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Friday, March 24, 2023

The Week Ahead – Off Balance

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SBM Intelligence

All of those tried and true assumptions about the structure of the Nigerian state were tested in a 7-day period that saw an international arms ring bust, more salvos tossed over VAT, the judiciary calling a family meeting, Southern governors tackling open grazing as their Northern peers faced down insecurity, secret agents breaking up a recruitment exercise and a dogmatic regulator taking important steps in the digital space.

Against the wild
Ondo Governor Oluwarotimi Akeredolu (SAN) has signed into law the Anti-Open Grazing Bill passed by the state legislature. Information Commissioner, Donald Ojogo, made this known in a statement on 31 August. Akeredolu, while signing the law, said: “The move is in line with the resolution of the Southern Governors’ Forum at its last meeting in Lagos where September 1st was set as the deadline for governors in Southern Nigeria to sign the Anti-Open Grazing Bill into law. This is worthwhile and a very laudable development aimed at stemming needless instances of skirmishes, conflicts as well as infractions on the enviably peaceful disposition of the good people of Ondo State. It is very pertinent to aver and indeed reiterate that the law shall rather engender a more cordial, mutually benefiting relationship amongst residents of the state irrespective of ethnicity, religion or creed. For emphasis, no particular group of persons is the target. While the government hopes that all residents would take ample advantage of this law to enhance our socio-economic well being in Ondo State, compliance of the same shall be given the utmost attention. Government shall pursue with vigour, through lawful means, to ensure strict compliance. In this regard, details of the new law shall be made available to the public for proper information, more depth of understanding on contents as well as other relevant areas.” Akeredolu’s action was made pursuant to a resolution by the 17 southern governors in a meeting in Lagos on 5 July. Following the governors’ resolution, Akwa Ibom, Bayelsa, Delta, Enugu, Ondo, Osun and Rivers have moved to enact anti-open grazing laws. Before the resolution, anti-open grazing legislation was already in force in Abia, Ebonyi, Ekiti, Ogun and Oyo. A notable exception has been Imo, where Governor Hope Uzodimma became the first governor from the region to go against the agreement. Uzodinma told reporters on 25 August after meeting with President Muhammadu Buhari at the State House that though there is no anti-grazing law in force in the state, his government was trying to regulate grazing activities through collaboration between farming communities and herders. He reiterated that there is no law forbidding open grazing by cattle rearers in the state. In response, the Ohanaeze Ndigbo socio-cultural group called the governor “a confirmed saboteur” and said any Igbo governor that broke from the southern governors’ pact “will never escape the wrath of the people.” The conversation around open grazing has inflamed passions across the country. The Presidency in a strongly worded statement on 25 August accused the Benue State Governor, Samuel Ortom, who criticised the government’s track record on security in an interview with private broadcaster Channels Television, of using sectarian language similar to that of the 1994 Rwandan Genocide while reacting to the security challenges in his state. It also said the people of the state deserved a better governor and should insist on having one in the next election. In a statement by presidential spokesman Garba Shehu, the Presidency accused Ortom of being unprincipled, having changed political party five times. “In an attempt to boost his sinking political fortunes, Ortom takes the cheapest and lowest route possible by playing on ethnic themes – and in doing so knowingly causes deaths of innocent Nigerians by inciting farmers against herders, and Christians against Muslims,” Shehu said. “As was the case in Rwanda where the then Hutu leaders of the country incited their countrymen against each other, claiming there was a ‘secret Tutsi agenda’ over the Hutu, Ortom claims there is a ‘secret Fulanisation agenda’ over other ethnic groups in his state and Nigeria,” he added. Ortom, responding in an interview with BBC Pidgin, also accused the Presidency of blackmailing him each time he tries to draw attention to its shortcomings. He said: “If the government has power to stop Sunday Igboho and Nnamdi Kanu, why don’t they have the power to stop bandits? All we hear is unknown gunmen. For me, I know it is Fulani bandits that are coming to kill us in Benue and our current leaders at Aso Rock in the presidency have a hand in all this that is happening.”

