‘Let Them Buy Guns!’ Will Owning Guns Make Nigerians Safer?

Government officials know that owning guns will not protect Nigerians from rising insecurity. So why do such officials keep proposing private gun ownership as a nationwide security measure?

In March, the kidnapping of 39 students from the Federal College of Forestry in Kaduna made national and international headlines. This attack was only the latest in a series of increasingly brazen attacks on schools across the country. In each case, police and armed forces are powerless to prevent the attacks or track down the perpetrators. The policy of the Nigerian and state governments seems to be to pay ransoms, which only encourages more kidnappings. In 2013, the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) created a Nigeria Security Tracker to measure violence caused by the ongoing Boko Haram conflict. Eight years later, the pervasiveness of violence in the country is disheartening. Already in 2021, the CFR’s security tracker counts at least 2,770 deaths—a figure that includes those killed by police, the armed forces, cultists, bandits and intercommunal violence. As troubling as that number is on its own, it fails to contextualize the true impact of insecurity. Firstly, violence that goes unreported in the news obviously cannot be accounted for in any database. Moreover, this figure does not track those who have physically injured or the mental burden borne by survivors and those who have lost friends and family. It does not measure economic and social costs of constant fear, as citizens worry that they too could be next: public spaces avoided, children pulled from school and journeys untaken. All Nigerians bear the burden of insecurity in one form or another.


Some government officials believe that Nigeria can overcome rising insecurity if more Nigerians own guns. In August last year, Samuel Ortom, governor of Benue State, asked the Federal Government to permit citizens to arm themselves, pointing to the United States as an example: ‘This is a suggestion that the Federal Government should take up seriously because in America people are licensed to carry sophisticated weapons but life is still going on.’ Similar calls were made by Kabir Marafa, Senator for Zamfara Central, in 2018 and as recently as February 2021 by Darius Ishaku, governor of Taraba. Within the executive, in February 2021, minister of defence, Bashir Magashi, admonished victims of yet another school kidnapping, saying, ‘We shouldn’t be cowards. I don’t know why people are running away from minor, minor, minor things like that. They should stand. Let these people know that even the villagers have the competence and capability to defend themselves.’

Magashi’s comments crystallize these suggestions as what they really are: a cynical way of offloading responsibility for security onto the most vulnerable Nigerians. The provision of security is a core function of the state and has been a justification for state sovereignty for political theorists from Hobbes to Tilly. The suggestion that the solution to Nigeria’s security challenges lies in citizens buying guns and defending themselves is just another way for Nigeria’s officials to absolve themselves of even the most basic tasks of governance. There is virtually no chance of the federal government changing the laws on gun ownership. Currently, the 1990 Firearms Act allows for individual gun ownership only in exceptional cases, with licenses given at the discretion of the President and the Inspector General of Police. Proposals for mass gun ownership would allow anyone to carry arms without a license or create an official process for any citizen to apply. The federal government has made no moves to change or repeal the Firearms Act, and the prospect of an armed populace goes against the interests of leadership at the state and federal level. However, if such a change were implemented, Nigerians would be less safe than ever. The discussion of self-protection by politicians serves only as a distraction to substantive calls for reform and revolution of Nigerian politics.

Already, Nigerians provide many of their own essential services. We depend on generators for stable electricity and must often pay electricity distributors to set up the requisite infrastructure in our neighbourhoods. We dig boreholes to provide our own water, and pool resources to repair damaged roads in our communities. Churches, families and strangers on social media fill the void left by the absence of social security. Public workers go unpaid for months on end, citizens are increasingly forced to turn to private schools and private hospitals. It is even customary to pay police to conduct private investigations of crimes. Yet, a government that has given so little is asking its citizens to pay for guns and employ the same self-help attitude to resist gangs and terrorists. The Nigerian government fails to provide security for the same reason it fails to provide other amenities: it does not want to. Our government does not see itself as accountable to its citizens and does not recognize an obligation to provide public services.


One obvious question posed by the recent suggestions is why would we pay security agencies and their heads for work they do not intend to do? Of what use are police, army or a Ministry of Defence if we are our own protectors? Transparency International estimates that state governors in Nigeria receive N208.8 billion annually in ‘security votes’, money allocated to subsidize security agencies. It is notoriously difficult to get accurate information around compensation for government officials in Nigeria. However, Vanguard Nigeria reports that ministers like Bashir Magashi receive at least N11 million per year in salaries and allowances. Working at the official minimum wage of N30,000 per month, it would take a Nigerian citizen over 30 years to earn as much as Magashi makes in one. The irony then is that a man who receives more money in a year than most Nigerians do in a lifetime for the ostensible purpose of defending citizens is abdicating his responsibility.

The insult behind the proposal to arm Nigerians cuts deeper when one considers that police and armed forces are often the cause of insecurity in Nigeria. On October 20, 2020, police and military in Lagos killed at least a dozen people at Lekki and Alausa. A year before in Abuja, members of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria protesting the illegal detention of their leader were shot by police officers. Four protesters were killed. The everyday brutality of SARS officers has been well documented elsewhere, including by this publication. Violence on the part of security agencies is not isolated to these annual flashpoints. In 2009, Amnesty International issued a report on the spate of extrajudicial killings by Nigerian Police. In 2015, another Amnesty International report found that the Nigerian Armed Forces extrajudicially executed at least 1,200 Nigerians and arbitrarily detained a further 20,000 without charge. Public taxes and the natural wealth of the country are funnelled into the very institutions preying on Nigerians while ordinary citizens are told to fend for themselves.

