Regional armies in the Lake Chad basin deploy vigilantes to sharpen campaigns against Boko Haram insurgents. But using these militias creates risks as combatants turn to communal violence and organised crime. Over the long term they must be disbanded or regulated.
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 mission-specific 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:
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;
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;
combatting police and vigilante corruption vigorously, so it does not undermine professionalism, and improving ties with local communities; and
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.
Dakar/Nairobi/Brussels, 23 February 2017
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. While special attention is paid to Borno, one of Nigeria’s 36 federated states and the heartland of the insurgency, it also analyses vigilantes’ operations elsewhere in the north east of the country and in Niger, Chad and Cameroon. It assesses vigilantism’s long-term impact and risks. As Boko Haram splinters and morphs into more discrete guerrilla forces, with renewed emphasis on terrorist attacks, it is timely to rethink the role of vigilantes and their governance and prepare for their transformation.
Analysts working on all four affected countries were involved in preparation of the report, which feeds into Crisis Group’s larger research on curbing violent religious radicalism. Desk research was followed by interviews in the region’s capitals with state and military officials, intelligence officers, international military advisers and senior politicians. Research was also done in Maiduguri and Yola, the capitals of Nigerian Borno and Adamawa states, in Maroua, Mokolo, Makari and other localities of Cameroon’s Far North and in Niger’s Diffa region and Chad’s cities of Bol and Baga Sola, on Lake Chad. Researchers interviewed vigilantes, local state and security and non-governmental organisation officials, human rights activists, journalists, academics and citizens to investigate their understandings of the situation and their perceptions of peace, law and order.
II.From Vigilantism to the CJTF
A.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. Slave-raiding, 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.
Much has been made of the differences between colonial administrations, France’s Jacobin “direct rule” and the British tradition of “indirect rule” and reliance on pre-existing aristocracies.They should not be overstated: the colonial state relied everywhere on a strata of chiefs and their followers to levy taxes, mobilise labour and suppress dissent. 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.
Alternative local security structures were reactivated or created. In the Lake Chad basin, they have often drawn on brotherhoods of hunters (yan baka, in Hausa, the region’s lingua franca) typical of West Africa or on the traditional chiefs’ palace guards (dogari, in Hausa). 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-armed elite 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. The state is confident enough to mobilise the comités de vigilance on a large scale and feels it can control them through its territorial administration and local chiefs.
In Nigeria, history provided both precedents and cautions. As elsewhere, vigilantes have long been involved in fighting bandits, usually without state coordination or official support. However, they have a record of getting out of hand. Some have become involved in violent local politics or have run protection rackets. The massive communal violence in central Nigeria has also fed authorities’ suspicions of irregular local forces. And while the 1999 constitution makes policing a federal prerogative, many states have been forming quasi-police forces.
B.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.
There was more to this than a spontaneous, popular resistance to a bloody and fanatic jihadist insurgency. Boko Haram’s violence was certainly hard on people in Maiduguri. Security officers, Islamic clerics critical of Boko Haram and civilians otherwise associated with the Borno state or the federal government were threatened and assassinated, and the wealthier members of the communities were extorted by the jihadists. But the security forces, too, were brutal, as they implemented collective punishment strategies, especially when soldiers and police were killed, including the burning of homes and mass arrests of male youths. Commanders’ unwillingness to curb these abuses provoked mounting tensions in Maiduguri. In addition, a state of emergency, from May to December 2013, that included a shutdown of phone services, fuelled economic problems for city traders.
Many Maiduguri inhabitants felt their community had to fight Boko Haram so as to deflect security forces’ suspicion and retaliation. CJTF leaders confirm that many people joined because they feared both the jihadists and that if they did not isolate Boko Haram members, “they would be killed [by] soldiers who could not distinguish them from other youth and were killing indiscriminately”.
Professor Mohamed Kyari, a noted analyst of the insurgency, has argued that the army’s retaliations were part of “a strategy aimed at compelling residents to cooperate with troops in exposing Boko Haram insurgents”, and that the CJTF included “repentant members of Boko Haram who were recruited by the military”, a textbook counter-insurgency move. Whatever the truth, CJTF members acknowledge that the security forces, and particularly the army, which had the JTF lead, were quick to appreciate the potential of a vigilante response in Maiduguri. The JTF organised the groups along its own lines of command, with Maiduguri divided into ten sectors. JTF officers were also involved in the selection of CJTF leaders, a chairman and a secretary for each sector, with whom they worked closely. A number of JTF checkpoints were handed over to the CJTF.
Soon after, the CJTF formed links to the state’s major leaders, the Shehu of Borno, Abubakar Ibn Umar Garbai El-Kanemi, and Governor Kashim Shettima. The army and Borno state government cooperated in structuring the CJTF further. A number of mid-ranking state officials took key CJTF positions. As early as September 2013, an “orientation program”, the Borno Youths Empowerment Scheme (BOYES), selected and screened young men, who then received some military training from the army. State authorities gave them uniforms, patrol cars and identification documents (IDs), as well as a stipend. It was eventually announced that BOYES would train up to 6,000, but it stopped at around 1,850, apparently due to the army’s uncertainty about training so many potentially unreliable persons. Some recruits, suspected of association with Boko Haram and of trying to get training or intelligence, were arrested.
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 front-line 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.
C.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 deputy governor publicly pressed the emir of Biu, a city in southern Borno where CJTF were not well received, to “encourage youth in his domain to form [a] vigilante group”. Much like in Maiduguri, communities knew refusing would be suspicious.
