Nigeria’s Do-It-Yourself Boko Haram Busters

Vigilantes in the region where more than 270 schoolgirls were abducted may not be able to rescue them, but they’re the best line of defense so far against new kidnappings.

Aminu Abubakar/AFP/Getty

Five days a week, Agafi Kunduli spends the dead of night manning a checkpoint at the edge of his neighborhood in Maiduguri, the capital of Nigeria’s northern Borno state, along with a group of perhaps 15 part-time recruits and five uniformed members of the Volunteer Vigilance Youths’ Group.

Armed with an ax or a machete, he stops incoming cars for questioning: Who are they? Where are they coming from? What brings them to this area? Anyone with an unsatisfactory answer is held until the Nigerian military can deal with them the next morning.

In northeastern Nigeria, where Boko Haram enjoys a stronghold, kills with impunity, and kidnapped more than 270 schoolgirls last month, young civilians have been taking protection and justice into their own hands. In June 2013, discontent with Nigeria’s official Joint Military Task Force (JTF) spawned an unofficial offshoot—widely dubbed the Civilian Joint Task Force—a loosely organized network of vigilantes facing down AK-47-wielding militants with axes, knives, and bows and arrows.

They’ve had, according to some accounts, remarkable success. On Tuesday morning a group of vigilante villagers from a town 150 miles from the capital reportedly fought off a major assault, killing 200 militants and arresting 10, with no villagers reported killed. Such claims are hard to confirm, but it may be true, as one local told the Associated Press, that “it is impossible” for Boko Haram to attack since the vigilante group was organized.

When Boko Haram’s atrocities started to multiply last year, the Civilian JTF worked hand-in-hand with the Nigerian military to police their communities more efficiently. The vigilantes collected intelligence and patrolled towns, delivering militants to law enforcement, and joining in military operations to raid Boko Haram strongholds and rescue abductees. It was the Civilian JTF credited with pushing Boko Haram out of the metropolitan center of Maiduguri, forcing militants to decamp in the countryside, and making the capital safe with all-hours patrols of 50 or 60 vigilantes.

“You protect your people, your property, your environment—or Boko Haram comes in,” says Kunduli, a 33-year-old Maiduguri native who works as a consultant and program developer for a non-governmental organization called 1 Game. In December 2012, Kunduli found himself the target of Boko Haram, when a complex of 12 shops owned by his family was burned down, presumably as retribution against him for working in education advocacy.

For the past six months, Kunduli has been taking shifts as a volunteer guard, leaving after dark and arriving back home between 1 a.m. and 4 a.m. Kunduli says some of the Civilian JTF members—ranging in age from 15 to 35—go to school by day and guard their communities by night.

“Staying up late, it’s worth it,” he says. “Your brothers and sisters can go out in the morning and come back safely [and] the school cannot be bombed.”

The Nigerian military’s response to Boko Haram has been a well-documented and widely criticized disaster of extra-judicial detention, torture, and killings, which has successfully eroded civilian faith in the protection offered.

“Everyone trusts the Civilian JTF more than the military,” Kunduli says.

In May 2013, a state of emergency was announced for the northern states, and the Nigerian government flooded them with troops to weed out militants. But critics say their efforts were indiscriminate. “They come in and don’t know who’s Boko Haram so they think everybody is one,” says Kunduli. “Boko Haram is harassing you, the military is harassing you. Everyone is harassing you.”

This abuse kicked the locals into action with impressive results. Vigilante brigades found that a sparse chain of command (each group has an appointed chairman and two or three assistants) allowed them to surpass the time-consuming relay of orders and permissions of a military operation. “The Civilian JTF says, ‘We will approach the enemy’—you cannot approach the enemy without being given a command in the military,” Kunduli says. “The hierarchy of command is entirely different and this is what made them effective.”

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The conflict is up close and personal for the paramilitary fighters. Everyone in Borno State, Kunduli says, has been affected by the insurgency. “Boko Haram incidents have touched you in one way or another,” he says.

The government of Borno State has been a proponent of the Civilian JTF. For three months last year it conducted training sessions for batches of young fighters. The Borno Youth Empowerment Scheme was a short boot camp for thousands of youth, outfitting them with uniforms, and granting a small monthly stipend of around $100.

But as the state’s deputy governor warned at a training ceremony, “It is only law enforcement agencies…who have the power to arrest or detain suspected criminals like Boko Haram sect members or robbers. The idea of the civilian JTF trying to take laws into their hands by acting alone is wrong. This must stop now.”

The Civilian JTF and the official military JTF started off in collaboration, but recently the Civilian JTF organization has begun to fracture into smaller, splinter groups of vigilantes. And the Nigerian military’s relationship with the paramilitary groups became strained after allegations that Boko Haram members had infiltrated their ranks (similar charges have been directed the other way as well). During the first October youth training, more than 30 insurgents reportedly were arrested after disguising themselves to infiltrate the Civilian JTF.

This March, two Civilian JTF members were killed by Nigerian soldiers in a fight over what to do with prisoners the vigilantes had caught.

While praise has been heaped onto the vigilantes, criticism isn’t too far behind. Suspected militants arrested by vigilantes have been killed a number of times rather than turned over to law enforcement, and members of the Civilian JTF are accused of burning the house of a politician they suspected had Boko Haram ties.

Ironically, the emergence of the Civilian JTF may have inspired more killing of innocent civilians by Boko Haram as it exacted revenge against the resistance. In 2013, a captured Boko Haram fighter gave a rare interview to All Africa. "[O]ur original target was security operatives and politicians,” he said. “But since the formation of Civilian JTF who now reveal our identities and even arrest us, we decided to kill anyone that is from Maiduguri, because we believe every person in Maiduguri and some other towns of Borno State are members of Civilian JTF."

A November Human Rights Watch report outlined these fears, calling the Civilian JTF, “a worrisome new dimension to the violence.” Civilian Joint Task Force members “inform security forces about presumed local Boko Haram activity,” it said, and “the Islamist group then retaliates against both the neighborhood vigilante group and the broader community.”

Kunduli says he hopes “this is the beginning of the end of Boko Haram,” after a recent surge in international media attention and military assistance after the kidnapping of more than 270 girls at a school in the town of Chibok. But powerful, unorganized militant groups may pose problems after this period of turmoil plays out, leaving behind a power vacuum. Other countries have struggled with independent groups that formed to protect civilians but later became untamable. In Colombia, vigilantes battling FARC became notorious for brutal civilian massacres.

Kunduli is well aware of the potential danger, he says, and quotes the Nigerian version of an old adage: “An idle mind is a devil’s workshop.”