Just how many small arms and light weapons (SALWs) are circulating within Cameroon and Nigeria, or between the two countries, is not clear – but the two neighbours seem to believe that access to these arms by criminals is concerning enough to renew their cooperation on the issue.
On 3 August, Cameroon’s President Paul Biya signed a decree ratifying the cooperation agreement between Cameroon and Nigeria on the non-proliferation of SALW, which was signed in Abuja on 6 February 2018. This incorporates the agreement into Cameroonian law.
To understand the importance of the decree, it is necessary to look at the socio-political and security contexts in the two countries.
Cameroon has experienced increasing instability since 2013 when the Boko Haram insurgency first began to spill over from Nigeria. Since November 2016, the country has also been facing a secessionist movement. This grew into a full-blown internal armed conflict, after Biya declared ‘war on secessionists’ late last year. Both crises are concentrated along Cameroon’s lengthy border with Nigeria, in the Far-North, North-West and South-West regions respectively. The illicit use of SALW has further been fuelling these crises.
The number of arms in Cameroon is classified as ‘moderate’, with a 2017 survey on gun policy by Sydney University ranking the country 99/178. Small Arms Survey noted an estimated 510 000 guns owned by civilians, licitly and illicitly. But the country’s illicit small arms problem likely arises from its 1 975 km shared boundary with Nigeria, which is notoriously porous and poorly policed.
A recent study identified Nigeria as both an entry and exit country for the transnational trafficking of SALW, with Cameroon cited among the countries most affected by these routes, alongside Gabon, Togo, Benin and Chad. While noting how difficult it is to assess the magnitude of licit and illicit SALW proliferation in Nigeria, the study notes that figures from 2006 provide a ‘rough estimation of one to three million SALW in circulation in Nigeria’.
The study further shows that diverse actors within Nigeria’s society are using such weapons. They include so-called cultists – gang-type groups that are particularly active in universities, and who ‘are using firearms in their rival conflicts’. They also include armed robbers, rival political groups which resort to gun violence during elections, and ‘even Nigerian security agencies’, whose weapons are stolen by criminals or sold to them.
The decree between Cameroon and Nigeria came on the heels of a conference that took place in June this year on the theme ‘Access to small arms and light weapons by armed non-state actors: a threat to peace and security in Central African States,’ held in Yaoundé, Cameroon. The conference highlighted the necessity to ‘curb the flow of weapons, which is considered to be at the origin of most armed conflicts and insecurity in the sub-region’.
In addition, the governor of Cross-River State in Nigeria has accused Cameroonian secessionists of trafficking arms. Specifically, Governor Ben Ayade declared that persons from Cameroon are using ‘over 27 illegal routes, smuggle in goods of different kinds, sell them and use the money to acquire arms, recruit our young men and women and use them as machineries to fight back home’.
For Cameroon, therefore, there is clear urgency to address the proliferation of SALW. Cameroon signed the application decree merely six months after the non-proliferation agreement with Nigeria was adopted in February. Such legislative swiftness is unusual. It shows that Cameroon fully understands what cooperation with its giant neighbour means for its internal security.
Agnes Ebo’o, ENACT Regional Organised Crime Observatory Coordinator – Central Africa, ISS