Ammunition in Nigeria
Confiscated ammunition is displayed after a military raid on a hideout of suspected Islamist Boko Haram members in Nigeria's northern city of Kano August 11, 2012. Reuters

Some unlucky Russians landed in hot water this week when authorities in Nigeria decided to charge them with bringing illegal weapons into the country.

The 15 men were crew members on a vessel called the Myre Seadiver. It had stopped in the Nigerian port city of Lagos, but was seized when officials there sound a small cache of weapons on board, including 14 AK-47 rifles, 22 Benelli MR1 rifles, and thousands of rounds of ammunition.

The Nigerian navy, which seized the vessel in October and has detained the crew ever since, argues that the ship lacked permission to dock at Lagos and had no license to carry arms. On Tuesday, a court in Lagos formally charged the crew members with illegal transport of weapons.

The Russian Foreign Ministry has condemned the captivity of the crew; authorities in Moscow complained that the Nigerian Foreign Ministry had reneged on a promise to release the detainees.

"The Russian Foreign Ministry will continue seeking the prompt release of our compatriots to Russia," said the statement.

But Nigerian officials argue that national security concerns oblige them to take the crew members to trial.

“This is a Russian vessel that is flying a Dutch Island flag and carrying arms and ammunition without any document to show why it should be in Nigerian waters,” Rear Adm. Amin Ikioda told the Daily Trust, a Nigerian newspaper. “All this put together raises suspicion.”

The Myre Seadiver incident is much more than a diplomatic spat. It has raised alarm bells over Russia’s role in illicit arms trading in West Africa, a region that has been plagued by bloody conflicts and militant uprisings.

But while Russians -- perhaps including the 15 currently in detention in Lagos -- certainly play a role in small arms proliferation in Nigeria and surrounding countries, that doesn’t mean the Kremlin is necessarily at the root of the problem.

No Easy Exchange

Russia’s weapons sales overseas totaled $14 billion last year, ranking second only to the United States. But keeping that figure up will be difficult; Alexander Fomin, the head of Russia’s Federal Military-Technical Cooperation Service, told Ria Novosti this month that Russia is losing weapons markets around the world.

“This is connected to the conflicts and wars,” he said. “Cooperation with Libya has stopped temporarily, and there's a slump in deliveries to Egypt and Iran; our work with Syria is being impeded. That's a fact. We've lost Iraq and we've almost lost Afghanistan.”

He added that Africa and Latin America are home to key markets that could pick up that slack.

Nigeria in particular may seem like an ideal arms trading partner for Russia. Both countries are major oil producers -- Russia ranks first globally with 10.2 million barrels a day of production, and Nigeria comes in 12th with 2.5 million. They have a strong diplomatic relationship and are energy partners; Nigeria’s state-owned oil company kicked off a joint venture with Russia’s gas company Gazprom in 2009. (The US$2.5 billion deal made headlines for all the wrong reasons; it was called Nigaz, an unfortunate portmanteau that was mocked by English speakers around the world.)

But in Nigeria, legal trade in small arms and light weapons, or SALW, isn’t exactly booming.

That’s because the Economic Community of West African States, or Ecowas -- Nigeria is a member -- has taken steps to curtail the proliferation of SALW in the region. A 1998 moratorium on the import and exports of these weapons, dating from the Sierra Leone and Liberia civil wars, was made legally binding in 2006.

“The intent of the moratorium is to prohibit the transfer of small arms across state borders within the region. The agreement states that such transfers are banned, although exemptions may be granted for national security purposes or in support of regional peacekeeping missions,” says David Kinsella, a professor of political science at Portland State University who researches the illicit arms trade.

Ecowas has also implemented a Program for Coordination and Assistance for Security and Development in Africa, or PCASED, to enforce the rules and to collect and destroy surplus weapons.

“The enforcement of the transfer ban and regulation of production very much depends on the capacity and willingness of state agencies to follow through,” says Kinsella. “Nigeria seems to be taking it seriously.”

