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. 

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.