How We Stopped Boko Haram From Acquiring Weapons Of Mass Destruction –...

How We Stopped Boko Haram From Acquiring Weapons Of Mass Destruction – OPCW [INTERVIEW]

By Vanguard on November 8, 2015
The scene of a bombing at the Emab business centre is pictured filled with wreckages of burnt cars, at the business district in Abuja June 26, 2014. | Reuters/Afolabi Sotunde

Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), otherwise known as chemical weapons, are unconventional ammunition feared world-wide because they can be easily produced by terrorists, but have devastating effects. Saddam Hussein, the late Iraqi dictator, used them against a section of his people, killing hundreds of thousands of Kurds opposed to him and it was one of the reasons the United States led a coalition of the world powers to oust his regime during the ‘Gulf War’. Over time, WMD have been used by terrorists across the world.

Dr. Olufemi Elias is Legal Adviser and Director at the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) at the Hague, Netherlands. The son of Dr. Teslim Elias, the first indigenous Attorney-General of Nigeria, and former President of the International Court of Justice, in this online interview, speaks on how OPCW is helping Nigeria to stop Boko Haram insurgents from acquiring WMD, among other issues.

Dr. Olufemi Elias | Vanguard
Dr. Olufemi Elias | Vanguard

Activities of the OPCW

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) is an inter-governmental organisation comprising 192 member-states. The OPCW was set up as an independent, autonomous international organisation with a working relationship with the United Nations. The main function of the organisation is to ensure the implementation of the provisions established in the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). The OPCW’s activities therefore focus on demilitarization, non-proliferation, assistance and protection, international cooperation, universality and national implementation.

The OPCW was awarded the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize for her work in the demobilization and destruction of chemical weapons in Syria.  In collaboration with state parties, the OPCW Technical Secretariat provides funds and expertise necessary for the destruction of chemical weapons in the Syrian Arab Republic. The OPCW also encourages states to ensure peaceful production chemical materials. This is done by periodic inspection of chemical industries by the inspectorate division.


The first preamble to the CWC restates the determination of the State Parties to achieve effective progress towards disarmament under strict and effective international control. This includes the prohibition and elimination of all types of weapons of mass destruction. In other words, the most important obligation for the Organisation under the CWC is the destruction of chemical weapons.

Destruction of chemical weapons is an expensive project requiring expertise, cooperation and capital. OPCW achieves her mandate by generating investment in state-of-the-art technology to ensure minimal risk to people and to the environment. Destruction of armaments, therefore, has to be carried out at highly specialized facilities. States Parties are obliged to place the highest priority on the safety of the people and on protecting the environment in carrying out their obligations under the CWC. It is the responsibility of the Technical Secretariat to verify the destruction of chemical weapons as well as the irreversibility of the destruction.

Responsibilities of the Legal Adviser

The Legal Adviser is the in-house counsel or the OPCW. It provides legal advice to the Conference of States Parties and the Executive Council, the Director-General and branches and divisions within the Technical Secretariat. Such advice could be on matters related to the interpretation of the CWC, the rules of procedure of, and decisions of, the Conference and the Executive Council, internal legislation within the Organisation such as the Staff Regulations and Interim Staff Rules, the OPCW Financial Regulations and Rules, and Administrative Directives adopted thereunder.

It also defends the OPCW against claims filed by external contractors and staff and other entities in internal and external fora. It also deals with legal issues involving the privileges and immunities of the OPCW and its relations with the host country.

The Office of the Legal Adviser also advises the Director-General and units within the Technical Secretariat in the negotiation, preparation, conclusion and interpretation of international agreements relating to verification activities (facility agreements), and relationship agreements with other international organisation. It provides legal advice relating to procurement and provides support to the Technical Secretariat on other matters as required.

How can developing nations like Nigeria benefit from the work of the OPCW?

Interestingly, out of 54 independent states in Africa, about 52 are members of the organisation. Africa thus forms a united front to contribute to the OPCW and also benefit from their membership. Nigeria, which has been a State Party to the CWC, plays a prominent role in the African group of States at the OPCW. The Organisation has partnered with the Nigerian government since she signed the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1993. Several Nigerian scientists have participated in the capacity building courses funded by the Organisation. Going forward, Nigerian scientists will hopefully continue to avail themselves of the several opportunities provided by the OPCW as highlighted earlier.

Developing nations benefit from several capacity-building projects of the OPCW such as the annual Associate Programme. This programme equips scientists drawn from different countries on the dynamics of chemical production and safe handling. Over the years, several scientists from developing countries have participated in this OPCW sponsored programme.  The aim is to train the trainers and impart them with current and comprehensive knowledge about the chemical industry.

Furthermore, Article X of the Chemical Weapons Convention enjoins States Parties to undertake certain obligations for assistance and protection in the event of chemical weapons attacks. To this end, States Parties under the Convention undertake to contribute to the voluntary fund for assistance and protection. This fund has been used to destroy stockpiles of declared chemical weapons in the developing countries across the globe.

