Executive order on firearms and legality of acquiring guns for self-defence
On May 22, 2019, President Muhammadu Buhari signed an executive order to remove, revoke and banish all firearms certificates and licences throughout Nigeria.
Although the order attracted widespread condemnations from Nigerians, especially among the elites, the President refused to revoke it as requested by some members of the federal Parliament.
The president reportedly signed the order in response to threats by some Niger Delta militants to declare a Niger Delta Republic and secede from Nigeria. The president may have also issued the order, which took effect on June 1, 2019, as part of his strategy to ameliorate the insecurity ravaging the country. That order notwithstanding, the level of insecurity across the country has increased.
However, the Supreme Court, in its wisdom had stated in the case of the Attorney General of Abia State and others v the Attorney General of the Federation that the executive order is illegal. The Supreme Court also stated that the Executive Order is not only illegal, but superfluous.
According to the apex court, once an issue has a law covering it, like the Firearms Act in this case, it’s expected to function until amended.
The proponents of gun bearing argued that it would provide a tool for self-defence in the face of the current insecurity bedeviling the country.
The debates for gun licensing for Nigerians, is undoubtedly gaining acceptance from various quarters. Many eminent Nigerians and groups have called for gun licences to individuals and groups to bear arms for self-defence and to aid conventional security organisations, who they said, are over overstretched due to the high level of insecurity in the country.
A coalition of self-determination groups, led by an America-based body, the United Indigenous People of African (UNIPA) Foundation, has called on governors in the South and Middle-Belt regions to invoke the doctrine of necessity and provisions of Chapter VII, article 51 of United Nations Charter on Self-defence.
Consequently, it urged the governors to purchase arms for their regional security outfits, including training and retraining of vigilantes and hunters to protect people in their territories.
The coalition, which made the call against the backdrop of growing insecurity, also commended Benue State governor, Samuel Ortom, for establishing a security outfit, known as Community Volunteer Guards (CVG) and urged governors in the region to toe similar path.
In a statement, spokesperson of the Coalition, Mr. Joseph Ekwo, a lawyer, urged the governors to start expending resources currently used in funding the police, military and civil defence corps to train hunters and vigilantes.
Members of UNIPA in Nigeria are Oodua People’s Sovereign Movement (OPSOM); Ohanaeze Youth Council; Freedom From Nigeria (FFN); Conscience of Niger/Delta Forum (CONDEF); Middle-Belt Patriotic Front; Concerned Indigenous Nigerians in Georgia; United Middle-Belt and Igbo National Council (INC).
Also, the Hunters Group of Nigeria (HGN) on the other hand has called on the governments of the South East to provide them with arms and other logistics to dislodge hoodlums and Fulani herdsmen from the zone. They said they needed vehicles and arms to drive away hoodlums and armed herders from Enugu state and the entire South-East region.
State Commander and the acting Zonal Commander of the group for the South East, Austin Nwangwu, who disclosed this while addressing journalists in Enugu, last Monday, said if the government gives them the needed support, they will surprise the people.
“If the government will assist us and give us the needed logistics, we’ll do wonders. There is no corner in Enugu and elsewhere in the South East that you will not see us. If we are armed, hoodlums and herdsmen will move out of the East. In December for instance, we arrested five kidnappers. If we are given the logistics, we’ll do more,” he pledged.
The governor of Benue state Samuel Ortom recently dropped the hints on his intention to purchase firearms for his recently launched security outfit to help protect his people.
In an interview with The Guardian, the State’s attorney general and commissioner for Justice, Mike Gusa, argued that given the high level of insecurity in the country, it is incumbent on the president to grant licences to the Guard, adding that it was in line with relevant laws.
He argued that with bandits carrying sophisticated weapons everywhere unlicensed, there was an urgent need for communities and individuals to be licensed to use firearms for self-defence.
Gusa explained that despite the spate of killings in Benue state, the governor, who believes in following due process, has taken the path of law by his plan to apply to the President for licences before purchasing firearms.
According to him, it is appropriate, under the prevailing security challenges, for the President to grant licences for the purchase of firearms for the security outfit. Gusa explained that CVG, inaugurated by Governor Ortom, was set up by law before the coming of governor Ortom’s administration into power, adding that the governor revisited the law because of emerging security challenges.
A lawyer, Douglas Ogbankwa, Convener, Vanguard for the Independence of the Judiciary, said the executive order, which was declared illegal by the Supreme Court hijacked legislative competence imbued on the Legislature by Section 5 of the 1999 Constitution of Nigeria (as altered).
He said: “The Government in one breath asks citizens to defend themselves and in another breath, make the acquisition of firearms prohibitory, due to the cumbersome and expensive nature of the acquisition.”
He argued that citizens have rights to bear arms, adding that it is better to be charged with illegal possession of firearms than to be killed by the terrorists.
A senior lawyer, Terkura Douglas Pepe also argued that the prevailing insecurity has made it imperative for Nigeria’s President to licence military-grade weapons to citizens and communities for self-defence.
The lawyer justified the recent declaration by Governor Ortom to apply for licences for AK-47 and AK-49 rifles for the Benue State Community Volunteer Guards. He argued that the move was backed by law, especially under the prevailing circumstances across the country.
Ogbankwa argued that assault firearms are in the hands of bandits and criminal elements and so it would be appropriate for the President to exercise the discretion of granting licences of military grade weapons to recognised groups for defence of communities.
Pepe, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), said the laws permit individuals to apply for light weapons for the purpose of self-defence and, adding that with the permission of the President, citizens could get assault firearms.
The SAN said: “Legally, the only person that can give a licence for anyone to own military-grade weapons in Nigeria is the President. That is in accordance with the firearms Act section 33, which empowers the president to grant the licence for military grade weapons.
“The Governor of Benue state, in establishing the Community Volunteer Guards, is in proper position under the law to apply to the president for such licence. The law says the President, using his discretion, may grant or refuse the application.”
The senior lawyer noted that though the law did not explicitly give credence to large groups to collectively apply for assault firearms, the prevailing security situation where sophisticated arms are in the hands of bandits, has made it necessary for such a large group to be licenced to help in dealing with security challenges.