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USAfrica: AK-47 and uncontrolled access to arms. By Chidi Amuta

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Dr. Chidi Amuta, Executive Editor of USAfrica multimedia networks, Houston, since 1993, is based in Lagos.

A gun in many illegal hands is the readiest metaphor for a state consumed by insecurity. The consequence is something even more unnerving and sinister. It is the democratization of the ability to kill through uncontrolled access to arms. Indiscriminate death in the hands of random assailants is perhaps the closest you get to anarchy. Those with guns kill those who do not or frighten them into parting with their freedom and possessions. The accompanying uncertainty of life and the spread of fear describes a state of nature which lovers of Thomas Hobbes love to cite in all mangled forms. That is the usual place of anarchy where life is brutish, nasty and short. The trouble with the state of nature is not that it describes the absence of order but that it also confirms either the absence of a state or the collapse or desperate failure of an existing state.

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It presupposes the absence of a leviathan or the emasculation of an existing leviathan as deus absenticus, the king who is not there.

A legalized liberal possession of guns can be a mechanism for the balancing of the right to defend oneself and one’s possessions with freedom from fear of harm and danger from others. In a state where the right to bear arms is legalized, the potential to do harm to others is balanced by the fear that harm could come to one from others as well. The knowledge that everyone possesses the lethal weapon to do us maximum harm and even inflict death is considered a deterrence to trouble makers. It is the reciprocity of violence. The United States remains the world’s most conspicuous showpiece of this dastardly logic. It defines the essence of democratic freedom as the right to kill thy neighbor or the corresponding possibility to that he will kill you. But see the madness that America’s liberal gun laws have produced. All too frequent shootings in schools, work places, homes, streets and public spaces. 

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Because it is a constitutional right and one which has become enmeshed in special interests, politics and big money, America is in the vice grip of guns. An estimated 393 million guns in private citizen hands for a population of 328.2 million citizens is the highest per capita gun possession rate in the world. America has more guns than citizens. The US military has a total population of 1.4 million which means that on a per capita basis, the military is outgunned by the citizenry. The state only overwhelms its possible non state challengers through a monopoly of weapons of mass killing and evisceration-bombs, war planes, missiles, a nuclear arsenal and aircraft carriers.

Nigeria’s current epidemic of insecurity has brought illegal possession of guns into public view. Our everyday experience is now suffused in guns, just as our daily news feeds are drenched in the blood of those killed by guns. The combined death toll in the hands of all violent actors has made Nigeria one of the most dangerous places in the world. People are being killed daily on an industrial scale by sundry actors ranging from armed robbers, bandits, militant secessionists, fundamentalist zealots, terrorists to badly trained policemen and soldiers.  There is ground for genuine concern. The more illegal arms that have entered into circulation, the higher the death toll and the more widespread the atmosphere of fear and insecurity. 

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The proliferation and easy access to small and light arms has of late attracted the attention of both government and the elite. Widespread insecurity has thrust the necessity for some form of arms control into public prominence. The available statistics are cause for serious concern, Mr. Abdulsalam Abubakar, former head of state and Chairman of the  National Peace Committee recently disclosed the extent of arms proliferation in the country in a report by his committee.  The report indicated that there are over 6 million (6,145,000 to be exact) guns in the hands of private citizens. The current total population of Nigeria’s armed and security forces is about 300,000 with 89,000 reservists. If you add the police, civil defense, customs and other departments officially allowed to bear arms, we do not have more than 500,000 legal arms in the holding of the state. This simply means that the state and its security forces are outgunned by a high deficit ratio. 

So far in recent times, an estimated 80,000 deaths have occurred mostly from gun violence. More than 3 million people have been internally displaced as a result of armed insecurity in the country. According to the 2019 report of the Global Terrorism Index, Nigeria was rated as the most terrorized country in the world. By 2020, we had graduated to the third position in terms of terrorism deaths. seem to have graduated to the top position in terms of terrorism deaths. The ranking in terms of percentage of terrorism deaths in 2019 was as follows: Nigeria (9%), Iraq (4%), Somalia(4%), Syria (4%). The uniqueness of Nigeria in this club is that the others are countries that have fought officially acknowledged wars. The Nigerian government insists we are in peace time. 

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As multiple wars against insurgency, banditry, secessionist pressure and banditry are ranging simultaneously, it is hard to estimate how much effort is being made to control the free flow of arms within Nigeria. Recently, the federal government announced the setting up of a new outfit to control the proliferation of illegal arms in the country. The National Centre for the Control of Small Arms and Light Weapons has General A.M Dikko as Chairman. This is an apex agency in the office of the National Security Adviser to research and monitor the movement of these weapons across borders in Africa. Its adequacy outside a comprehensive revision and enforcement all existing gun laws in the country remains doubtful.