Moreover, the OPCW has created a specific programme for Africa. The OPCW-Africa programme aims to respond to the particular needs of African States Parties. It also aims at contributing to the effective and non-discriminatory implementation of the Convention. This programme is strongly supported by regular budgets and voluntary contributions from Member- States/European Union and in- kind contribution. Additionally, the fellowship programme of the OPCW and the Research Projects Supports Programme (R.P.S.P) are designed to target developing countries towards enabling them develop expertise in the area of chemical weapons prevention and prohibition.

As Nigeria and other developing nations continue to battle terrorist insurgents, the Open-Ended Working Group on Terrorism (OEWG) was created by the organisation to inter alia initiate policies to ensure the accountability of non-state actors and that non-state actors – which would include Boko Haram, Al-Shabab, for example – do not gain access to chemical weapons. This OEWG was chaired most recently by the former Nigerian Permanent Representative to the OPCW, Her Excellency, Dr. (Mrs.) N. N. Akanbi (OON).

Hazards of Chemical Terrorism

The risks associated with chemical terrorism reach all corners of the world because of the global nature of the chemical industry itself, and the international trade in chemicals for lawful purposes.Moreover, the wide availability and accessibility of information about the toxicity of chemicals, and of knowledge to enable its misuse, also contribute to this risk. Exploitable vulnerability in chemical security anywhere in the world could therefore have effects thousands of kilometres away.

Some of the scenarios for chemical terrorism range from terrorists acquiring chemical weapons through the black market, by illicit trade or by theft from militarily secured stockpiles; acquiring or producing chemical agents, such as sarin, to be deployed with improvised device; to the terrorists finding ways to disperse toxic industrial chemicals such as chlorine, or to contaminate the food chain, for example with ricin; and using conventional means to attack. It could also take the form ofsabotaging assets such as chemical plants, toxic waste storage facilities, or strategic points in the supply chain such as a cargo ship, to cause dispersal of toxic chemicals into populated areas.

Specific steps to deny Boko Haram and other terrorists group access to chemical weapons?

The first and most important step to be taken by States Parties like Nigeria is to give the CWC the force of law in Nigeria. The CWC requires all States Parties to enact legislation to implement the provisions of the CWC at the national level under the coordination of national authority, which each State Party is required to establish.. This is the way in which the provisions of the CWC are transposed into national legal systems so that the rules can apply not only to the States Parties but also to individuals, corporations and other non-State actors under their jurisdiction. Nigeria’s national legislation is in progress and it is hoped that it will be passed as a matter of priority.

The provisions of the CWC, among other things, require States Parties to declare the import and export of listed chemicals specified in the Convention with the aim of minimising the risks of such chemicals being diverted for prohibited purposes. The OPCW works with the chemical industry towards promoting chemical security and thus ensure that toxic chemicals do not fall into the wrong hands. It encourages and assists states to implement programmes that promote chemical safety and security. Particular emphasis is given to small- and medium-sized enterprises, which often do not have well-defined programmes that are typically present in large enterprises. States are also encouraged tocooperate and exchange of information between law enforcement and the industry to prevent “black market” trade of toxic chemicals. The role of national law enforcement agencies, such police and customs, is paramount in this regard.

The Challenges of the OPCW

The major challenge before the OPCW is to complete the elimination of all chemical weapons and prevent their use, whether by states or non-state actors. Over the coming decade, the remaining declared chemical weapons stockpiles will be destroyed. Accordingly, the OPCW’s focus will shift from chemical disarmament to preventing the re-emergence of chemical weapons. This will require expanding the scope of the OPCW’s activities in several respects, including verification, capacity building, and engagement with stakeholders. The OPCW will also need to focus on ensuring the peaceful use of chemistry and fostering its beneficial uses, as will the development of capacity to provide assistance and protection against the use of chemical weapons. The OPCW must continue to work on facilitating the exchange of best practices, catalysing international partnerships and standards, and promoting national capabilities in the area of chemical security.


Dr. Olufemi Elias was born in Lagos, to the family of Dr. and Mrs Teslim Elias. (It will be recalled that my father was the first indigenous Attorney-General of Nigeria, and was later Chief Justice of the Federation and President and Judge of the International Court of Justice). Upon completing my primary and secondary education in Igbobi College, Yaba, I undertook my law studies in the UK, obtaining a Bachelor of Arts degree in Jurisprudence at the Oxford University, a Masters’ degree (First Class) from Cambridge and a doctorate degree in international law from the University College, University of London.

For more than two decades, I have served within academic and international circles. I am currently a Visiting Professor in international law at Queen Mary University of London. I have held professorial positions and has taught at several universities in various parts of the world.

I am currently the Legal Adviser and Director at the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in the Hague, Netherlands, which was awarded the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize. Prior to that, I was Executive Secretary at the World Bank in Washington DC. I was also a legal adviser at the United Nations Compensation Commission in Geneva, Switzerland, and also served as Special Assistant to the Executive Secretary of the Organisation.

Mr Elias is an Associate Member of the Institut de Droit International (translated: Institute of International Law). This is the foremost global institute of international law comprising world leading international law scholars and jurists. He is also the Secretary General of the African Association of International Law. As a prolific writer, he has authored and co-authored several books and articles published in different international journals. A music composer and producer, Mr. Olufemi Elias is happily married.

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