Armed groups, arms proliferations and the amnesty program in the Niger Delta, Nigeria.

Author:Agbiboa, Daniel E.


The phenomenon of arms proliferation accelerated in the international system on the heels of the end of the Cold-War period when leftover arms from stockpiles made their way into unstable regions. Some estimates have placed the number of small arms in circulation at about 500 million, enough for one in every ten people on earth. (1) Bah notes that, "of the approximately 500 million illicit weapons in circulation worldwide, it is estimated that 100 million of these are in sub-Saharan Africa with eight to ten million concentration in the West African sub-region alone." (2) In addition, available data shows that of the 30 to 50 armed conflicts occurring between 1989 and 1995, more than 95 percent took place in developing countries and were fought primarily with small arms. (3) By one reliable estimate, more than 3.6 million people were killed in internal warfare in the 1990s and half of all civilian casualties were children with an estimated 200,000 child soldiers in Africa out of a total figure of 300,000 worldwide. (4) According to one study, in 1990 an African was twice more likely to die because of war than a non-African. (5)

In Africa, arms proliferation has led to "general insecurity, increased criminal violence, privatization of violence and security in the form of proliferation of mercenaries, private military companies and paramilitary outfits." (6) The mere presence of guns belies alternative conflict resolution strategies. More so, the easy availability of weapons and a lack of state-based control fuel violence even after official wars have ended. The economy of guns has a hand in this perpetuation, as both war and post-war economies use guns as a reliable currency. (7)

This article locates the armed conflict in the oil-rich Niger Delta region of Nigeria within the context of unrealized expectations and consequent frustration and aggression. I argue that while small arms do not directly cause conflict, their stockpile fuels violent behavior and sustains conflict. In taking the availability of small arms in the Niger Delta as an intervening variable in lieu of a dependent variable, I offer a nuanced explanation of the Niger Delta conflict. I further argue that one of the reasons these convenient weapons circulate so widely and so easily is that there is a demand for them. This demand is due to the failure of the social contract between the state and its citizenry. The logic is simple: people accept state authority so long as the state equitably delivers economic goods and services and guarantees security for its citizens. When this social contract is breached, social disorder prevails and arms become the surrogate.

The rest of this article is divided into four parts. The second examines the sources and theoretical perspectives to arms proliferation in the Niger Delta. The third part explores the armed conflict in Niger Delta at a general level followed by the theoretical debates that attempt to comprehend the conflict within the frameworks of relative deprivation, and frustration and aggression theories. The fourth part explores the dynamics of resistance movements in the Niger Delta. The fifth part critically interrogates the amnesty and post-amnesty program of the Nigerian state against the backdrop of whether it provides the basis for sustainable peace that will mark the end of armed groups, arms proliferation and violent conflicts in the region.


In Nigeria alone, there are approximately one millions to three million (9) small arms in circulation. According to one reliable source, (8) to percent of the weapons in civilian possession had been obtained illegally, (10) due to strict laws on civilian possession. In turn, the illegality makes it intractable to track flows and possession. But how do weapons transit into the country? For the most part, weapons make their way into the country across land borders and through sea ports. In turn, these weapons move into the hands of armed groups, national dealers, political and community leaders, and individuals. Since Nigeria has lengthy and porous borders, a number of airports, and numerous ports along the southern coast, smuggling and cross-border trade are difficult to detect and monitor. (11) Added to this, inadequate staff, vehicles, and resources make the task of customs officials, the police, and the navy all the more Herculean.

