Last week, Boko Haram’s ambush of a civilian vigilante raid, resulting in 24 deaths, brought to the foreground a debate around the growing involvement of civilians in Nigeria’s conflict, as civilian vigilantes take up arms in the fight against Boko Haram.
Baba Garba Chajo, one of the founders of Nigeria’s Civilian Joint Task Force (Civilian JTF) — named after the Nigerian military Joint Task Force (JTF) tasked with the fight against Boko Haram— told Voice of America (VOA) that their mission is to aid the Nigerian military in “hunting down and arresting” Boko Haram members. According to VOA, the Nigerian military “encourages the Civilian JTF and provides them with protection details for their missions, but it has stopped short of giving them guns.”
Earlier this month, Reuters and the Associated Press reported on the rise of these vigilante groups. Reuters reports that civilians are vulnerable to revenge attacks, which risk leading to “paranoia and over-reaction by the vigilantes.” In short, media analysts are observing that there is a potential for a spiral of violence.
For the Nigerian military, a reliance on vigilantes may be tempting: locals, who share the language and culture with Boko Haram militants, may have access to better intelligence. Others are more skeptical. Nigerian based human rights activist Shehu Sani argues that “The army is starting to use [vigilante groups] to perpetrate things they don’t want to be seen to be doing themselves.” For instance, vigilante groups have been linked to human rights abuses such as summary executions and burning down the houses of suspects, with no judicial accountability.
In the midst of all this reporting, Al Jazeera’s Inside Story hosted a debate between Nigerian based Michael Ejiofor, former Chief of Nigeria’s Security Services, Brussels based Ademola Abass, Head of Peace and Security Program, UN University, and DC based Nii Akuetteh, African Policy Analyst. The video can be watched here.
All analysts approached the issue from different perspectives. However, the points of agreement are noteworthy. One of the common themes was the concern that there is a lack of a legal framework:
- Nii Akuetteh argued that fighting terrorism should be the responsibility of the police. However, since the police are underfunded and lack the appropriate mandate, the Nigerian military and civilian vigilante groups have stepped into the void, without clearly defined roles and avenues for accountability.
- Ademola Abass added that the Nigerian government has yet to establish a clear legal framework for charging, arresting, and trying Boko Haram fighters. He argued that the documented human rights abuses on the part of the military (for more, read our previous post) and the alleged human rights abuses by civilian vigilante groups result from operating without guidelines or rules on how to handle Boko Haram combatants. Encouraging vigilantism in such a context of impunity risks an increase in the levels of violence and civilian casualties.
- The common agreement was that civilian involvement in the fight against Boko Haram should be in a non-combat role specifically focused on intelligence gathering, where according to Michael Ejiofor the civilians’ strength lies.
Another common concern expressed was the risk that vigilante groups could evolve into a threat against the Nigerian state in the future.
- Michael Ejiofor made the case that President Goodluck Jonathan approved of the vigilante groups, and encouraged Nigerians to join. He also argued that the state of emergency and reinforced Army presence gave northern Nigerians a sense that they may be safe from retribution.
- Ademola Abass pointed out that Nigeria has a history of vigilante groups, backed by politicians, who were used to intimidate the public after Nigeria became a multi-party democracy in 1999.
- All speakers shared the concern that encouraging civilian armed forces risks creating a force that may rebel against the state and become another Boko Haram in the future.
Former Inspector General of Police, Alhaji Ibrahim Ahmadu Coomassie, echoed these concerns today, stating, “arming the vigilantes will not help matters in addressing the insecurity challenges in the country.”
Center for International Policy intern Kyle Dallman contributed research to this blog post