The imbalance between the arms in private hands and what is available to the security forces lies at the root of our current insecurity. It implies that the state is outgunned by other gun wielders especially non-state actors who have only one target: the state and its security personnel. Of the multiple light arms flowing freely in Nigeria, the Ak-47 has become the prime symbol of the current insecurity. It has become important because the popularity copious presence of the AK-47 marks a movement of illegal gun possession from small arms to the territory of military grade assault weapons. Most of the AK 47s in circulation are in the hands of either organized or free lance non- state actors.  The colonialists who created Nigeria had the maxim gun. The bands of rascals who want to dismember the country have the AK-47.

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By the time he died on 23rd December 2013 at the age of 97, the inventor of the AK-47, Mikhail Timofeyevich Kalashnikov, a patriotic communist military officer was astonished at the multiple roles the rifle had played in world history. From its inception in 1947 to its present universal application as the world’s number one killer equipment, the AK-47 has played a central role in the largest number of political changes in the world. 

Its advantages of versatility, easy of use, low maintenance requirement and resilience have placed this weapon in the forefront. It has a life span of 40-50 years on the average. To date, an estimated 100 million AK-47s have been manufactured. Even if we adopt the morbid statistics of crediting each AK-47 with only a modest 3 deaths, we are still left with a frightful killing machine. This gun is easily the most democratized weapon only followed by the Improvised Explosive Device (IED).

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The AK -47 has become the weapon that democratized death as a consequence of either conflict or deliberate misdeeds. We can only guess how many people they have killed in the last 50 years. There is a cruel sense in which the AK-47 has also become a factor of population control through warfare and the democratization of violence and death. Whether this is good or bad, I do not know. A weapon that has been used to decentralize and privatize violence and death deserves, if nothing else, appropriate acknowledgment in the weapons hall of fame.

Because of its popularity as a weapon of choice for causes as far diverse  as civil wars, insurrections, rebellions, revolutions to organized crime and frontier wars, global demand for AK-47s has remained huge. Consequently, manufacturing franchises for AK-47s have spread far and wide. China has become a net exporter of AK-47s. One curious irony of this globalization of killingby AK-47s is captured by the period of Russian occupation of Afghanistan. The assault weapon of the Russian military war was the original Russian made AK-47. But the Mujahedeen fighting them were armed and supported by the United States. They also carried AK-47s but made in China. The Mujahedeen’s AK-47s were paid for by the CIA and shipped into Afghanistan by the United States to fight the Russians! 

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Elsewhere and at different times, the AK-47 has been pressed into the service of diverse political causes. It has been a tool in the hands of nationalist armies in Vietnam and in the Iran versus Iraq war. It has served as the standard assault rifle of national armies from the former Soviet Union to the armies of the former East Bloc countries. The rifle has powered revolutions and insurgencies as with the Sandinistas just as it has served as an instrument for the promotion of freedom as in the anti colonial wars in Africa especially in Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Angola.  

African coup makers found it a veritable instrument for the disruption of order, the sowing of confusion, the disruption of democracy and the limitation of freedom and inauguration of autocratic regimes.

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Because of the AK-47’s light weight and ease of operation, it has been a facilitator in an unfortunate iteration of unconventional warfare especially in the Third World especially in the 20th century. This is the emergence of the unfortunate phenomenon of the child soldier. This has reopened the debate on the morality of war and the consequential matter of the  liberalization of killing, making it more of a sport than a consequence of the historical necessity of warfare.

The AK-47 weapon has also facilitated the development of microwave military formations under instantaneous commands leading to the emergence of war lords as entrepreneurs of war and merchants of violence. Rewind to the emergence of figures like Charles Taylor in Liberia and Mohammed Farah Aideed of the “Black Hawk Down” fame in Somalia. 

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Where fiery eyed revolutionaries have dissipated their fervor and disappeared, their stockpiles of AK-47s have fallen into the hands of black market dealers and itinerant rebels with dubious causes. The anarchies in Libya, Syria and Yemen have yielded a trove of weapons that have fallen into the hands of jihadists and fundamentalist terrorists in Mali, Chad, Niger and Nigeria and the entire Sahel region.

