Self-help vigilante groups are reshaping security against Boko Haram

Since their emergence, vigilantes have contributed a great deal in the fight against the Boko Haram insurgency. They have reinforced and complemented the efforts of Nigeria’s Armed Forces, particularly in the areas of grassroots reconnaissance and intelligence.

Their cooperation and partnership with the military contributed to the finding of the first abducted Chibok Girl to escape from the militants in May 2016.

Despite their laudable achievements, there are legitimate concerns about the activities of vigilante groups. These include fears that their unguarded deployment could be counter-productive in the long run.

While they may be important in the short term in disrupting Boko Haram activities and serving as local partners in a successful counter terrorism strategy, arming militias is not a long-term policy. This is particularly true if unintended consequences are to be avoided.

Already there have been allegations of forced recruiting, child and woman soldiering and extra-judicial killings of suspected insurgents. In addition, there are fears that the vigilantes could degenerate and proliferate into mercenary militias.

But that’s not all. Vigilante activities often give rise to reprisal attacks on communities by the insurgents. The loose organizational and leadership structure of vigilante groups makes them susceptible to infiltration and internal sabotage.

For and against
The government and military have acknowledged the apparent successes of volunteer vigilantes in the fight against Boko Haram. But critics contend that vigilantes operate illegally, and argue that giving them a front line role in counter-insurgency operations implies that the state is abdicating its primary responsibility of ensuring sustainable national security.

Despite these misgivings, the justification for the vigilante approach to counter-insurgency can’t be disputed. Vigilante groups are uniquely poised to contribute to local security for a number of reasons. These include the fact that they are formed in response to specific issues and conditions. They are staffed by local volunteers who have knowledge of the area and trust of the local community.

So what should be done?

If vigilantes are going to continue in counter-insurgency operations in a way that’s fruitful and sustainable they must operate within the law and established rules of engagements. Their activities must be properly regulated and coordinated through legal and institutional procedures to prevent impunity and other excesses.

The government can institute policy and institutional mechanisms that absorbs the groups into community policing systems, existing paramilitary structures or institutionalize them into a national reserve force dedicated to emergency mobilization.

These measures would optimize the gains made and help manage abuses inherent in vigilante operations.

Chukwuma Al Okoli is Lecturer/Resident Researcher Department of Political Science, Federal University Lafia. This article is published courtesy of The Conversation (under Creative Commons-Attribution /No derivative).