Africa

Gun Smuggling in the Niger Delta


Apart from its acknowledged role in the oil industry, the port town of Warri in Southern Nigeria also plays a vital unacknowledged function: It is the hub of the gun trade in the Niger Delta. The prevalence of light arms in that part of the country is not a new phenomenon. It has been known for
years that sailors trade in guns at the ports.

The rise in the number of ethnic clashes in the Niger Delta has expanded the frontiers of the gun trade and sparked an increase in the number of gun owners. Supply has since leapt to include smugglers from countries in the sub-region of Guinea-Bissau, Gabon, and Cameroon. Using fast boats, these
smugglers cruise to ships anchored in the high seas and obtain guns the origins of which may be as far afield as Eastern Europe and Asia.

For many years, this trade in arms has fueled ethnic clashes between the Ijaws of the Niger Delta and their neighbors, the Urhobos, as well as between the Urhobos and their western neighbors the Itsekiris. This is not to say that everyone in this area has access to weapons. Agents—who are often prominent men in their communities—buy guns from the sailors and sell them to the youths who fight the wars. When there are no battles to fight, these weapons find their way into the hands of robbers who terrorise people on highways and in cities. An AK-14 rifle sells for the equivalent of 100 dollars.

And yet, very few people in Nigeria own guns legally. Regulations on gun ownership were stringently revised after a bloody inter-ethnic clash in Northern Nigeria in 1989. As a result of the clash, former dictator Ibrahim Babangida recalled all licenses and enacted laws that made it the restoration of licenses difficult. Now, the only guns available to citizens through a license are double-barreled shotguns for use in gaming and sports. These must be licensed by the commissioner of police of a state, with the following requirements: An applicant needs to be above eighteen, of good character and not prone to temper tantrums, with a permanent home address and a verifiable source of income. The level of bureaucracy involved makes getting a gun license extremely difficult.

However, a greater percentage of those who carry firearms today never submit to any scrutiny. In the police armory in Lagos, there are no fewer than 6,000 types of automatic guns and rifles on exhibition, representing just a fraction of the weapons in circulation today. Many Nigerians, particularly if they are wealthy, keep guns in their homes in case they are attacked by armed robbers in the middle of the night.

Last year the police carried out a dawn raid on Orilowo-Ejigbo, a Lagos suburb, and arrested three men after seizing a cache of arms that was sufficient to outfit a 20-man army. In another incident last year, at the border town of Seme, bandits overwhelmed the huge security presence at the border post, laid in wait for traders and robbed them. Many lives were lost. As an officer testified after the incident, it wasn't the effrontery of the robbers that unnerved him and his colleagues, but the sophistication
of the arms they used.

This kind of violence is the flipside of Nigeria's involvement in the wars in Liberia and Sierra-Leone. Although they are not being fought on Nigerian soil, these wars have provided the Nigerian black market with a ready source of assault weapons.

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