For over a decade, Nigerians have been contemplating the desirability of self-help against growing violence all over the country. The logic is simple and compelling. Armed insurgents, bandits, militants and separatists have acquired weapons and are attacking, killing and raping members of communities. Persistent calls on security agencies to do the work they have chosen and are paid to do has not yielded results. The irony is that the security agents of the Nigerian state are increasingly being attacked and killed as well. They have failed woefully in performing their constitutional role of protecting citizens. It is in this context that Nigerians, individually and in their communities, have been contemplating and indeed acting to provide for their security needs.
The culture of self-help has been growing in the country over the past 30 years. In general, Nigerians have grown to accept that the state no longer provides public utilities for the most part. The state has not been providing water and electricity so citizens provide for themselves. Then most public schools have failed and parents have to seek private provisioning for the education of their children. Communities contribute to fix neighbourhood roads and so on. Nigerians have come to accept the state does nothing for them and in response they make sure they do not support the state by not paying their taxes. The gulf has continued to widen between the state and the people. Security has been the last service the state has sought to keep as its preserve and it has essentially failed.
According to Max Weber, the existence of a state is contingent on its capacity. The modern state, he says, is:
“A compulsory political organisation with continuous operations will be called a state in so far as its administrative staff successfully upholds a claim to the legitimate use of physical force.”
When the state no longer has a monopoly of the legitimate use of violence, it essentially disqualifies itself from the achieved status of statehood. Current estimates are that private citizens in Nigeria have in their possession and are using over six million small arms and light weapons for insurgency, terrorism, banditry, kidnapping citizens for ransom, settling inter-community feuds, seeking to separate from Nigeria and so on. Essentially, the existence of the Nigerian state is in question. What is the answer to who or what will tilt the balance?
Maybe the answer is coming from Zamfara State, whose claim to infamy is that it is the state with the largest number of armed bandits/terrorists in the country today killing people, raping their wives and daughters, kidnapping them for ransom and increasingly imposing taxes on ordinary citizens, a feat the Nigerian state is unable to do for the most part. On Sunday, June 26, 2022, the governor of Zamfara State, Bello Matawalle, announced residents of the state can now apply to own gun licences to protect themselves from gunmen and kidnappers. In a statement by Zamfara’s Commissioner for Information, Ibrahim Dosara, the move was in response to the increasing cases of kidnapping, killings and violent attacks within the state. According to Dosara:
“Government is ready to facilitate people, especially our farmers, to secure basic weapons for defending themselves. Government has already concluded arrangements to distribute 500 forms to each of the 19 emirates in the state for those willing to obtain guns to defend themselves.”
Their applications, he said, will then be moved on to the state’s Commissioner of Police for a second review. The Inspector-General of police will carry out the final phase of screening and reviews before gun licences can be issued.
The Zamfara State government has actually bowed to popular pressure from people who believe that self-protection is now the only viable option left for them. It would be recalled that in 2019, President Muhammadu Buhari cancelled the licence of all private weapons across the country. This decision put him at odds with lawmakers who cited the insecurity nationwide as a justification to support citizens to carry arms and defend themselves. Of course, our constitution does not allow state governments to authorise the use of arms. It’s an exclusive federal matter. The fact that state governments are now contesting this terrain with the federal government is yet another statement about the breakdown of state authority.
There was therefore no surprise when the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), Gen. Lucky Irabor, on Monday, faulted the call by Governor Bello Matawalle of Zamfara to people of the state to bear arms to defend themselves against bandits:
“I do not also think that the governor has the power to instruct the commissioner of police to issue licences, because the commissioner of police does not have the powers to issue licences.”
Irabor said the call was not right, as the armed forces and other security agencies were there to handle the challenges. The CDS spoke to newsmen on the matter at the opening of the Joint Exercise for the National Defence College and War Colleges of the Armed Forces of Nigeria, code named “Exercise Grand National,” in Abuja. Most Nigerians will find the statement from Irabor that security agencies are responding to the security challenges strange. It is precisely because they are not doing that, that the challenge of self-help arose. Governor Bello Matawalle responded to General Irabor stating clearly that there is no going back on his directive to Zamfara State residents to acquire arms and defend themselves against bandits. The stage is set.
My position is that I understand the drive and motivation for self-help in security provisioning. Nonetheless, I think it is misguided. Flooding our communities with guns will provide a temporary belief that people are protecting themselves but it would be short lived. The bad guys have extorted so much money from citizens that when it comes to the arms race, they have more resources to out gun citizens. They can afford high calibre weapons to remain the superior force in the field of action. Secondly, there is a serious risk that the arms purchased by communities can be cornered by groups within who see material benefits in banditry and turn the guns against the community. Thirdly, flooding the country with more arms would compromise the future capacity of a “reformed” military to address the situation. We would find ourselves in Hobbes’ world where life for all of us would become even more “nasty, brutish and short”. The solution can only be a reformed state rebuilding its capacity and competence to do the core duties of the state. Let’s dream, why not, that the elections next year would produce a political class that is more responsive and competent than what we currently have. If not, …