With the assent of the bill by Governor Akeredolu, 13 Nigerian states – more than a third – now have anti-open-grazing laws, including nine that were part of the 5 July resolution by southern states to ban open grazing with a further four state assemblies considering similar bills. The Enugu State House of Assembly passed its own law yesterday, and that is now awaiting Governor Ugwuanyi’s consent. Although in Imo, Governor Uzodinma has chosen to break with the other Southern governors by not moving to institute similar laws, it seems that has already been done since 2006 during the administration of Achike Udenwa. It has, however, not been operationalised, and there is some debate about how far reaching it really is. While there is chatter about strengthening that law, it remains to be seen if any amendment will be signed by the governor. Despite the seriousness of the southern states, as well as some central states such as Benue, Plateau and Taraba to ban open grazing, it has not stopped Abuja from continuing with its desire to maintain the status quo, considering the recent directive to review grazing sites in 25 states. This continues to put the FG on a collision course with states in terms of the constitutionality of these efforts (since land is enshrined by the Constitution and its associated Land Use Act as under the administration of state governors). It also puts the President – accused of showing a bias for his Fulani kinsmen who dominate nomadic herding and have been accused of being responsible for violence across the country – at odds with a growing section of the political elite. Without coordination between Aso Rock and states on the best approach to be taken for proper livestock management in the country, the ethno-religious tensions that have arisen from the wanton violence between nomadic herders and farming communities will only worsen. This is evident from the escalation in the war of words between Benue’s Governor Ortom, who has consistently criticised the FG’s handling of the insecurity in the state and attacks on mostly rural communities, and the Presidency. Mr Ortom’s last statement accusing the Presidency of involvement in the violence and alleging an agenda to commit ethnic cleansing to the advantage of the Fulani ethnic group is the most strongly-worded accusation lobbed at the Presidency from him or any governor. It was not unexpected that there was going to be a rebuttal from the Presidency; however, beyond the rebuttal, there are yet to be any actions taken by the Presidency that will contribute towards a change in the political rhetoric. It remains to be seen if the FG will shift ground in terms of its National Livestock Transformation Plan (NLTP) to allow for states to choose to allow open grazing or not while also providing funding for improving the livestock industry as a sustainable solution to ending the violence while guaranteeing meat and animal products’ supply. In addition, most of the Southern governors must follow up their joint resolution with specific actions. The fact that one of the states has refused to go with the rest is the beauty of federalism – each federating unit is at liberty to make such laws for themselves. It allows for observing and comparing the outcomes. As restructuring de facto continues as seen with the anti-grazing legislation and judgements like the one on VAT collection, the inevitable point will come – states will need the means to enforce these laws, and we will see more autonomous law enforcement frameworks.

Total shutdown
Zamfara governor Bello Matawalle has called on residents and visitors in the state to comply with the new directives set up, including the closure of weekly markets, as part of measures to address the worsening security situation in the state or face the full wrath of the law. The closure of weekly markets and other measures; ban sales of petrol in jerry cans, transportation of cows and firewood, have also been enacted while movements of food items will be strictly monitored. Few days after the announcement of the measures, bandits began attacking travelling motorists and threatening to launch new attacks in villages like Shinkafi in Zamfara with the motive to compel the Zamfara government to reverse measures imposed. In a bid to make criminal operations difficult for the bandits, the government decided to ban the transportation of livestock from one point to another while riding motorcycles beyond a certain time have also been banned. The new rules include the banning of riding on motorcycles and tricycles from 6 pm to 6 am in the state except for the state capital, and a curfew which starts from 8 pm to 6 am every day. “Furthermore, any tricycle that is covered will be stopped to verify its passengers, otherwise it will be apprehended. Governor Matawalle reiterated the ban on more than two persons riding a motorcycle and warned that those who break the law stand the risk of being shot at by security operatives,” a statement from the governor’s office said. The statement noted that security operatives will ensure that the new directives are enforced, and urged citizens to cooperate with the government. The movement of some of the bandits outside Zamfara has prompted the implementation of similar measures by neighbouring Kaduna and Katsina. In Katsina, two of its largest markets (Jibia & Mai’adua), which border the Niger Republic, will have a harsh devastating effect on the buying and selling of most people while grain markets in Kaita, Malumfashi and Kankara will be affected too. DW Hausa Radio reported that Zamfara residents expressed dissatisfaction with the total closure of all markets, which will worsen the lives of low-income households and hope it will not last for a long period. Gangs in the three states have been known to attack villages at dawn using powerful motorcycles – hence the popular support of the motorcycle and black market fuel bans in affected areas. The majority of people living in the affected states are agrarian, reside in rural communities and rely on local weekly markets to sell farm produce and support their families. 

