War in Nigeria: Self-Help Vigilante Groups Are Reshaping Security Against Boko Haram

Boko Haram vigilante
A local vigilante stands in front of a burnt house in Gubio in Borno State, northeast Nigeria, on May 26, 2015, after an attack by Boko Haram. Stringer/AFP/Getty

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Boko Haram militants have killed more than 20,000 people and displaced more than 2 million others in northeast 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. The targets included churches, mosques, schools, universities, markets, police stations and even military installations. The insurgents bombed locations, attacked with guns, raped women, killed children, took hostages and occupied territories.

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

Under siege, communities in the northeast 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, the Civilian Joint Task Force, was formed in early 2013 in Adamawa State in northeast Nigeria. It is comprised of community vigilante formations, including neighborhood guards and hunter's guilds. The task force carries out community policing through reconnaissance.

The members watch over the community and accost any strange or suspicious people who enter. They operate in cells and carry a combination of traditional and modern weapons. They mount roadblocks, conduct area patrols, and install guards at entry points and borderlines of their communities.

Generally, the involvement of vigilantes in counterinsurgency 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 extrajudicial 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 hunter's guild, and the third is the government-recognized Civilian Joint Task Force. Communal neighborhood guards are village-based vigilante outfits dedicated to community defense. The hunter's guild is the vanguard of traditional hunters and warriors that intervenes to reinforce the operation.

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, including fear that their unguarded deployment could be counterproductive 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 counterterrorism 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 extrajudicial killings of suspected insurgents. There is also the concern 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 counterinsurgency operations implies that the state is abdicating its primary responsibility of ensuring sustainable national security.

Despite those misgivings, the justification for the vigilante approach to counterinsurgency cannot be disputed. Vigilante groups are uniquely poised to contribute to local security for a number of reasons, including 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 the trust of the local community.

So what should be done?

If vigilantes are going to continue in counterinsurgency operations in a way that's fruitful and sustainable, they must operate within the law and the established rules of engagement. 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 absorb the groups into community policing systems or existing paramilitary structures, or that institutionalize them into a national reserve force dedicated to emergency mobilization.

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

Chukwuma Al Okoli is a lecturer/resident researcher in the Department of Political Science at Federal University Lafia.