Coming specifically back to Nigeria, the AK-47 has become the weapon of choice for all manner of non- state rebels with murky causes ranging from Niger Delta militants to Boko Haram terrorists who needed to train their converts on the go. In some Nigerian contexts, the AK-47 has served as an instrument in the service of the quest for equity and justice. Militants of the various Niger Delta militias pressed the weapon to great advantage in countless kidnapping and oil and gas installation disruptions  that drew world attention to the plight of the region and earned it lucrative economic and political dividends.

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In the hands of armed Fulani herdsmen, the AK-47 has emerged as the prime weapon for the re-drawing of the political map of the nation under President Buhari. The transformation of herdsmen into armed militants has indirectly put power in the hands of previously itinerant and inconsequential group.  Through the conscious promotion of the emergence of the Fulani as a political faction in modern Nigeria,  armed Fulani gunmen masquerading as herdsmen have systematically infiltrated ungoverned spaces in most parts of the country in a pattern that is hardly accidental. Fulani gunmen and their AK-47s have placed matters in the public agenda that were hitherto unheard of. We are now debating open grazing, grazing routes, cattle settlements etc. Innocuous interest groups like Miyetti Allah have germinated into public prominence. 

All over the country, possession of the AK-47 has given birth to new categories of troublemakers thus expanding the vocabulary of criminality in Nigeria. We now have bandits, unknown gunmen, vigilantes, civilian JTF, hoodlums, cultists in addition to the familiar armed robbers and armed smugglers at the borders.  

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In the hands of political thugs and mob contractors, the AK-47 has become instrumental in pressuring electoral outcomes in favour of the most armed and vicious highest bidders in the bazaar for political thugs who deploy violence and intimidation to determine the outcomes of elections. The more creative political entrepreneurs have been known to invest in the importation of military and police uniforms in addition AK-47s to equip their own private armies for election purposes. To this extent, this rifle has been a tool in either the derogation of democracy or its promotion in the hands of security forces deployed to protect the ballot or  safeguard voting venues and ballot collation centres.

In the hands of the new crop of separatists and secessionists, the AK-47 is the ready tool for disturbing the peace in order to draw attention to  worthy causes either drowned by the passage of time or the oversight of arrogant incumbency. The militants of IPOB and ESN are reported to sport several AK-47s in their exploits. In posing direct challenges to national sovereignty and unity, the AK-47 has created new political theatres. 

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The state security contingent that invaded Mr. Sunday Igboho’s Ibadan fortress recently listed some AK-47s among the trove of evidence they found. The military and police garrisoning of the entire South East has yielded many prisoners of war including alleged IPOB and ESN operatives. In the police video footages that have emerged form the south east operation, I saw a frightening one. It was the image of a fierce young man said to be another IPOB ‘commander’. This ‘commander’ had two AK-47s with independent magazines welded together to form the most monstrous killing machine that I have ever seen. 

In some unusual settings, AK-47s have become part of the costume and dressing of professional troublemakers who want to be identified as nothing more than gunmen, bandits or ethnic militants. 

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I recall when the Katsina state governor posed for a photo op with some bandit leaders and security commanders after signing an MOU with bandits that were terrorizing his state. The bandit leader’s regalia included an Ak-47 which he proudly slung over his shoulder while masking his face before the camera as the governor and army and police commanders grinned sheepishly. 

The most significant symbolism of the AK-47 in today’s Nigeria is its emergence as a business tool. It is now a curious capital expenditure item in the business of terror for profit. There is no direct relationship between the unit cost of an old AK-47 ( usually between 650,000 to 1 million Naira in the black market) and the return on the investment. It is the principal tool for Kidnapping for ransom, transactional abductions, armed robbery, piracy and transactional militancy. The spate of armed extortions is indicative of the profitability of the macabre trade. The rate of return on investment defies the laws of capitalist profitability. Kidnappers and bandits receive ransoms in millions of dollars or hundreds of millions of Naira. This weapon has become a very short cut to recognition and stupendous wealth for persons who may have no formal education or training in any trade.  Their identity is the dictum: “I shoot, therefore I am”. 

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The logic seems to be that if you want to be a billionaire, get some AK-47s, arm some young unemployed lads and go in search of soft targets- schools, wealthy individuals, groups of travellers on the highways or carefully chosen high value targets. Ransoms are either paid in dollar cash or through bank transfers; banks do not discriminate about sources of money. 

In the generous spread of AK-47 possession in Nigeria, a different problem has been created. An unwritten law in Nigeria is that once a tool of profitable trade is found, its use spreads quickly.  The AK-47 has found its way into the realms of national greed, politics and profit. This trinity is hard to dislodge. Those who must end the current insecurity must therefore prepare for a long nasty engagement. Mexico here comes your African equivalent. 

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