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A positive from the announcements by the Kaduna, Katsina and Zamfara governments is that it shows that these states are starting to coordinate better among themselves, considering the uniformity of the measures. However, these measures need to be in synergy with kinetic and non-kinetic measures by the Federal Government, particularly as they relate to the deployment of security personnel to combat the bandits, improve border security and mop up illegal arms and weapons in the region. However, these measures illustrate the limited options at their disposal for dealing with the insecurity in their states, considering that they do not have operational control of any security agency and are not empowered by law to create such. On the flip side, these measures could have negative economic impacts on residents and may cause the loss of livelihoods for rural dwellers. A possible unintended consequence is it could drive legitimate economic activities, such as trading, underground (and in collusion with bandits), thus creating the opposite effect of enabling, not combating insecurity. Alternatively, it could see the migration of farmers and business owners to major urban centres – Gusau, Jibiya, Kaduna, Katsina and Zaria – which have been mostly unaffected by the insecurity, or across the border to the Niger Republic, further worsening economic indices in rural communities, forcing more people into lucrative criminal gangs and increasing crime in these cities. The future consequences, if not addressed rapidly, will force poor farmers in affected areas to devise dubious means of smuggling their goods to support their families and farmlands. In effect, people would resort to illegality as a means to cope with rising criminality. State governments can surely think of better ways other than compelling people to make harsh life and death decisions.

At least 1409 students have been kidnapped from their schools in Nigeria since the first incident in the country’s latest school abduction epidemic which started in March 2020. In the 19 incidents up until the latest kidnap in Zamfara state, 17 teachers have also been kidnapped alongside their students, and at least ₦220 million has been paid out as ransoms. Unfortunately, 16 of the victims have died in these incidents. 

Stare decisis
Nigeria’s Chief Justice Ibrahim Muhammad has summoned six chief judges over conflicting orders issued in their courts. The CJN issued the summons on Monday, requesting that the judges explain their recent court orders. In recent weeks, the chief judges had issued conflicting orders on issues bordering on the chairmanship tussle of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and the gubernatorial logjam of the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA) in Anambra State. Those summoned by the CJN are the chief judges of Anambra, Cross River, Imo, Jigawa, Kebbi and Rivers. The CJN complained about the “huge embarrassment” caused by those who issued conflicting orders upon ex-parte applications by some political parties. The affected judges are to first appear before the CJN after which they will face the National Judicial Council (NJC) to explain what informed the issuance of the conflicting orders by courts of coordinate jurisdiction. “My attention has been drawn to media reports to the effect that some courts of coordinate jurisdiction were granting conflicting ex-parte orders on the same subject matter,” the summons reads. “It has become expedient for me to invite you for a detailed briefing on the development. This is even more compelling having regard to earlier NJC warning to judicial officers on the need to be circumspect in granting ex-parte applications,” the statement continued. The Nigerian Bar Association says it was “worried about this prevailing trend, its ridiculing effect on the profession and the attendant repercussions to Nigeria’s democracy.” NBA National President, Olumide Akpata, in a statement added that senior lawyers were perpetuating conduct which was “responsible for the unrelenting embarrassment of our judiciary in political matters.” The umbrella association of Nigerian lawyers said it will be considering deterrence options against its members involved in such conduct.

