By Abimbola Adelakun
Following the attacks on some communities in Plateau State during the Christmas season, groups from the South to the Middle Belt regions of the country, have once again re-ignited the call to the government to let them bear arms. One cannot blame them. So far, the Plateau attack has culminated in about 190 deaths while thousands more joined the ever-growing army of Nigeria’s internally displaced population. As is typical of the government when such incidents occur, they vowed to go after the perpetrators of the attacks. But such promises do not give anyone much confidence coming from a government that, even amidst terrifying reports of massacres, still manages to score itself high marks on security issues.
That is why those who bear the continuous brunt of the failings of the state serially indicate they would like to bear arms. If the government cannot protect them from maniac attacks, it is only fair to at least balance the terror. In 2018, when former defence minister, Gen. Theophilus Danjuma (retd.), joined the call for the people in besieged communities to be allowed to defensively arm themselves against killer herdsmen, much ink was spilled debating the issue. Almost six years later, neither the argument nor the circumstances that warranted it moved beyond that stalemate.
The government, expectedly, turns down the idea of regular citizens bearing arms saying it would lead to “anarchy.” They are only partially right, of course. For those vulnerable to attacks of bandits, terrorists, and other destructions that waste lives at noonday, what else defines anarchy? Being at the mercy of maniacal marauders who can appear in your village any day and any time qualifies enough as anarchy. Every day is a season of anomie, a reality that cannot fully register with the military top brass who speak from behind well-fortified offices.
To some extent, the call for people to bear arms for self-protection is merely another symptom of deficient infrastructure and the recession of the spheres we call the “public.” Asking for weapons is seeking to extend the informal economy to the domain where the government has formally held the sole right to regulate violence. By seeking to bear arms, they want to share the power of the state as the force that can legitimately do violence.
In every other sphere of public infrastructure, Nigerians have learnt to sidestep the various shortcomings of their government and evolve an informal means of self-sustenance. Is it in education? Long gone. Public education has practically collapsed. What we have left is a shell of the old glory, a reminder of the time the system dispensed quality training. Today, education has been practically privatised. What you get depends on what you pay for, and what you can afford to pay for corresponds to your place on the social ladder. Public health is not that different. Not only has that sector also fully yielded to neoliberal forces, but the gale of migration that recently hit the country has seen the exile of professionals from the industry.
The other areas where the average Nigerian has long resorted to self-help and probably forgotten government’s responsibility include energy/power generation, water, sewage, road, security, etc. Even in places with some semblance of functional public infrastructure, people maintain resource-draining backups because nothing from the government is reliable. The consequence of such massive infrastructural failure is that as almost every community in Nigeria learnt to improvise its own infrastructure, the state became increasingly redundant.
What we call government in Nigeria has so much functionally shrunk that administration is no longer more than the crude art of resource sharing among strategically positioned elites. The best that government officials know to do now is to prowl the same communities they fail to provide for, seeking for whom they can devour with their strangulating tax regimes. Over time, the idea of the “public” has so withered that it is almost amusing when certain government officials react to the vandalisation of the few items of public infrastructure they managed to provide with shock that some people could steal what everyone should ideally enjoy. But what else is to be expected in a society where virtually all the resources of the public have been privatised? That idea of communality and collective good is long moribund.
If some Nigerians still pay attention to democracy or democratic processes long enough to vote during the general elections, it is not in the expectation that the government will ultimately perform any magic. What people are looking for is a mere symbolic representation, a vicarious pleasure in watching our tribe ally with those we can tolerate and defeat those we cannot stand. Beyond that national game of numbers, there is not much else to political participation in Nigeria.
So here is the thing for the Nigerian military generals who think the right to bear arms must stop with them, or there will be anarchy: it is only a matter of time before those asking for the right to bear arms stop doing so and generate the solutions by themselves. Like every other instance where people have contended with the power of the government as a sole regulator of violence, they did it without requiring official permission.
I do not quite know when and how the people in Nigeria’s besieged communities will do this one, but they too will eventually get to a point where they will be able to procure those weapons to protect themselves. For now, they are still asking. However, a time will come when they realise they should not need official permission to protect their lives against government failure. Just like they have done for every other area of public life where the government has failed woefully, they will improvise. They will make their own army and consequently detach themselves from any emotional and moral investment in the country.
Yes, it will still be illegal for ordinary Nigerians to bear arms but that is another area where the government’s deficiency will show. They will do it right under the noses of top-ranking officials who, perennially in denial, will still be mouthing the same old arguments about “anarchy” while people cuddling their improvised weapons happily turn deaf ears. A government that has no viable record of its own people will find it almost impossible to track weapons by the time it has mass circulated across Nigeria.
Years ago, it would have been unthinkable that a bunch of bandits would possess weapons so sophisticated that the government would be fazed. Who would have thought that mere bandits would shoot at the military aircraft? Who would have imagined that government officials would pay a hefty sum to buy off a dangerous weapon from the bandits? Yet, that happened right under President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration. When state security officials realised that the president could be imperilled by a dangerous weapon that those bandits possessed during a visit to his home state, they paid to retrieve it from the bandits. If the bad guys can get to that point, the poor helpless ones will eventually find their way too.
Like similar massacres, the Christmas Eve killings attracted a bit of international attention because of the angle of “Muslim on Christian genocide” through which foreigners relate to complex stories of violence within Nigeria. One day, it could happen that some bleeding heart do-gooders in the West who can no longer accept the imbalance of power find the means to sneak weapons (or creating them locally) to those communities. The truth of Nigeria’s complicated ethno-religious history will not matter as much as helping those communities even out the terror. By the time the government finally notices that power is changing hands, its military would have been rendered redundant like every other sphere.
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