By Our Reporters
In the past, possession of a pistol in Nigeria was an exclusive preserve of retired top military brass, high- ranking police officers and few wealthy Nigerians who could afford the usually expensive license. Then, there were armed robbers, drug barons and a few other roughnecks who used guns illegally to carry out their nefarious activities.
But the story has changed. Not only are pistols in wrong hands, machine guns and AK47 rifles as well as other highly sophisticated guns are today being freely used by wrong persons at the slightest provocation. More worrisome is the rate at which high-calibre guns are being used to settle minor disagreements among members of road transport workers union. Guns are also indiscriminately used when street boys engage in a brawl, and during electioneering campaigns, hired thugs use guns to settle scores with political opponents of their paymasters just as it is commonplace to see cult boys brandish guns in vendetta operations.
Anybody who wants to own a gun, can easily access it. In the assessment of a concerned respondent who spoke to Sunday Sun in Lagos, access to small arms for criminals who terrorize innocent citizens in the society has become as easy as buying popcorns from the streets.
Thus, beside the popular Awka-made pistols that were common with criminals, high-calibre guns including Pump Action Rifles have become common with criminals and touts.
Lagos sources and price tags
Checks revealed that criminals and others that need weapons for self- protection easily procure the deadly weapons from black markets.
It was gathered that due to the growing demand for them, Pump Action rifle that sold for about N80, 000 a few years ago, has gone up to as much as N250, 000 and the cartridges are easily retailed in packets and pieces.
The situation has become so bad that in some cases, roadside roasted plantain sellers are the custodians of these weapons for men of the underworld.
Investigation revealed that guns illegally find their way easily into the South West area including Lagos through porous border routes. For example, they are usually brought in from Benin Republic through such land routes as the Owode border in Ogun State and water routes to Badagry, from where they are moved into mainland, Lagos and its neighbouring states.
It was also gathered that the guns are usually packed in anything ranging from bags of rice and other edibles to oil cans.
The big guns such as AK 47 are sometimes unassembled before they are packed in bags of edibles and later re-assembled on arrival at their various destinations.
Most times, the big guns are smuggled in one-at-a-time rather than in large numbers to beat security checks. Sometimes, they are wrapped with polythene bags and immersed in kegs of oil that are lacerated at the bottom and later soldered.
Porous borders and corruption
Investigation by Sunday Sun revealed that failure of security agents to secure the nation’s land borders has exacerbated the scourge of illicit and free movement of deadly weapons into the country. A senior officer of one of the country’s security agencies who would not want his name in print said: “Our border posts are too porous. I mean air, sea and land. They are all porous. Different kinds of guns are brought into the country through these posts with nobody to check their inflow.” Besides, the weapons could easily be bought in some the neighbouring countries.
Apart from the porous nature of Nigerian borders, corruption is another factor that has contributed to the easy movement of guns into wrong hands, and in criminal circles. The official said corrupt security officials at the border posts that deliberately abandon their duty posts when certain powerful gun dealers want to move in arms, further encourage the menace.
“Do you know that sometimes when these gun runners want to bring in guns, they would alert the security people who mount road blocks on the routes to dismantle them or look the other way while the arms are moved through the borders? They play along with such gun dealers because at the end of the day, their palms are greased. “Again, I blame the government for not paying the security agents a living wage. I believe that if the officers were well paid, they would not easily give in to such inducement. But when a man who has not seen N100,000 in his entire working life is offered N1million just to go to sleep while certain people do their deadly business unhindered, what do you expect? Do you expect the person to turn down the juicy offer and continue to tell his children that there is no money for school fees? No, of course. The temptation will be too much and the person will readily accept the money and play along; it is as simple as that.
“For example, do you know it was alleged that when Major Gideon Okar planned the coup of April 1990, the arms and ammunition which they used came in through the borders? The security agents that were on duty were informed and they abandoned their duty posts throughout the midnight when the arms were being moved in. It was after the arms had passed through the border that the men went back to their post and continued to work as if nothing happened,” he stated.
Further checks also revealed that politicians usually bring in large cache of arms during electioneering campaigns. They do this to arm the boys who work for them, but after the election had been won and lost, they fail to mop up the guns from the boys.
The politicians are often unable to recover the guns because of their failure to fulfill their financial promises to their thugs especially when such politicians failed in the election. The boys would in turn hold on to the guns as compensation, thereby posing serious security threat to the society.
Another source alleged that many Nigerians who claim to be doing business in Cotonou, the capital of Benin Republic, and other neighbouring West African countries are gunrunners who supply the lethal weapons to criminally-minded jobless youth at very cheap prices. The source revealed that guns as sophisticated as AK47 could be acquired with less than N100,000.
He said: “I know a man who identified himself as a motor spare parts dealer in Cotonou but he was actually a gun dealer. He is a younger brother to one of the former local government chairmen in one of the Southeast states. He supplied different guns ranging from pistols to Ak47 rifles, to boys in his community and other neighbouring communities until the bubble burst. He was arrested when his dubious business dealings came to the knowledge of security agents but before then, hundreds of guns had gone into the wrong hands.”
Checks by Sunday Sun have also revealed that the guns do not come in through the usually porous land borders alone. It was gathered that they are also ferried across the high seas where the arms traffickers normally find it less stressful to evade security agents. Recent onslaught by security agencies that patrol the high seas, especially the Nigerian Navy, has yielded a few arrests.