Not only does this dynamic lead to alienation and worsening insecurity, but it also raises an important practical question for Nigeria’s gun proponents: how exactly is gun ownership supposed to protect Nigerians against state violence? Had the protestors of October 20th had guns in their hands and shot back at the army, this would only have been an excuse for the state to brand them as criminals and answer with yet more state violence. Unless we expect civilians to be able to match the maximum level of force possessed by the state, individual weapons cannot be the solution. In 2017, the Nigerian Air Force bombed an IDP camp in Borno, killing at least 236 civilians. Perhaps proponents of self-defence would argue that these internally displaced persons should have simply purchased anti-aircraft guns to protect themselves.


Any reasonable observer should conclude that the rot in Nigeria’s security sector cannot be resolved by liberalizing gun ownership. Even if one ignores the fallibility of such proposals there is still an issue of fair legal access. If the Firearms Act is amended to create a licensing regime, processing fees would likely be unavoidable if only to cover the bureaucracy’s operating costs. Even if the Act is scrapped altogether and licensing is unnecessary, guns, ammunition and weapons training all require money and access that may not be available to the average working-class Nigerian. Either way, a security strategy that relies on individual gun ownership will, at best, lead to a two-tiered situation where the rich are protected, and the poor are not. The poor are more likely to travel by road unprotected while the rich fly or use police escorts. Poor children are more likely to be in remote boarding schools, and their families are more likely to live in rural areas. The North East, where insecurity is highest, also happens to be the poorest part of the country. For all these reasons and more, a strategy of privatized defence ensures that those at greatest risk of violence are the ones least protected.

More importantly, the experience of other countries shows that guns do not in fact make people safer. In the US, the National Bureau of Economic Research found that states that adopted ‘right to carry’ legislation saw violent crime figures rise up to 15 per cent ten years later. It is puzzling that Governor Ortom would use the US as an example for the benefits of widespread gun ownership given the situation in that country. The average gun owner in the US is far more likely to shoot themselves or a family member than a home invader. Having a gun in the home is correlated with higher rates of suicide and accidental death. It also seems to worsen the severity of intimate partner violence. Even in the event of an attack, civilians with guns actually fare worse than those without. A 2009 study by the American Journal of Public Health found that citizens who carried guns were more likely to be shot with their own gun by their assailant than to successfully defend themselves. The likeliest outcome of encouraging Nigerians to buy guns for their own protection is an epidemic of murdered family members, rising rates of suicide, and a greater number of casualties when attacks do occur.


The Federal Government of Nigeria knows that gun ownership will not protect Nigerians from rising insecurity, as do the state governors issuing these proposals. The suggestion of public gun ownership itself is likely insincere. No legislation will be introduced to the National Assembly to permit Nigerians to carry firearms. No effort will be made to eliminate the budget for the Nigerian Army and Nigerian Police Force—both institutions that would be without purpose in the brave new world of self-defence our leaders are proposing. The next time that a civilian is shot by police and a gun, knife or even heavy stick is found among their effects, the police will use it as evidence of their ill-intent, quickly forgetting that our minister of defence has tasked us with defending ourselves. The whole exercise is a distraction, a way for an increasingly brazen ruling class to point the finger of blame back to the population. While most of these pleas are ostensibly targeted at the government, it is we who are the intended audience. They attempt to make us forget our rights to government protection, and to ignore the real reasons why this right has been repeatedly violated. In this sense, calls to arm Nigerians are another example of the relentless gaslighting that Joshua Segun-Lean has called the tool of Nigerian ‘anyhowness’: Anyhowness, Segun-Lean writes, ‘is the Nigerian state’s most consistent and most effective strategy in its defence. And it is a fairly simple one. It relies on the principle that: confronted with thorough and unrelenting dehumanization—with ordinary, everyday violations—a people will deny their own humanity and the better instincts it affords them.’

There is a myth that when told peasants in France had run out of bread, Marie Antoinette responded ‘then let them eat cake’. These recent proposals from Nigeria’s political leaders to arm citizens must be understood in much the same way. They are a cynical deflection from a class of political parasites, who are assured that they themselves will never be led away into the forest by unidentified bandits or murdered on the roadside by a disgruntled police officer. How dare we ask that our public money be used to protect us? How dare we suggest that men who have spent decades eating off the commonwealth of Nigeria be held responsible for their failures? Nigeria’s insecurity challenges will continue until those who are most affected have a real say in governing the country. When legislative and budgeting decisions do not reflect citizen priorities, corruption and vanity projects will take precedence over security provision. Accountability remains the only solution to Nigeria’s insecurity problem, but it is an unfortunate reality that Nigerian leaders fear accountability far more than they fear terrorists and kidnappers

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