The declining quality of judicial pronouncements over the last several years is having an impact on the country’s democracy. With mere weeks until the Anambra governorship elections, there is no clarity on who the main candidates are due to the glaring inconsistencies of a myriad of court rulings. Added to the mix, this has led many close watchers of Nigeria’s judicial system to fear the worst for that storied institution, typically held up as the last hope of the common man. The summons from the Chief Justice could not have come at a better time, and hopefully, it will ensure consistency in pronouncements from courts of coordinate jurisdiction. Another issue that needs to be addressed is the apparent abuse of ex-parte rulings, that is, those issued without the other party present. It is clear that the frequency with which ex-parte rulings are issued must be checked, and only given as a last resort. As we head into a crucial political season with many changes likely, Nigeria’s judiciary must first recognise that it is knee-deep in an identity crisis that has left millions of Nigerians resorting to alternative dispute resolution mechanisms from often rogue state and non-state actors. It must ensure that the rulings from its various courts stand up to scrutiny to preserve what integrity is left in our nascent political process. Any other outcome is capable of adding fuel to an already raging fire and further imperilling one of this country’s oldest institutions.

Clear as mud
The Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS) says it will continue to collect Value Added Tax (VAT) from businesses operating in the country. Executive Chairman Muhammed Nami, made this known in a letter dated 24 August and addressed to Lagos Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice, Moyosore Onigbanjo. The Lagos state government had directed the FIRS to stop issuing demand notices for payment of VAT in the state and to render accounts, within seven days, of all sums collected as VAT in the current accounting cycle in the state. The state government premised its demands on the decision of the Federal High Court in Port Harcourt, Rivers State. The court had issued an order restraining FIRS from collecting VAT and Personal Income Tax (PIT) in the state. The landmark judgement also implies that other state governments can follow and collect VAT in their jurisdictions. But the FIRS had announced that the court ruling has been appealed, adding that it has also filed a stay of execution and advised the public to maintain a status-quo on the payment of the taxes. In the letter addressed to the Lagos commissioner, Nami said since the Rivers court decision has been appealed, “the law does not allow a party to a suit to carry out an action to forestall the decision of the appellate court once an appeal has been entered”. It added that there were contrary rulings by similar courts on the same matter. FIRS added that parties must maintain the status quo until the decision of the appeal court. “The instant judgement of the Federal High Court, Rivers State, is in conflict with the extant judgement of the Federal High Court, Kogi State on the same subject matter i.e. the validity of VAT Act as administered by the Service,” the letter reads. “The conflict created by the later judgement can only be resolved by the appellate court, and the right of the appellate court in this wise should not be compromised. “In view of the foregoing, parties have to maintain the status quo ante (i.e. their positions before the instant judgement of the Federal High Court, Rivers State). The FIRS shall continue to collect VAT and administer the VAT Act until the final resolution of the legal dispute by the relevant appellate court.” In response, Lagos’s Commissioner for Information and Strategy, Gbenga Omotoso, said the state’s position is “an appeal [and] not a stay of execution. For us in Lagos, our position is that we have the backing of the law to demand & collect VAT. The court has ruled and we are following the judgment.”

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In this editorial last week, we implied that the FG would fight tooth and nail to maintain the status quo and that the wealthy states, including Lagos, would be the most motivated to implement the Federal High Court judgement. Until this matter is settled at the Supreme Court, we expect all sides on this matter to stick to their positions. A curious point to note is how many states will be able to implement VAT collection if the Supreme Court decides in favour of the states; particularly those which have a stated aversion to alcohol and cigarette consumption. Overall, Nigeria needs to adopt a more serious and businesslike approach to taxation, considering that its tax-to-GDP ratio (6.3%) is way below the African average (a 30-nation survey by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in 2018) of 16.5%; which is itself lower than Latin America and the Caribbean (23.1%). There are indications that some state governments are not bullish on taxation as it pressurizes them to be accountable to taxpayers whereas the current lazy approach of disbursing oil receipts and VAT proceeds shared by Abuja is politically comfortable. Despite that, the days of unaccountable governance may be slowly fading into the moonlight.

