Africa

Nigeria's vigilantes take on Boko Haram

  • 24 July 2013
  • From the section Africa
Vigilante checkpoint in Maiduguri

Vigilante groups have formed in the northern Nigerian city of Maiduguri to fight the militant Islamist group Boko Haram, a move welcomed by the military as it battles to quell the insurgency, as the BBC's Will Ross reports.

Military checkpoints have been a common sight in the northern Nigerian city of Maiduguri - the birthplace of the militant Islamist group Boko Haram - for several years.

But these days the people asking the questions at the ubiquitous roadblocks are often not in uniform.

They are civilians who are adding their muscle to the fight against Boko Haram, which is waging a military campaign to create an Islamic state across Nigeria.

More than 2,000 people have been killed since it launched an insurgency in 2009.

"When the situation became too bad to endure, we decided to find the Boko Haram members ourselves," said Mohammed, who was stopping and searching cars at one of the checkpoints.

Map locator

"Whenever we see them we arrest them and hand them over to the army. Some of us know these people," he said, adding that he and his colleagues are not paid for the work.

The vigilantes started appearing on the streets in early June, after a state of emergency was declared in May and thousands of extra troops sent to the area to wipe out the militants.

The civilian-run checkpoints have since spread across almost every district of the mainly Muslim town. They are mostly manned by teenage boys and young men in their twenties but there are also some women searching female passengers.

Mohammed said that when they detain a suspected militant, "we bring the holy Koran and then ask him to swear on it. If he's lying we are sure he will die".

'Idiotic thieves'

The vigilantes all carry crude weapons; sticks, machetes, knives and metal pipes. Considering the Islamist militants are known to be well armed you might think the vigilante members feel exposed.

A Nigerian soldiers stands beside a burnt house after the army clashed with Boko Haram insurgents in Borno state. Photo: April 2013
Boko Haram continues to stage attacks despite the state of emergency

"It is thanks to the protection of God - God is our guide whenever you do something with good intention you will definitely succeed," said Mohammed, who normally works as a lorry driver.

"If we are allowed to operate without any interference, definitely we will bring an end to this problem," he said.

His colleague Salisu, normally a bricklayer, said that the vigilantes, and not Boko Haram, are carrying out the work of Allah.

"It is a mission for the sake of Allah.

"If we refuse to expose these irresponsible archaic hypocritical idiotic thieves, then we will face the wrath of the Koran."

The Nigerian military Joint Task Force (JTF) has welcomed the presence of the vigilantes on the streets of Maiduguri.

"These gestures are commendable as it underscores the desired positive civil-military collaboration necessary for the success of the ongoing internal security operation," said Brig-Gen Chris Olukolade just after civilians had started appearing at the roadblocks.

It is not clear if the vigilantes, also known as the civilian JTF, will later be armed with guns by the government.

Many of the soldiers deployed in northern Nigeria are from other parts of the country and do not know the Kanuri language, the most common used in Maiduguri.

'Guns in coffins'

"Without knowing the environment and the people, building confidence and establishing a presence is very difficult," said Kole Shettima, chairman of the Centre of Democracy and Development in Abuja.

"The vigilantes know the local population and can help fish out the insurgents."

"But increased conflict between the vigilantes and Boko Haram is possible and this would further militarise the society and make it extremely difficult to see and end to the violence," he said.

"A new group of young people who may get armed could then try to get what they can out of the situation. They may themselves become a danger and mete out their own form of justice."

There are already some reports from Maiduguri of vigilantes killing people, rather than handing suspects over to the army.

In order to sidestep the tighter security presence in Maiduguri, the Islamist militants have diversified their tactics.

Earlier this month several suspected Boko Haram members disguised themselves as women.

They hid their faces behind veils and their guns beneath full-length robes.

Local reports from Maiduguri said their mission was thwarted and soldiers shot several of them dead.

In June eyewitnesses said Islamist insurgents shot dead 13 people in an apparent reprisal attack on members of a vigilante group.

They had sneaked their weapons into the area by pretending to be on their way to a burial, hiding their weapons in the coffin.

The recent attacks on schools have also proved how vulnerable the local population is. Over the past month 48 students and seven teachers have been killed in four attacks in northern Nigeria.

In a video on the internet, Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau said his group supported the recent attacks on schools, although he denied being behind the attack on Mamudo in Yobe State where at least 29 students were killed.

There are dangers associated with relying on vigilante groups to offer security for the population.

But as Islamist militants seem determined to attack softer targets, the vigilantes could play a vital role in trying to thwart attacks and save lives, some analysts say.

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