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African securitySelf-help vigilante groups are reshaping security against Boko Haram

By Chukwuma Al Okoli

Published 25 July 2017

Boko Haram militants have killed more than 20,000 people and displaced more than two million others in north east Nigeria since 2009. The militants left government and its security forces looking powerless and people in the region helpless. No place was safe. Rather than flee, join the insurgents, or risk being killed, some chose a fourth option – self- defense. People began to organize into emergency community vanguards to defend themselves. The involvement of vigilantes in counter-insurgency operations in Nigeria has been a subject of contentious debate. It’s apparent that they have contributed to improving security for some communities. But there are also concerns that in the long run they could pose a threat given their heavy-handed approach. Examples include extra-judicial killings, violation of human rights, extortion and criminal impunity.

Boko Haram militants have killed more than 20,000 people and displaced more than two million others in north east Nigeria since 2009.

At the height of its activities between 2009 and 2015, the insurgents attacked a range of targets leaving death and destruction in their wake. These include churches, mosques, schools, universities, markets, police stations and even military installations. They bombed locations, attacked with guns, raped women, killed children, took hostages and occupied territories.

The militants left government and its security forces looking powerless and people in the region helpless. No place was safe.

Under siege, communities in the north east were faced with three options. They could flee, join the insurgents, or risk being killed. Many took the first option and fled to safer destinations. Those who stayed were compelled to either join Boko Haram or risk being slaughtered.

But a fourth option emerged – self- defense. People began to organize into emergency community vanguards to defend themselves. Community vigilante movements were born in several communities across the region.

One of the first Civilian Joint Task Force was formed in early 2013 in Adamawa State in north east Nigeria. It was made up of community vigilante formations, including neighborhood guards and hunters guilds. The task force carries out community policing through reconnaissance. The members watch over the community and accost any strange or suspicious people that enter. They operate in cells and carry a combination of traditional and modern weapons. They mount road blocks, conduct area patrols, mount guards at entry points and borderlines of their communities.

Generally, the involvement of vigilantes in counter-insurgency operations in Nigeria has been a subject of contentious debate. It’s apparent that they have contributed to improving security for some communities. But there are also concerns that in the long run they could pose a threat given their heavy-handed approach. Examples include extra-judicial killings, violation of human rights, extortion and criminal impunity.

What they have done
The vigilante groups are based on three models. The first is communal neighborhood guards, the second the village hunters’ guild, and the third is the government recognized Civilian Joint Task Force. Communal neighborhood guards are village based vigilante outfits dedicated to community defense. Hunter’s guild is the vanguard of traditional hunters and warriors that intervenes to reinforce the operation.