Author (s): International Crisis Group (ICG)
Type of publication: Article
Date of publication: February 2017
Vigilante groups in Nigeria, Cameroon, Niger and Chad play a major role in the fight against Boko Haram, but their presence raises concerns. They make military operations less blunt and more effective and have reconnected these states somewhat with many of their local communities, but they have also committed abuses and become involved in the war economy.
The insurgency launched in 2009 by Boko Haram, a radical revivalist Islamist movement established earlier in Borno state, in Nigeria’s north east and adjacent to Lake Chad, is now regional, affecting the border areas of Chad, Niger and Cameroon. In 2014-2015, it gained control of large swaths of territory in north-east Nigeria. Since 2015, Nigeria and its neighbours have progressively developed a stronger military response. Boko Haram has mostly been forced into enclaves on Lake Chad, the hills along the Nigeria-Cameroon border and forested areas of Borno state. It has reverted to suicide attacks and guerrilla war. Military pressure, importantly aided by vigilantes, has aggravated its internal divisions. This report describes how the vigilante groups were born, their connection with state agencies and institutions, how they function and their role in the conflict’s evolution.
FROM VIGILANTISM TO THE CIVILIAN JOINT TASK FORCE (CJTF)
State and Vigilantism: A Tale of Four Countries
Law and order in the Lake Chad basin bears the imprint of pre-colonial and colonial times, when massive disruption occurred as states formed and disappeared due to a fast-changing regional economy increasingly shaped by global connections. Slaveraiding, banditry and cattle rustling fed local forms of self-defence. After often violent conquest, and frequently in alliance with local warlords, colonial states maintained relative peace, but particularly in rural areas they habitually relied on decentralised forces, the retinues of chiefs.
The presence of local forces that are not part of the police or the army but are involved in providing law and order thus has a history in the region. This tradition became increasingly important as insecurity increased around Lake Chad from the 1980s, due to many factors, including population growth, the states’ budgetary problems, the resulting “structural adjustments”, urbanisation, the crisis in pastoralist societies (notably the Fulani) and the influx of automatic weapons and battle-hardened men from vanquished armies in Niger’s and Chad’s wars. Insecurity ranged from banditry (the kwanta kwanta in Nigeria and zargina in Cameroon) to all-out armed rebellion (most recently the Chad civil war, 2005-2010, and the Tuareg insurgencies in Niger in the 1990s and 2007). The situation was made worse by deterioration in the security forces.
Some scholars argue that contemporary vigilantism has also been influenced by U.S. and European promotion of community policing. In many cities, night watches appeared, paid for by traders’ consortiums or the town councils.
Each country’s history of war and rebellion has marked its response to Boko Haram. Chad and Niger view vigilantes with peculiar concern because of their recent revolts. Nonetheless, Chadian authorities occasionally encouraged vigilantes to fight against bandits in the past. For Niger, neighbouring Mali, where the army has long abandoned its pretence of a monopoly in use of force and communal militias have gained influence, is a powerful counter-model. Nevertheless, Nigerien vigilantes, such as the dan banga, were recently patrolling the market areas in the cities of Diffa and Mainé Soroa, and the governor of Niamey tried to mobilise similar groups a few years back. Cameroon has long relied on vigilantes. Groups controlled by chiefs played a strong part in the fight against the left-wing Union des Populations du Cameroun from the 1950s to the early 1970s. In the 1990s and early 2000s, the state cooperated with comités de vigilance against bandits in northern regions. However, in 2001 it created a well-armedelite force, the Bataillon d’Intervention Rapide (BIR), now at the forefront of the fight against Boko Haram. But vigilantes have always been part of the picture, for instance to combat cotton smugglers.
CJTF’s Birth: The Battle for Maiduguri
The quasi-official narrative on anti-Boko Haram vigilantism is that in early 2013 Baba Jafar Lawan, a trader from Hausari, a borough of Maiduguri, went after a Boko Haram militant with a stick, capturing and delivering him to the authorities. Others, the story goes, started patrolling Hausari with him. Little by little, offshoots sprung up throughout the city. Several suspected Boko Haram members were handed over to the authorities; others were brutally killed by crowds. By June 2013, some 500 vigilantes were manning city checkpoints, armed with sticks and cutlasses. They became known as the Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF), indicating they operated as a counterpart to the Joint Task Force (JTF) that coordinated the police, army and other security units fighting Boko Haram in Borno state.
CJTF-military cooperation has remained very close. The army later provided standard military training to about 200 members to create a “CJTF Special Force”, with greater weapon skills and operational capability, that could be used in frontline operations. By late 2013, Maiduguri was largely purged of Boko Haram cells, and there have been few subsequent attacks in the city, other than suicide operations, often against refugee camps on its periphery. Most intra-city checkpoints have disappeared.
Spreading the CJTF Model
Nigerian security services and Borno state authorities cooperated to spread the CJTF model. First, Maiduguri CJTF elements began accompanying the army outside the city. In July 2013, they were involved in operations in neighbouring Jere Local Government Area (LGA), as well as in more distant localities like Dikwa and Dawashi. As the army defended or took back LGAs throughout Borno state, it encouraged the formation of CJTF units, and Baba Jafar Lawan toured the state to raise them. Where there was scepticism, military officers visited communities to insist this was the government’s wish.
