-1970 civil war, during which the southeast made a failed attempt to secede.

“Many of the small arms used in that war, especially on the rebel Biafran side, weren’t mopped up at the end of hostilities,” said Patrick Oraeke, a security consultant. He said the war created a generation of people who had trained in the use of weapons but were not under the discipline and control of any of the armed forces. As a result, they easily resorted to banditry. “The surge in armed robberies and violent crimes in Nigeria that followed the civil war is yet to abate,” he added.

There is evidence, too, that arms flowed into Nigeria as a result of the civil wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia, where Nigerian soldiers were involved in peacekeeping missions. Both smugglers and soldiers brought in weapons from those conflicts. In one known case, a soldier testifying as a prosecution witness in one of several political-assassination cases recorded under the late military ruler General Sani Abacha, told a court he was given an AK-47 rifle brought in from Liberia by his superiors to use in the assassination attempt on a perceived opponent of Abacha. The would-be assassins had reasoned that the weapon would be harder to trace since it was not registered in the official armoury, said prosecution witness Sgt Barnabas Mshelia.

Three years after leaders of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) declared a moratorium on the manufacture, import and export of small arms in 1998, Nigeria set up a special committee with members drawn from the armed forces and security agencies to coordinate efforts to mop up small arms and light weapons in the country. More than 8,000 small arms recovered following the ECOWAS moratorium were destroyed in July 2001. Equally large numbers have subsequently been reclaimed, with two militia groups in the Niger Delta surrendering more than 3,500 guns in 2004.

In his address to the United Nations General Assembly on 17 September 2005, President Olusegan Obasanjo stressed the need for “a legally binding international instrument that will regulate, control and monitor the illicit trade in small arms, including their transfer to non-state actors.” He said the agreement reached in June 2005 by the UN on the identification and tracing of illicit weapons would only serve as a temporary measure.

“The availability and wide circulation of small arms and light weapons pose the greatest danger to peace and security, especially in our region,” Obasanjo said. “These weapons have helped to prolong conflicts, undermined stability, social peace and security and have wrought devastation on the economies of affected states.”

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