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The right to bear arms

By Obi Nwakanma

Let me start from the get-go, and state that I am by conviction, a pacifist. As a revert to Odinala-Igbo, I understand that the cornerstone of Igbo religion and spiritual practices is “udo” – peace; a sense of the harmony of things in all nature and human relations. That is the central philosophy of Odinala – peace to all men, peace to all things; peace in our endeavors; peace between men and the gods, peace between neighbors and kin; and a just balance between the spirit and the living man: “Mmo emegbula mmadu, mmadu emegbula mmo…” And you hear it also in the profound doctrine, “ndu mmiri, ndu Azu” – uttered long before contemporary western-influenced environmentalists began to conceive of the unity and necessity of balance in nature, and of the imperative of natural conservation, both as a spiritual as we all as an economic desideratum.

As a revert to Odinala and the worship system of my ancestors, I am also philosophically convinced about non-violence and the principles in “Iju Ogu,” – to proclaim one’s innocence publicly, before one’s peers or kin, and before the gods and the ancestors. To any “Onye Odinala,” who begins by saying, “I proclaim my innocence before you gods and my kinsmen, and summon you all as witness that I have wronged no man knowingly, and that my hands are clean of evil. I hold the Ofo and the Ogu symbols of truth and justice as evidence of my proclamation, and may I not see the rise of the next sun, if I have profaned the truth, and the compact of the earth; if I do so, may the earth take me,” two things are often central: the certainty of his convictions, and the certainty of the gods of the land exacting justice, rather than man.

The gods, not their followers, are often left to fight their own battles. This is hardly the case today in the other religions our people have embraced. They fight the battles for the gods of these religions. But that is not the central issue of my musings thus far. It is to say this, that although I am philosophically a pacifist, I do also comprehend the logic of self-defence, and the necessity, indeed the right of the citizen to bear arms as a legitimate obligation to himself, and a fundamental right to the ownership of property. I am in tune with all the debates in the United States about gun rights, and the “open-carry” question, and I think it is not the case here.

I would for instance not support any call to grant permits to people convicted of violent crimes and who have not been socially rehabilitated, to mentally ill folk, or to anybody for that matter to carry guns in the open in public places like schools, churches, government offices, Open public parks, the street, and such places. But I do support gun possession for personal safety within one’s own space, for sporting activity like hunting, and for the demonstrations, as are often required of men to celebrate during communal festivals or funerals, by popping off blanks. Guns have always been part of Igbo life and culture, as I am sure it has been in many other of the cultures that currently make up this nation.

As we notice in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, one of the central catalysts of the story is the incident in which the central character Okonkwo, at the funeral of the great old man Ogbuefi Nwakibie, lets off a shot which accidentally kills one of Nwakibie’s younger sons, an accident, for which Okonkwo was inexorably banished from Umuofia for seven years, according to the Igbo law on manslaughter.  In Arrow of God, in another incident, a man whose sacred personal shrine had been violated in pure grief goes into his room, brings out his gun, and kills the violator – ironically a peace emissary from Umuaro. Accidents do happen with guns. I think that is what Achebe does say, but one does not on account of slaughter, as the Igbo say, choose not to go to a war that has come inexorably to one. In yet another example in these novels by Achebe, we learn, that as an act of triumph, following the colonial fights, the English District Officer, Winterbottom, ordered the surrendering of the arms of all armed bearers of the Abame, and publicly destroyed these guns, for which the whiteman was nicknamed, “destroyer of guns.”

In one of his interviews, the late General Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu did recount the experience of his own grandfather, Odumegwu in Nnewi, who was among those whose guns were broken or seized publicly in “Nkwo Nnewi.” It was, in hindsight, strategic disarming by the British as a means of containment, following the Igbo wars of resistance to colonialism. Lugard had destroyed the Sultan Attahiru and his army in Sokoto, in just one quick skirmish in 1903; The Benin forces were worsted and the Oba Ovonramwen seized and exiled in a very quick battle; and as the historian Ayandele has made clear, it was the Yoruba kings themselves that wrote to the British to come and colonize them, in order to end the 100-year war that ravaged Yoruba land following the collapse of the Oyo Empire. But it took the British thirty years and five campaigns, from 1900 to establish a semblance of authority in the Igbo area.

Historians have noted that the Igbo and the Ashanti staged the hardest and longest resistance to British colonial wars in Africa, and it bears saying that these Igbo fought with guns and munitions they themselves had made. Societies that are unable to produce their own means of self-defence often become slaves to those who can. And many of these guns are made in Igbo land, and it is well near impossible to stop the production of local guns. And that is why it was startling to me, reading the orders of the Inspector General of Police, to the various state Police Commissioners to disarm militias in the states. I was startled because it is an order that follows an old model of law enforcement.

On a basic level, one could understand the Inspector-General’s position: militias are currently unregulated, and because they are not regulars, they fall outside of the disciplinary codes for gun use. It is frankly a legitimate concern. But even the police has not been able to enforce gun-use regulations even among its own officers. And so the concern itself falls short on its own aim. But be that as it may. The other concern is that given the climate of distrust between the Inspector-General and the public, particularly in the Southern and middle belt states where gunmen, allegedly “Fulani Herdsmen” have laid siege, the order may be regarded as a ploy to tie peoples hands behind their backs, while these “Fulani herdsmen” are given free rein to attack them at their most vulnerable; without their own means of self-defence.

The IGP should first give the orders for all state commissions to disarm and decommission all arms in the possession of the so-called Fulani herdsmen, and not the militias who defend their communities against violent intruders. Many of these militias are formed as traditional local watch groups. I certainly make a distinction between these militias and the political thugs commissioned and paid for by politicians in these states to conduct violence against unarmed citizens. Those should be disarmed.

However, I think a sweeping order such as the IGP has given may undermine some better aspects of the work of the community defence groups who may be termed “militias” under this rule. I think it is important to find a middle ground, and a strategic alternative.

Let us first agree that it is the right of the citizen to bear arms. Such arms can be used, both in the defence of oneself and private property, and in organizing, yes, an armed citizens militia against an illegitimate government in the defence of the republic and its democratic institutions. Yes, a peoples militia is sine qua non, to the evolution of a republic, for as long as such a militia is properly convened under the common act, a possibility which a piece of legislation – an act of parliament should make possible in Nigeria. This is what we must do: to compel the National Assembly and the state Assemblies to establish these principles under the law, and the fact that the Nigerian police or any of the law enforcement arms of the state cannot seize the personal arms of a Nigerian citizen, in so far as such arms are legitimately procured under rules to be established by parliament, and properly registered under a gun registry to be established for that purpose in every locality.

Nigerian citizens who wish, must be allowed to own their guns, use it for legitimate activity under strict guidelines of possession, and for as long as such guns are registered, and it is easy these days to digitally register guns, and determine how they are used, they must be considered legitimate private property. Community Defence Militias also should be properly registered with the local governments by the Town governments that establish them, given strict gun use training for public safety, and be made accountable for their gun possession. But to disarm them in these times makes these communities vulnerable, and leaves the IGP’s orders a little iffy. We must teach responsible gun use, rather than banish and seizure. Even Odinala accepts that.


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