The CJTF model has spread to Nigeria’s Lake Chad neighbours. As Boko Haram stepped up activities in Cameroon and Chad, and the state and army realised their limitations, communities were called on to form self-defence groups. In Cameroon, the Far North region governor, Augustine Awa Fonka, issued an arrêté regional (regional decree) creating the comités locaux de vigilance in June 2014.
Officials in Nigeria, Chad and Cameroon recognise the vigilantes’ services. Senior officials have met with their leaders and handed out medals and prizes. Chad’s President Idriss Déby has visited vigilantes in the field (notably in Ngouboua on 4 June 2016), and then Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan once hailed them as “new national heroes” in July 2013.
VIGILANTISM, AN EFFECTIVE COUNTER-INSURGENCY TOOL?
Variations in Profiles and Structures
Depending on the country, vigilantes have been involved in a variety of missions. Nigeria has made the most intensive use of them, particularly in Borno state, where CJTFs have been carrying out intelligence, surveillance and protection missions in their communities, notably operating checkpoints and patrolling to check on newcomers in public spaces (mosques, markets and the entrances of villages and towns). As some communities were displaced, CJTF have followed, often continuing surveillance in their IDP camps or host communities. They perform arrests and deliver suspects to the security forces, and some have been closely involved as auxiliaries to those forces. They have also screened and interrogated suspects in detention centres. The army has asked them to join in long-distance operations, usually mixing CJTF familiar with the targeted terrain with groups from other areas. They have also been deployed away from their communities, to control newly captured towns or support local CJTF. In several instances, they have launched autonomous armed operations.
In all cases, oversight falls somewhere between local military commanders, the territorial administration (elected governors in Nigeria, the sous-préfets, préfets and governors appointed by the territorial administration or interior minister in Cameroon, Chad and Niger) and the local chiefs who answer to the local governments. In all four countries, vigilante leaders reported having the phone numbers of relevant military and civilian officials, and newly arrived officials quickly link up with them. In Cameroon and Chad, chiefs have played a major role in recruitment. In Cameroon, they sign IDs along with the sous-préfets and forward membership lists to the administration and security forces.
Resourcing for Vigilantes
The Lake Chad states struggle with a dilemma: formalising the vigilantes would enable greater oversight but also cost, money that could be applied to other pressing needs, not least the humanitarian catastrophe triggered by the insurgency. It might also raise expectations and feed a sense of entitlement that could prove unsustainable, as well as create incentives that encourage the formation of more groups. Indeed, some vigilantes have been calling for “a permanent mechanism to help [them] provide the basics for [their families]”.54 Vigilantes, especially when they are high up in the hierarchy, often insist they are not paid for their service and have to spend their own money on duty.
The Vigilante Effect(s)
Assessing the vigilantes’ impact seems at first rather easy. In operational terms, there is little doubt they have been useful. Most soldiers, recruited from throughout their respective countries, often have little understanding of the local terrain (social or physical). Vigilantes have a better “sense of the normal and the abnormal” locally, which makes them apt to detect threats. Many people insist that the military’s lack of local language skills is a big problem that has resulted in unnecessary casualties. In the Lake Chad basin’s varied geography, from the marshes of Lake Chad to the hills and caves in Gwoza and the Mandara regions, soldiers can have a hard time without local guidance. Local knowledge explains the contribution of the lightly armed hunters of Adamawa, when they faced a Boko Haram force comprised of many city dwellers.
Examining the broader impact brings more nuanced results. First, the decision by states to mobilise vigilantes has exposed them and their communities to Boko Haram retribution. There is evidence of extreme Boko Haram violence in response to vigilantism in the other three countries. In Niger for instance, the communities of Lamana and Ngoumao, among the few to have set up armed units, were brutally attacked in June 2015, and 38 villagers were killed. Promotion of vigilantism was a principal driver that turned the conflict from an anti-state insurgency into a messy civil war, pitting Boko Haram against communities.
Vigilantism, however, is not without problems. Cooperation with security forces is not easy: there is considerable mutual suspicion and accusations, particularly in Cameroon and Nigeria. Security sources say that some vigilantes double as Boko Haram agents or resell goods stolen by the jihadists.
The justice issue is particularly sensitive. Vigilantism, because it emerges from the weak state’s inability to maintain law and order and is frequently fed by a desire for revenge for personal losses, has a built-in bias for rough justice.
Several interviewees mentioned that some CJTF members were “pompous”, hinting that they derived an undue sense of self-importance and impunity from their power. Vigilantes also have engaged in other abuses, including sexual violence and extortion.
Les Wathinotes sont soit des résumés de publications sélectionnées par WATHI, conformes aux résumés originaux, soit des versions modifiées des résumés originaux, soit des extraits choisis par WATHI compte tenu de leur pertinence par rapport au thème du Débat. Lorsque les publications et leurs résumés ne sont disponibles qu’en français ou en anglais, WATHI se charge de la traduction des extraits choisis dans l’autre langue. Toutes les Wathinotes renvoient aux publications originales et intégrales qui ne sont pas hébergées par le site de WATHI, et sont destinées à promouvoir la lecture de ces documents, fruit du travail de recherche d’universitaires et d’experts.
The Wathinotes are either original abstracts of publications selected by WATHI, modified original summaries or publication quotes selected for their relevance for the theme of the Debate. When publications and abstracts are only available either in French or in English, the translation is done by WATHI. All the Wathinotes link to the original and integral publications that are not hosted on the WATHI website. WATHI participates to the promotion of these documents that have been written by university professors and experts.