Remittance, crypto and eNaira
Nigeria’s central bank plans to own a stake in Bitt Inc., the preferred partner helping the regulator implement its digital currency initiative eNaira. Financial site Nairametrics cited unnamed “reliable sources within the central bank” as saying that one of the conditions being considered for accepting Bitt is for the company to register in Nigeria as a limited liability company allowing the central bank to own shares in its Nigerian entity. The site reports that the Central Bank of Nigeria sees this partnership as mutually beneficial. The CBN reported on Monday that it had selected Bitt from “among highly competitive bidders” and will rely on it to actualise its naira digitisation plans. Media reports say there were over 100 bidders made up of local and foreign potential partners but the CBN went with Bitt on the back of its experience in implementing this in five countries including the Bahamas. There was some backlash from local fintech operators on social media who believed the contract should have been awarded to a local company. Some alluded to the CBN’s decision being tantamount to impinging on Nigeria’s sovereignty. Nairametrics says Bitt’s role is to help mint and distribute the digital currency while local companies are expected to assist with building other capabilities with it such as leveraging on the eNaira to help with remittances, a key objective of the project. The CBN expects the eNaira to be the backbone for digital-enabled financial transactions in Nigeria such as enabling payment by utility companies, helping the government collect taxes and facilitating e-commerce. In a presentation to Nigerian banks, the CBN said the digital currency will have non-interest-bearing CBDC status, a transaction limit for customers, and a value-based transaction limit. Participants in the e-Naira program are featured in five stages, including a Monetary Authority Suite, a Financial Institution Suite; an eGovernment Suite and a Retail Consumer Suite. “It shall be the responsibility of Nigerian banks to promote and market the centrally issued digital currency as a cash alternative to existing and potential customers in support of the Nigerian apex bank’s goal for financial inclusion,” the document read in part. To catalyse the adoption of the e-Naira, banks will “facilitate onboarding and provide world-class customer service.” As part of the digital currency initiative, the monetary regulator says the Nigeria Inter-Bank Settlement System Plc (NIBSS) and other switching platforms will still be relevant; existing infrastructure will be integrated into the e-Naira implementation.

There are important concerns about the utility of a digital currency and why one of the world’s most controlling central banks is spearheading the development of a monetary instrument which in theory should enable the democratisation of currency access and value. A quick detour, however, is necessary to address a key issue that has dominated the discourse around the eNaira – the nationality of its executing partner. While the talk has mostly been about how a foreign company won this contract, that should not be the focus – as long as the bid was competitive and if the country is getting the best service available. It will be in the public interest for the CBN, an institution not renowned for its transparency, to publish some information on the bidders and its bid evaluation criteria to enable an independent assessment of the process. Notwithstanding the above, the CBN should have utilised the opportunity to either use a local partner (Nigeria’s fintech industry is one of its few economic supernovas) or made partnership with a Nigerian company a prerequisite for any foreign firm to get the contract. The CBN may try to justify its decision by saying that Bitts has a track record but the fact is this remains a novel concept and Bitts did not have any track record in this space just a few years ago. It is important in an emerging enterprise that is not operational in many countries, including advanced ones, that Nigerian companies are perceived to be at the leading edge of innovation, just as their Chinese counterparts are with green energy and artificial intelligence or the European Union is with data science and sovereignty, In the case of China and the EU, those industries were cultivated by precision-guided policymaking, smart regulation and a long-term focus. In that sense, the CBN’s choice represents a missed opportunity. To the merits of the initiative, the eNaira program, despite the drip-drop of information about how it will look in practice, still appears esoteric and its benefits unclear to most Nigerians. The brick and mortar currency presently suffers from market concerns about the unholy trinity of its value, convertibility and regulatory provenance. The naira’s value maintains nominal stasis officially even when fundamentals don’t support it, that value is difficult to transfer to other currencies in an era where most currencies become other currencies with the click of a mouse and it is managed by a regulator which has an unwholesome propensity to tinker with economic fundamentals – including whole sectors – to artificially protect it for the benefit of a moneyed elite whose interests are often at odds with most economic participants. How the eNaira solves these problems remains a mystery. What is not mysterious, however, is that the CBN is infatuated with control and power. It simply wants to determine who holds the national currency, at what price they do and what they do with it. When seen from that standpoint, a digital naira, which if allowed to be a truly digital currency should facilitate payments outside of a regulator’s control, is befuddling. Away from the fancy presentations, evasive press statements and banking jargon, Godwin Emefiele and his board have some honest explaining to do if Nigerians will end up dropping their physical notes for what increasingly looks like a bytes dream.