While many are certain that small arms and light weapons are flowing alarmingly into the country as corroborated by the presence of foreign-made weapons in circulation, the exact entrance routes of these weapons remain largely terra incognita. A number of transit countries are often implicated. These include the neighbouring countries of Benin, Cameroon, Chad, and Niger as well as Gabon and Guinea-Bissau. (12) Other avenues include Cote d'Ivoire, Liberia, South Africa, Turkey, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Kosovo, and Serbia. (13) The three most notorious arms smuggling frontiers in Nigeria are reportedly in the south-west (Idi-Iroko in Ogun state and Seme in Lagos state), in the south (the port city of Warri in Delta state), and in the north-east at the border with Niger and Cameroon (Adamawa, Borno, and Yobe states). (14) Warri has been dubbed the "hub of the gun trade" in the Niger Delta. (15) Its location in the Delta, as well as the vibrant demand for small arms in that restive area of the country, make this a logical place for the reception of shipments. (16) A number of towns are also notorious for the availability of small arms, including Asaba, Benin city, Aba, Onitsha, Enugu, Owerri, Awka, and Port Harcour. (17) Arms that come into the country through the southern ports may be distributed in this southern region, or they move further north to primary distribution points, and then on to secondary distribution points. Some of these weapons will move further north, but the north seems to have extra sources of small arms through the borders with Niger and Chad in the north-east. Entry points here include Maigatari, Nguru, and Mallam Falori. (18)

Most prominent among the sources of illegal small arms and light weapons include "purchases from international and national arms dealers, sales and rentals by serving and retired security personnel, sales by returning peacekeepers, sales of recycled weapons from decommissioning exercise, oil-for-arms exchanges in the Delta region, and purchases of locally produced craft weapons." (19) In addition to these sources, illicit weapons are also obtained through thefts from dealers, armouries, and residences; seizures from security officials during robberies; and in clashes with other armed groups. (20)

A major reason why small arms circulate so widely and so easily is due to a vibrant demand for them. In both developed and developing countries, a thriving market for both licit and illicit suppliers is provided by people and armies. Weiss observes that, "where there is a lack of human security, real or perceived, there is inevitably a surplus of guns in the hands of people who feel safer armed with the ability to protect themselves (whether they can successfully do so or not)." (21) On the part of the development community, there has been an attempt to engage small arms issues from this relatively novel perspective. In one UNDP publication that is entitled Development Held Hostage: Assessing the Effects of Small Arms on Human Development, Peter Batchelor and Robert Muggah argue that:

Narrow supply-side approaches that focus on the weapons and on ex-combatants are only part of the solution. Nor can the broad range of socio-economic impacts of small arms be dealt with in a framework that focuses exclusively on weapons reduction. Because small arms play a key role in undermining development gains in conflict-affected, post-conflict, and stable societies alike, they should be of concern to the development community rather than the exclusive preserve of the security and disarmament community. (22) Many local approaches to firearms-fuelled violence are demand-and-conflict-prevention based while the international and national response tends to be emergency-triggered. I argue that there is a need to rethink this approach. From a demand vantage point, weapons cease to be the locus of intervention. Instead, the focus is shifted to gun-users and the aim is to influence the buyers in the market, in addition to regulating suppliers and enforcing relevant laws. Weiss aptly notes that "by bringing demand-reduction measures to the fore, the problem of small arms proliferation can be debated in new fora. This brings gun-fuelled, conflict-related problems out of traditional defense and foreign affairs areas and brings them under the lens of traditionally 'humanitarian' policies." (23) In addition, the burden of crime and violence prevention is lifted off the back of policing and brought to broader, more powerful levels of government control.

According to the United Nations Report of the Panel of Governmental Experts on Small Arm, state-level failure to provide security is the causal basis of demand-based proliferation: "When the State loses control over its security functions and fails to maintain the security of its citizens, the subsequent growth of armed violence, banditry and organized crime increased the demand for weapons by citizens seeking to protect themselves and their property." (24) At the cultural level, the report maintains that "possession of military-style weapons is a status symbol, a source of personal security, a means of subsistence, a sign of manliness and, in some cases, a symbol of ethnic and cultural identity." (25) This culture of weapons drives demand mostly "when a State cannot guarantee security to its citizens or control the illicit activities in which these weapons are utilized." (26) Despite the cogent argument for the role of demand as a driver of arms proliferation, the report's recommendations...

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