Charmed Lives

The Vigilantes Fighting Boko Haram With Magic Amulets

Call it the placebo effect, psychological warfare, or what have you—this medicine show raises the morale of volunteers in a very dangerous war.

03.09.17 6:03 AM ET

MAIDUGURI, Nigeria—At first glance the corrugated tin shack with its display of dried plants and powders in empty rice sacks spilling outside and animal skins tacked to the front door seems like any other roadside spice market or traditional medicine shop here in northeast Nigeria. But this humble depot is where members of the Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF)—a vigilante group integral to the Nigerian government’s counterinsurgency operations—procure the charms and amulets they believe protect them from the terrorists of Boko Haram.

Even before arriving at the shop, members of the CJTF from Bama, a city ravaged by the insurgency, giddily emptied their pockets, revealing a wealth of amulets. Pointing to bullet holes on their pickup truck from a recent raid into the rebel-infested Sambisa Forest, the members credit their safety to the amulets in their pockets, the special potions they bathed in and drank before the raid, and the charms they put in seat cushions of the car.

Manning the traditional medicine shop is the gregarious, flamboyant “Buba Saliki.” Draped in an intricately embroidered tunic with a floppy and worn cap, he greets the CJTF members with warm embraces. Pointing out their grins, he brags, “I am the king of the hunters,” another name for vigilantes in the region. “They can come to me for anything.”

He displays a leather band with several crudely sewn satchels dangling from it, explaining the significance of each charm. “This one, it will prevent the bullet from hitting your body”; his fingers slide to the next charm, “This one, it prevents your enemies from seeing you… It lets you see what you are hunting first”; the next, “It will wiggle and shake if you are going someplace dangerous.”

Each charm is filled with local medicine or papers with prayers scribbled on them. These protections don’t come cheap—Buba Saliki estimates that he could sell each for 150,000 to 200,000 naira (roughly $350-$500).

A relieved CJTF member cuts in to report that the CJTF gets these charms for free, as a gift from Buba Saliki. The vigilantes smile gratefully. Buba Saliki responds with a magnanimous grin and enthusiastic nodding.

It took Buba Saliki 20 years to learn the trade, starting from when he was 9 and studying under his grandfather. He, of course, doesn’t merely make amulets for vigilantes; much of his business comes from selling traditional medicine to cure town residents of “typhoid, malaria, and their eye problems.” His work has become more difficult recently, as Boko Haram’s reign of violence has complicated the process of “going to the bush to retrieve the local medicines,” but he has made do.

While the efficacy of the charms is subject to debate—when a CJTF member who asks to be called Kashim is questioned about a comrade who recently died in a fight against Boko Haram, Kashim says with a wry smile, “Up to now we don’t have a charm against bomb fragments…”

Whether you think of all this in terms of the placebo effect or psychological warfare or something more pejorative, Buba Saliki is like a one-man USO for the vigilantes, sustaining their morale in a very dangerous fight.

Before we leave his shop, he insists on demonstrating how powerful his charms are. The vigilantes excitedly agree and assemble themselves into a semicircle around the entrance, all making sure that they have a good view.

Buba Saliki takes off his shirt, ties on a belt of charms, and takes a swig of a potion from a beaten-up plastic water bottle. He begins his performance by sharpening the rough knives strewn across his shop floor; with a flourish, he cuts through sheets of paper, demonstrating their sharpness. Then he rubs the paper against his charms and tries to cut it again—the knives seem to slide off of the edges of the paper. He begins to saw harder—but the paper will not relent. He takes another sheet of paper and shreds it with the knife. Smiling to the crowd, he takes that knife to his own body, making exaggerated slicing movements across his chest and stomach. Each swing of his arm is punctuated by a whistling that sounds eerily like a dog’s squeaky toy. He turns the knife to his eyes, making movements as if he would slice them open or gouge them out. His mouth and nose are assaulted next, then he even puts the knife to his throat—yet it seems he is unaffected.

Like any good performer, Buba Saliki knows what his audience appreciates the most and he is visibly heartened by the delighted gasps and claps from the crowd assembled. He even incorporates audience participation. Nearing the end of his show, he walks toward the crowd and rubs the sweat from his underarms on the neck of one of the bystanders. He then saws maniacally at their throat, still incorporating the insane whistling into his movements with his long knife, but to no avail.

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He then takes the knife and cuts off a small tuft of hair from the vigilante’s head, holding it up for the audience to see before letting it drop into the wind. The vigilantes and the passerby that had gathered meet this flourish with riotous applause.

Climbing back into their battered pickup truck with their double-barrel shotguns in their self-purchased uniforms, the vigilantes appear heartened. Unlike the Nigerian soldiers and police, vigilantes are not guaranteed a salary even in theory; many have complained of marginalization by the state and feel their sacrifices are “not being recognized.”

As they leave the “king of the hunters,” however, these troubles seem to be placed on the back burner. Puffing his chest, Kashim says, “You see, we’re not afraid of Boko Haram’s magic, because we have our own. Our magic beats theirs.”