Defense Mechanism—Makeshift
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Handcrafted designs arm vigilantes on religious fault lines

— Defense Mechanism

Mme Mme and Yaro sing along to Bob Marley as they drive outside Jos city to an unspecified location. The young men are on a business trip, looking to sell a stash of homemade weapons.Mme Mme and Yaro—who use nicknames—grew up in Jos, the capital of Plateau State, which sits on a religious fault line. A largely Muslim population lives to the north, while Christians mainly live in the south. Thousands have died in religious and ethnic clashes over the last decade.

The two friends, both under 30, joined the gun trade shortly after witnessing a tragic attack on Christmas Eve 2010, when Islamist group Boko Haram bombed a Christian area of Jos. “Nobody knew that something would happen like that; everyone was celebrating,” Mme Mme recalls. “It was painful.”

The attack gave rise to armed vigilante groups of both Muslims and Christians, who patrol their side of an invisible fence to protect against the ‘other’. Mme Mme and Yaro haven’t joined a group, but they’re indirectly linked through the weapons business, one of the few economic options in this disrupted region. For them the lines between right and wrong, legal and illegal aren’t black and white; they say they can protect their communities in this gray area.

Mme Mme, who is quiet and shy, helps build weapons and scavenge for parts. Yaro, the confident and outspoken one, mostly negotiates prices and screens potential buyers: civilians, and the occasional policeman. “We used to see guns only in action films,” Mme Mme recalls. Now he has a semi-automatic rifle hidden under his bed.

Made with harvested spare parts, the resulting product can be just as deadly as the original

Made with harvested spare parts, the resulting product can be just as deadly as the original

On their afternoon drive, the duo reaches a small rural village to negotiate a deal, pulling over into an open space: the soccer field of a small primary school. They enter a dilapidated classroom, with ABCs still scrawled on the blackboard. Mme Mme unwraps a stash of guns swaddled in cloth. Yaro negotiates the price with the customer, chatting back and forth with the gun’s maker, to confirm the final sale price.

Each gun costs between 7,000 and 15,000 naira (USD 32 to 75)—about one-tenth the price tag of black-market AK47s that come into Nigeria from places like Chad. Couriers and sellers get their own cut of each sale, anywhere from 1,000 to 3,000 naira (USD 5 to 15) per weapon.

After years of conflict, Plateau is a militarized state, with checkpoints dotting all main roads to and from Jos. Passengers caught stashing illegal arms could be fined 5,000 naira (USD 25), though a worse outcome is if authorities discover the weapons factory. So smugglers have devised a series of workarounds. They trek on foot over farmland with weapons stashed in backpacks, or travel by motorbike to avoid the roads with checkpoints. Couriers also hide guns in sacks holding food and other goods loaded in vehicles.

Mme Mme and Yaro say they’re surprised they ended up in this business. They had other plans for their future: to study, to start a clean enterprise. But the temptation proved too much, and the gig brings in enough money to keep them afloat. It also gives them a little sense of security in a chaotic time.

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