Analysis: Nigerian state’s call to arms could spur state of anarchy

On Sunday, the government of Nigeria’s northwestern state of Zamfara issued a directive for its citizens to “prepare and obtain guns to defend themselves against bandits”.

While a number of state governments and top military officers have made similar calls in the past across parts of the country, this seems set to be the first formal process.

“Government has directed the state commissioner of police to issue licence to all those who qualify and are wishing to obtain such guns to defend themselves,” Ibrahim Dosara, the Zamfara commissioner for information, said in a statement on Sunday, on behalf of the state’s Governor Bello Matawalle.

The commissioner said the efforts would be handled by the 19 traditional rulers in the state who would be given 500 forms each to distribute in their emiratis to people without criminal records before the forms are sent to the police for vetting.

Guns are an everyday topic of dialogue in Zamfara, one of the hot spots of insecurity in a region sometimes referred to as the “Wild Wild West”, where banditry is rampant. Bandits have killed at least 250 people, abducted thousands more and razed many villages to the ground in the first half of 2022, in the state alone.

But the latest tilt in the discussion – to granting citizens permission to carry arms – could open up a state of anarchy across Nigeria, which is currently battling multidimensional insecurity challenges, researchers and analysts caution.

While the numbers of weapons in the possession of non-state actors vary, it is generally acknowledged that between five to six million small arms and light weapons (SALWs) are in circulation.

And Matawalle’s instructions could increase the proliferation of them, says Murtala Ahmed Rufa’i, an expert on insecurity and a history lecturer at Usman Dan Fodio University in neighbouring Sokoto.

“Giving access to citizens to acquire weapons means you are opening a new chapter of violence – an eye for an eye,” Rufa’i told Al Jazeera. “It is not a decision informed by knowledge or reality of what is on the ground.”

“By saying everyone should [get] a weapon, you are indirectly saying you cannot provide security of lives and property. Then the question is, as a governor, what are you?” Rufa’i said.

The power to issue licences

Security agencies in Africa’s most populous country are currently overwhelmed in containing attacks from different groups across its territory. In March, Nigeria’s defence chief Lucky Irabor revealed that 80 percent of the army has been deployed across the country’s 36 states, weakening its capacity to effectively fight in the most insecure areas.

Under the country’s federation-style of governance, supervisory power over its security agencies lies in the presidency, so state policing is currently not allowed under the constitution.

To fill in the gap, vigilante groups have taken over the responsibility of protecting themselves and other citizens. While they help in repelling attacks by armed groups on vulnerable communities nationwide, human rights groups and civil society say they are also engineering fresh headaches – more clashes and human rights violations.

Since the return of democracy in 1999, vigilantes have been agitating for restructuring Nigeria’s federal system and more recently, secession. Others  – like the Civilian Joint Task Force in Borno, epicentre of Boko Haram’s operations, and Amotekun, backed by the six governors of the southwest region – are a response to the current surge in insecurity and receive state support.

Their emergence has contributed to an increase of SALWs available nationwide.

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