Boko Haram militants have killed more than 20 000 people and displaced more than 2 million others in northeast Nigeria since 2009.
Between 2009 and 2015, things escalated as 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 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-defence. People began to organise into emergency community vanguards to defend themselves. Community vigilante movements were born in several communities across the region.
One of the first formations of the Civilian Joint Task Force emerged in early 2013 in Adamawa State in northeast Nigeria. It was made up of community vigilante formations, including neighbourhood 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 who 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 extrajudicial killings, violation of human rights, extortion and criminal impunity.
The vigilante groups are based on three models. The first is communal neighbourhood guards, the second the village hunters’ guild, and the third is the government-recognised Civilian Joint Task Force.
Communal neighbourhood guards are village-based vigilante outfits dedicated to community defence. 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.
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 recruitments, child and woman soldiering and extrajudicial killings of suspected insurgents. In addition, there are fears that the vigilantes could degenerate and proliferate into mercenary militias.