From Riyadh with love
Operatives of the Department of State Services on 26 August dispersed medical doctors, who stormed the Sheraton Hotels, Abuja, to take part in the recruitment interview organised by the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Health. Hundreds of medical consultants had been attending the Ladi Kwali Hall of the hotel to participate in the recruitment, while another exercise was scheduled for Thursday. The DSS operatives stormed the hotel on Thursday morning and dispersed the doctors and journalists, who gathered at the venue. A journalist with the International Centre for Investigative Reporting, Marcus Fatunde, was arrested at the venue but was released later. The Punch newspaper quoted an eyewitness as saying that the recruiters had to suspend the exercise because the FG said it felt embarrassed by the news.

The DSS’s action is yet another window into what the domestic intelligence agency considers as its core security priorities: the safeguarding of the regime and its image rather than legitimate domestic threats to the lives, properties and livelihoods of Nigerian citizens. Nigeria’s security services respond speedily to what they consider as threats against the government, even if it means disregarding the civil liberties of citizens – one of which is enshrined in Section 40 of the Constitution which provides that “every person shall be entitled to assemble freely and associate with other persons, and in particular he [and she] may form or belong to any political party, trade union or any other association for the protection of his interests. Paradoxically, the action of the DSS will only serve Aso Rock more harm than good with the attendant negative publicity that has arisen from it. Abuja has consistently proven – through industrial actions and countless negotiation efforts – that it is far from (and probably incapable) of meeting the demands of Nigerian doctors in its employ; a large proportion of whom are currently on strike. On a more general level, Nigeria is in the midst of a massive emigration event, the second since dwindling oil income and adverse economic conditions in the mid-1980s to late-1990s led to hundreds of thousands migrating to other countries, primarily Europe, North America and Asia and created one of the largest diasporas in the world; one which grew to 1.24 million according to the United Nations in 2017. This time around, Africa’s largest economy is barely crawling from its second recession in six years, and policymakers have done little to address the rising economic anxieties of Nigerians. Furthermore, the country’s politics is so broken that politicians live on a planet of patronage-fuelled excess and indifference while millions of voters exist in another world where poverty, violence, oppression, hunger and frustration are daily realities. With these hard choices, people are increasingly voting with their feet – almost half of Nigerian adults in a 2018 Pew Research Center survey said they will leave the country over the next five years. When such determination runs into the wall of state-sponsored oppression – the very kind that people are seeking to escape from – there will only be one winner. Abuja will not stop Nigerian doctors from emigrating to other countries where they will enjoy better conditions of service; it will merely drive the recruitment online and/or underground. The DSS can huff and puff all it wants but nothing will stop Nigerians of all stripes from getting off this train.

