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Why arming officials won’t make Ghana’s borders safer

Security at border crossings in West Africa has increased. Wikimedia Commons

Rising levels of insecurity in the West African sub region have led to some countries taking measures to protect their citizens from violence. These include Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Nigeria and Mali. All have adopted various security measures in response to terrorist activities occurring in these countries.

The effect of these actions is that jihadists and criminals have sought to move to neighbouring countries.

To manage the situation, Ghana has taken pre-emptive measures. One was the decision to amend the law that guides the country’s immigration service to deal with terrorism and other violent crime from neighbouring states. Passed three years ago, Ghana’s Immigration Service Act allowed the country’s immigration officers, for the first time since independence, to bear arms at border posts.

The amendments might be well intentioned. But, on its own, arming border guards to fight terrorism and smuggling isn’t sufficient. This is because the threats that face Ghana are mostly homegrown and not imported via the country’s porous borders.

Clearing the way for weapons

In February 2016, then deputy Interior Minister James Agalga announced that the Ghana Immigration Service had been cleared to bear ammunition. Ghana’s parliament had passed the Immigration Service Act states that:

An officer may, in the discharge of duties under this Act or any other enactment, use firearms.

He explained that the decision to arm the service was part of efforts by the government to ensure that state security agencies had the necessary means to fight terrorism. He indicated that because the personnel of the Immigration Service had no power to wield or use arms, they could not deal with people who were violating the country’s immigration laws.

It is obviously important to protect the lives of the personnel of the service and those of civilians. But it’s not clear how arming immigration officers can achieve this. The reason is that small arms fire is not a useful defence against the assault methods chosen by terrorists. Terror attacks involve:

  • Covert assaults and suicide bombings. On August 28, 2018, seven armed security forces were killed after their vehicle struck a roadside bomb near Fada N'gourma in Burkina Faso. On 11 August, 2018, four gendarmes and a civilian were killed when their vehicle struck a mine about 60 miles from Fada N'gourma. The deadliest ever terrorist attacks in recent times have been suicide attacks. Side arms can’t stop suicide bombings. Armed security officials were killed in the examples above, and many more can be cited in Nigeria. Even where some attacks are predicted, side arms are not the best option. Prevention requires pre-emptive intelligence, so information is key.

  • The use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) because they are easy to make and difficult to detect. The Manchester Arena and Boston Marathon attacks are cases in point.

What the government should do

To confront terrorism or any cross-border crime it’s necessary to treat the root causes and not just the symptoms. Corruption in the security system is key in this respect.

Defence corruption is not just a waste of public resources, it actually enables insurgency. Nigeria is a typical example. By the time Muhammadu Buhari took over as president, there was massive corruption in the military. It was established at the time that corruption was responsible for the Boko Haram taking over 14 local government areas.

Buhari replaced top military officers deemed to have corruptly enriched themselves with funds meant for the military or acted unprofessionally. The level of terrorism is not same today as it was when Buhari took over.

The first step would be to enhance border control systems that are built on trust and cordial relations between border security officials and local border communities for intelligence information gathering purposes.

The second step would be to root out corruption among border officials. Recent research by the local chapter of Transparency International, Ghana Integrity Initiative, points to some security institutions being among the most corrupt in the country. An effective reform programme that addresses, among other things, corruption in the security services is needed so that these organisations can pre-empt any terrorist activities. This can be done by improving infrastructure for border officers. Government should also focus on upgrading human and institutional capacity while investing in automation and computerisation. Finally improved salaries as well as oversight are needed.

Two further important elements are public support and government legitimacy. Experience of countries such as the attacks on two mosques at Christchurch in New Zealand and the Indian-administered territory of Jammu and Kashimir shows that these factors are key to fighting terrorism against the state and its citizens.

This points to the need for strong information gathering systems. Reporting suspicions of any looming violence to the police by the citizens is key. It’s therefore important for border officers and police officers to build relations with the citizens so that a citizen-oriented approach to policing through information gathering becomes an important link to counter insurgency, smuggling, terrorism and violent crime.

This can only work effectively if citizens are well informed about potential criminal activity and also if officers act professionally. Fairness, impartiality, accessibility and respect for local people are paramount.

A well trained and well resourced immigration service is critical to fight terrorism and border crime – both from outside the country’s borders and from within.

The reform should also involve standard operating procedures and regular reviews to ensure that officers have a good understanding of how terrorism and related violent crimes can be fought.

Even where hard border security exists, either in the form of physical infrastructure or where people are stopped and searched, it is important for the immigration officers to work closely with local communities, and maybe even beyond, to help in information gathering for prompt action to be taken to avert any potential violent crime.

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