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. In Nigeria in particular, vigilantism did much to turn an anti-state insurgency into a bloodier civil war, pitting Boko Haram against communities and leading to drastic increases in violence. As the conflict continues to evolve, so will vigilantes. They are enmeshed with high politics, especially in Nigeria, and in local intercommunal relations, business operations and chiefdoms. Their belief that they should be rewarded will need to be addressed, and it is also important for the Lake Chad basin states to address the common gap in community policing, particularly in rural areas. To ensure vigilantes are not a future source of insecurity, these states will each need to devise their own mix of slowly disbanding and formalising and regulating them.
Vigilantism, the recourse to non-state actors to enforce law and order (of a sort), has a history in the Lake Chad region. Colonial powers there relied, to a substantial degree, on local traditional chiefs and their retinues. The multi-faceted crisis in governance and decline in services among the Lake Chad states since the 1980s gave rise to new vigilante groups. The law and order challenges vigilantes tried to address were a factor in the formation and growth of Boko Haram, itself an attempt to provide regulation and guidance.
The vigilante fight against Boko Haram started in 2013, in Maiduguri, the Borno state capital and the insurgency’s epicentre, under the twin pressure of mounting jihadist violence and security force retaliation. The Joint Task Force (JTF), led by the Nigerian army, quickly realised the vigilantes’ potential as a source of local knowledge, intelligence and manpower and set out to help organise it, with the assistance of local and traditional authorities. Operating under the unofficial but revealing name of Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF), vigilantes were essential in flushing Boko Haram out of the city, then began replicating throughout the state. The official use of vigilantes to fight the movement spread further in Nigeria, then to Cameroon in 2014 and Chad in 2015, where the groups are known as comités de vigilance. Niger has been more cautious, partly because of past struggles with armed groups and because it has not needed them as much.
Vigilantes have played many roles, from mostly discrete surveillance networks in Niger to military combat auxiliaries or semi-autonomous fighting forces in Nigeria. For the region’s overstretched and under pressure militaries, they have somewhat filled the security gap and provided local knowledge. They have made the military response more targeted and more efficient, but their mobilisation also provoked retribution by Boko Haram against their communities and contributed to the massive levels of civilian casualties in 2014 and 2015. Paradoxically, this, too, has favoured regional governments’ strategy of pushing civilians away from the jihadists. As the insurgency splinters and falls back on more discrete guerrilla operations and terror attacks, however, the time has come to measure the risks posed by such a massive mobilisation of vigilantes (they claim to be about 26,000 in Borno state alone). Their compensation demands will have to be addressed, especially if authorities consider offering deals to Boko Haram militants to lay down their weapons. In the longer term, vigilantes may become political foot soldiers, turn to organised crime or feed communal violence. Vigilantism can be a powerful counter-insurgency tool, but there is a compelling need to confront the immediate concerns it raises, notably in terms of impunity, and to begin planning for its long-term post-conflict transformation.
To protect civilians, limit risks to vigilantes and improve accountability
To the governments of Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Niger:
Abstain, as much as possible, from creating additional standing vigilante units and focus instead on building intelligence and communication networks through which civilians can obtain state protection when needed.
Ensure that as many civilians as possible have access to functional communication networks and can call on regular security forces, especially where risks remain high.
Encourage, when necessary to maintain vigilante forces, their formalisation, including registration, and systems for internal oversight and external accountability, and include community oversight in accountability mechanisms.
Supply assault rifles only to select groups of better-trained CJTF and for missionspecific purposes, such as when they serve as auxiliaries, while ensuring that those weapons are registered and remain security-service property.
Synchronise CJTF accountability mechanisms with those of the federal Nigeria Police Force.
Hold to account those vigilantes suspected of abuses, notably for sexual and gender-based violence, and ensure transparent and fair investigation of all suspects in accordance with domestic and international law, while publicising any judicial decisions.
Provide vigilantes training programs that mix practical skills (eg, intelligence, first aid, handling of landmines and improvised explosive devices) and instruction in applicable national and international laws, while involving the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and relevant human rights groups (eg, in Nigeria, the National Human Rights Commission) in the latter.
Adjust legal guidelines to permit assistance in building justice and accountability mechanisms. To acknowledge the contribution of the vigilantes and manage expectations To the governments of Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Niger:
Combat stereotyping that certain entire ethnic communities, notably the Kanuri, support Boko Haram by highlighting vigilante efforts from those groups.
Respect vigilantes publicly and give sufficient and standardised assistance packages to those wounded or killed in the line of duty and their families.
Set expectations for compensation transparently through public announcements on what is being offered and to whom, who is not eligible and when it will end, so as not to motivate more vigilantism.
To prepare for a transformation of the vigilantes and prevent the emergence of mafias and ethnic militias
To the governments of Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Niger:
- Plan to transform vigilante units when the situation stabilises further, with each country following its own pace according to its security situation and according to the extent and role of vigilantism, notably by:
a) planning demobilisation processes for the majority of vigilantes that include small grants to help them go back to their former occupations, complete their education or develop businesses;
b) creating, given the likely continuation of some form of lower-level jihadist activity and rural unrest, particularly in Borno and Adamawa states, a temporary auxiliary body under the army or Police Mobile Force, drawing on the vigilantes who have received weapons training and served directly with security forces; and providing for their potential integration into the security forces if they meet the educational and other requirements and undergo retraining;
c) combatting police and vigilante corruption vigorously, so it does not undermine professionalism, and improving ties with local communities; and
d) selecting, vetting, retraining and equipping a number of vigilantes with the help of local civil society organisations, so that they feed reports and early warning into both police and civil society networks.
- Prepare a disarmament plan that focuses exclusively on taking functional automatic weapons out of circulation.
- Support programs for vigilante demobilisation and to professionalise the police and their capacity to monitor and regulate temporary auxiliary forces.