Gun runs and other tales
Three residents of Maryland in the United States, have been indicted over allegations of exporting arms and ammunition to Nigeria. According to a statement issued on 27 August by the US Department of Justice, the indictment was announced by Jonathan F. Lenzner, Acting US Attorney for the District of Maryland; James R. Mancuso, Special Agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), Baltimore; and Timothy Jones, Special Agent in charge of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), Baltimore field division. The suspects — listed as 45-year-old Wilson Nuyila Tita of Owings Mills, Maryland; 40-year-old Eric Fru Nji of Fort Washington, Maryland; and Wilson Che Fonguh of Bowie, Maryland, aged 39 — are alleged to have exported arms and ammunition to Nigeria illegally. “A federal grand jury has returned an indictment charging three Maryland men for the federal charges of conspiracy, violation of the Arms Export Control Act and the Export Reform Control Act, related to the export of firearms and ammunition from the United States to Nigeria,” the statement reads. According to the four-count indictment, from at least November 2017 through July 19, 2019, the defendants conspired with each other and with others to export from the United States to Nigeria defence articles and items identified on the United States Munitions List (“USML”) and the Commerce Control List (“CCL”) without first obtaining export licenses.“The defendants also allegedly conspired to conceal from the United States that those items were being shipped from the Port of Baltimore to Nigeria and at least one other location in Africa. The defendants and their co-conspirators allegedly contributed funds for the purchase of firearms, ammunition, reloading materials and other equipment for shipping overseas. “The indictment alleges that the defendants and their co-conspirators communicated about their efforts and plans to ship weapons and ammunition using an online encrypted messaging application and code words to conceal their activities. If found guilty, the suspects will face “a mandatory sentence of five years in federal prison for the conspiracy; a maximum of 20 years in federal prison each for violating the Arms Export Control Act and for violating the Export Control Reform Act; and a maximum of five years in federal prison for transportation of a firearm with an obliterated serial number. 

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Although the destination of the arms and ammunition is stated as Nigeria in the indictment, there are indications that the ultimate home for the arms was the western regions of Cameroon, where a secessionist movement seeking the formation of the Federal Republic of Amazonia has taken root. The intended breakaway region, which used to be the British-administered Southern Cameroons until 1961, shares a fairly long border (and cultural, linguistic and economic linkages) with Nigeria – especially along Cross River and Taraba on the Nigerian side. This highlights the use of Nigeria as an entrepôt for the smuggling of illegal arms not just to Cameroon, but across the Gulf of Guinea. It also tallies with the increase in piracy in the region; up to 90% of maritime kidnappings globally were in the Gulf of Guinea as of mid-2020. Although there has been a decline in incidents, the region remains a hotspot for maritime crimes. Arms traffickers and other criminals continue to take advantage of weak policing, inferior intelligence gathering, and the labyrinth of creeks and waterways in the Niger Delta for their nefarious activities. It is also possible that this smuggling is facilitated by collaboration between the Ambazonian separatists and local criminal groups such as ex-Niger Delta militants who dominate the maritime kidnapping business. If anything, the separatists are looking further afield; in May this year, a formal alliance was announced between a supposed leader of the Ambazonia Governing Council with the Independent Peoples’ of Biafra (IPOB). Though the arms in question are said to have been smuggled between November 2017 and July 2019, it is still possible that elements within both groups collaborate on fronts such as facilitating the transfer of weapons from eastern Nigeria to southern Cameroon and providing refuge for each other within their domains. The two groups share a lot of similarities: both are funded mostly by foreign-based supporters with filial roots in their regions, and both have been similarly met by hard crackdowns by their respective governments. The timing of the arms smuggling suggests that it was during the heydays of the Anglophone crisis in Cameroon, which started in September 2017 till date. The crisis has not only confounded the Cameroonian military, which is also being kept busy by Islamist insurgent groups in the Adamawa and Far North regions, it also represents a risky existence for residents – who have to work a tight rope to show sufficient loyalty to the country’s military and still ensure not to appear to be tattlers to the Ambazonia Restoration Forces (ARFs) who deal ruthlessly with alleged spies. With an increase in attacks with improvised explosive devices by the ARFs, we are likely to see an increase in refugees in Nigeria to Akwa Ibom, Cross River and Taraba. The Nigerian government needs to intensify efforts to secure the Gulf of Guinea, and particularly the Niger Delta to checkmate the smuggling of arms in the region which have a direct impact on national and regional security.

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