Sold like recharge cards in Niger Delta
Our Bayelsa State correspondent, Femi Folaranmi, reports that in February 2012, the Joint Military Task Force otherwise known as Operation Pulo Shield raided a shrine at Ojoma creek behind Dutch Island in Okirika, Rivers state and recovered large quantities of arms and ammunition. Two months later, another raid at Safarogo village in Ovia South West local government area of Edo state, the JTF arrested an ex-militant and seized from him, a machine gun, three AK 47, nine assorted weapons and 1,812 rounds of ammunition.
Speaking on the seizures, the JTF media coordinator, Lt. Col Onyema Nwachukwu, assured that the security outfit remained committed, “to mopping up all illegal arms and other dangerous weapons in the possession of authorized persons in the region”
A war hard to win
In spite of the raids, cordon and search operations as well as snap roadblocks and checkpoints, illegal arms are everywhere in the Niger Delta region. Checks by Sunday Sun indicated that the quantity and quality of arms within the reach of illegal bunkerers is a major factor hindering the JTF from finally closing the illegal oil business and violent crimes in the region.
Top security sources said the quantity of arms in the hands of criminal elements in the region from illegal oil bunkerers to sea pirates and lately, kidnap syndicates is alarming.
Investigations revealed that the illicit gun trade is a booming business in the Niger Delta due to the porous land and sea borders. The ineffective policing of Nigeria’s borders enable arms to be smuggled in with effortless ease by arm dealers who in turn supply them to criminals.
A security expert who does not want his name in print listed four sources through which guns gets into the wrong hands in Niger Delta region and by extension Nigeria. He explained that most of the guns used for criminal activities could be traced to countries that have bilateral relations with Nigeria. He listed Beretta (pistol) that is a common weapon in the United States and Italy. Also listed was the G3 calibre that is a Germany weapon and the Russian, Chinese and South African brands of AK 47 rifles. He noted that majority of these weapons in the wrong hands were through security sources.
The Armed Forces that is the major importer of arms was fingered as the major culprit because those in charge of importing the weapons allegedly often bring in more than the required number and pass the excess to arms dealers who in turn sell them like common merchandise.
He further identified legitimate arms dealers and embryonic militia groups as two of the major sources of illegal arms possession in the country.
“The legitimate arms dealer is authorized by law to import and sell certain categories of weapons. But they use the license to import other assorted weapons and bring them through porous borders for onward sale to those who need it. The embryonic militia groups get their weapons through assaults on military outposts and police stations where they get arms they use for their criminal activities”, he said.
The fourth source according to him, are individuals who purchase weapons through their military or security agent friends. He noted that many military and police armouries are not effectively monitored thereby giving room for officers to secretly trade in arms.
“It is common knowledge that soldiers and policemen sell arms to people who need them at give-away prices. There is no accountability at the Military and Police armouries. It has been established that the first set of arms Henry Okah, the convicted supporter of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) brought into the Niger Delta region was from the an armoury in Kaduna”, he stated.
Yet another source of arms were the high seas where high-scale crude oil bunkering and sales took place particularly during the dark days of militancy in the Niger Delta. It was gathered that the major militant groups traded crude oil for sophisticated arms and ammunition without restraint.
Investigations showed that the prices of arms in the Niger Delta vary from location to location but it is largely dependent on the rate of manufacturing. According to a reliable security source, the failure of the African Union (AU) and ECOWAS sub-region committees on Arms to regulate the flow of arms within Africa and West Africa made it easy for them to be sold like common goods sometimes, to the highest bidder particularly those who are ready to pay cash immediately.
A security expert likened arms availability in the Niger Delta region, to recharge cards that can be found and bought anywhere once you have the purchasing power. According to him, the official price for an AK47 is 1,500 US dollars but in a place like war-torn Somalia, it goes for about 50 US dollars and it is from there and other neighbouring countries that the arms are smuggled into Nigeria including the Niger Delta region.
Checks by Sunday Sun indicated that in the creeks of the Niger Delta, an AK 47 can be bought for between N100, 000 and N150, 000 and sometimes at a lower price depending on who is selling while a Beretta pistol can change hands for N50, 000.
“The business of arms is illicit; so those into it are secretive. But the prices of guns differ from location to location and on the individual who wants to sell. The buying and selling of guns in the Niger Delta is like recharge card business. The more guns the manufacturers produce, the more the price fall. A Serbian RPG is sold for N3.5 million but arms dealers in the Niger Delta sell it for between N800,000 and N1 million”, the source said.
Another source also recalled that the militancy in the Niger Delta region largely provided easy access to different calibre of guns for many Nigerians within and beyond that region. In fact, it was discovered that many of the waterways across the country are convenient routes for illegal gun importation.
However, the source said although guns are “everywhere and easier to get”, the major problem for most of those who possess them illegally, remains how to licence the deadly weapons, thanks to existing stringent laws. But this does not in any way reduce the danger the ugly trend poses to national security and unity.
Prices at a glance
Location, source and availability often determine who gets what in the booming great but filthy gun trade in the country. For example, some of the guns are cheaper in the Niger Delta region than in most other parts of the country.
Below are the average prices of some of the guns:
•AK 47 – N100,000 –N350,000
•RPG – N800,000 –N1 million
•Pump Action rifle – N250,000
•Beretta pistol – N50,000
•Awka (locally-made) pistols – N25,000
•Other foreign-made pistols (depending on the rounds) – N60,000