Domestic Disturbances

The Nigerian government is keen to regulate SALW trade because it threatens to exacerbate militant activity within its borders, especially when arms make their way to illicit markets.

The roots of dissent in Nigeria are deep. Crude oil revenues have helped the sub-Saharan country achieve an impressive GDP of about $235 billion, but more than half of the population lives below the poverty line. The unemployment rate is over 20 percent. Infrastructure, especially in the country's rural areas, is woefully underdeveloped. A pattern of fiscal mismanagement has discouraged international investment and assistance.

Over the past decade, the country had suffered attacks, kidnappings and oil thefts perpetrated by combatants who criticize the government for its inability to translate oil wealth into growth.

Religious conflicts also plague this country of 162 million people, pitting the more underdeveloped and mostly Muslim north against the predominantly Christian south. A militant group called Boko Haram was founded in 2002 and has killed more than 1,000 people since it accelerated military activities three years ago. The organization seeks to establish Islamic law in northern Nigeria.

In short, weapons that fall into the wrong hands constitute a serious threat to Nigerian security. So when the Myre Seadiver was found to have a cache of rifles and ammunition on board, it is no wonder they were not easily pardoned by the authorities at Lagos.

Back in the USSR

While the incident has put a strain on Russia’s relationship with Nigeria, Moscow’s interests in this case may be limited to the safety of its 15 citizens.

“Just because the crew members [in Nigeria] are Russian, that doesn’t mean the government was behind it,” says Matt Schroeder, an analyst for the Federation of American Scientists and Small Arms Survey.

Indeed, the ship in question was owned not by the Russian government but by Moran Security Group, an international company based in Moscow.

“Of course, any country’s export policy plays a role in how vulnerable their weapons are to diversion, so the Russian government can have a hand in reducing that vulnerability,” says Schroeder, but he adds that some weapons have been in circulation for decades -- since the Soviet era -- and are now beyond the control of Russian arms regulators.

Under the Warsaw Pact, which was signed in 1955 and disbanded in 1991, Soviet forces and their allies cooperated in the manufacture and distribution of arms large and small -- a high degree of interoperability was one of the program’s major achievements. It was during this time that the Avtomat Kalashnikova -- the famous AK-47 -- was widely distributed throughout the Eastern bloc. Still today, the rifle’s durability, ease of use and wide proliferation make it a tool favored by militant groups around the world.

When these weapons turn up in destabilizing conflicts, efforts to trace them back to an identifiable source are confounded by the fact that a significant portion of them have ultimate roots in the USSR -- an entity that exists only in history.

“Warsaw Pact weapons have a big role in the illicit arms trade, but tracking individual weapons back to the ultimate source, let alone identifying official complicity in anything illicit, is extremely difficult and can only be done on a case-by-case basis,” says Schroeder.

Tough Break

It is safe to say that Russians do play a role as arms traffickers in Nigeria -- but Moscow cooperation could be minimal, if it exists at all.

“Russians have been very active in the illicit SALW trade to West Africa over the years, not only as suppliers, but also as brokers, financiers, and transporters. I say ‘Russians,’ not the Russian government,” says Kinsella.

“Some government officials may be implicated – some active participants, or some simply willing to look the other way while others do the dirty work – but I doubt that the government is very involved in directing SALW transfers from or through Russian territory.”

As for the 15 crewmembers aboard the Myre Seadiver, their fate is now in the hands of the Nigerian judiciary -- trial will begin on Feb. 25.

The men have some facts going for them. Given the rather small number of rifles reportedly found aboard their vessel, it is possible the weapons were for the crew’s own protection in pirate-infested waters -- or for the protection of other vessels whose operators were clients of Moran. Furthermore, Moran has argued, the Myre Seadiver was only attempting to stop in Lagos to change crew en route to Conakry, Guinea.

But that may not be enough to protect the crew from a conviction -- especially since Nigeria has plenty of motivation to enforce its SALW regulations vigorously.