The security services were closely involved in identifying local CJTF leaders. In a large northern Borno town, the CJTF chairman was a paid State Security Service (SSS) informant; in a small town close to Maiduguri, the appointee was a trader close to the authorities and security forces.CJTF leaders claimed to have recruited up to 45,000 members in Borno state, though the current leadership now speaks only of about 26,000, covering 22 of the state’s 27 LGAs.
Vigilante forces have also emerged in the other north-eastern Nigerian states, at a pace and intensity largely dependent on the Boko Haram threat, but always in close connection to the security services and state authorities. Boko Haram’s threat in late 2014 to march on Yola, the capital of Adamawa state south of Borno, was met with a mobilisation of hunter brotherhoods. In addition to state authorities, several leading local political figures were essential in that, including former Vice President Atiku Abubakar (under President Olusegun Obasanjo), who has vast local investments; the then Senate Committee on Defence Chairman Jibrilla Bindow; Adamawa State House Representative Emmanuel Tsandu; and Federal House Representative Adamu Kamale. The local hunters played a major part in blocking Boko Haram and helped the army take back the cities of Gombi and Mubi in northern Adamawa.
Adamawa’s Kanuri minority formed its own 300-men CJTF in March 2013, in close collaboration with security forces, to help screen internally displaces persons (IDPs) fleeing Borno state. Many Boko Haram leaders and members are Kanuri, and this sought to show “both the public and security agencies … that not all Kanuri in Yola were Boko Haram” and to preserve trader livelihoods. Civilian and security officials push less for organised vigilantes in Yobe and Gombe states, which were not so affected by the insurgency and where the security forces never seemed overwhelmed.
Community leaders from the north east based in other regions have extended the monitoring of suspected Boko Haram activities, notably in Abuja and Lagos, Nigeria’s political and economic capitals respectively. They have been reporting to security services and occasionally conducting citizen arrests, sometimes with the support of CJTF who would come from Borno state and take the prisoners to Maiduguri.
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. After suicide bombings in Maroua, the region’s capital, in July 2015, the authorities pushed even harder. All villages in the Far North now reportedly have comités; according to one source, 16,000 vigilantes are on duty. Similarly, after Boko Haram’s first terror attacks in Chad’s capital, N’Djamena, in February 2015 the territorial administration minister called on local chiefs to “increase their vigilance”. During Chadian President Idriss Déby’s visit to Baga Sola in October 2015, authorities urged villages around the lake to create their own comités de vigilance.
Niger’s case is somewhat unique. Though the mobilisation of armed civilians, based notably on the example of Algeria’s war on islamists in the 1990s, was discussed in Niamey policy circles, fears of ethnic militias, concerns about the cost of their demobilisation and their potential for political instrumentalisation and the country’s fragility led President Mahamadou Issoufou to decide otherwise. The Nigerien defeat in Bosso in June 2016 revived the debate, but the idea was rejected again. When militias were formed in 2016 among the Peul and Mohamid Arabs, deemed loyal to the state (or, more precisely, hostile to other communities, such as the Buduma, suspected of supporting Boko Haram), the authorities gave them free rein only briefly and quickly tried to resolve ethnic tensions.
The cautious approach may also be due to early problems with Nigerian refugees, CJTF members among them, who organised self-defence groups in fear pursuit from Boko Haram. Locals in Yébi and Bosso accused Nigerian vigilantes of abuses and disrupting profitable cross-border trade. Some were detained and sent back with the help of Nigerian authorities. Instead of mobilising vigilantes, Niger has been using informant networks, though vigilante groups eventually formed in some of the more insecure areas, such as Bagara and Toumour.
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.
III.Vigilantism, an Effective Counter-insurgency Tool?
A.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.
Niger is at the other end of the spectrum, having made the most cautious use of vigilantes. After incidents with Nigerian vigilantes who had taken refuge in Niger, it banned civilians from manning roadblocks and bearing weapons, demanding that vigilantes work as an informant network with the army’s civil-military cooperation teams. Civilians, sometimes bearing crude weapons, have guided security patrols. As the conflict hit Niger harder, some front-line communities, such as Toumour and Bagara, eventually set up or remobilised classic vigilante groups for protection, often mixing local youth and IDPs. They man roadblocks and checkpoints, patrol and perform arrests.
Chad and Cameroon are between these two extremes. Chad, which has been less exposed to jihadist attacks, is closer to the Nigerien case. Cameroon, attacked early and intensely, is closer to the Nigerian response. For instance, its vigilante units have launched their own small-scale assaults against Boko Haram bands, sometimes pursuing them across the Nigerian border.
Because the states pushed for formation of vigilantes, they have exerted a degree of oversight, each in conformity with its habits and capacities. In Borno state, the few CJTF selected for BOYES training went through a vetting process, with the support of state authorities and security forces, including background checks and medical screening. The CJTF, though in a somewhat piecemeal fashion, issued IDs and compiled membership lists that were made available to the authorities. All BOYES trainees and some other CJTF received uniforms. Cameroon also tried to register vigilantes, as it had done in previous instances. Chad, with a weaker bureaucratic tradition, has relied much more on the chiefs, delegating selection, identification and control to them. In Niger, existing vigilante groups have registered their own members and given lists to the civilian and security officials.
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.
In Borno state, both governor and army seem directly involved, to the point where they appear to give orders to CJTF. CJTF leaders, however, now insist they are independent. Symbolically, they have removed reference on their most recent IDs to the 7th Army Division and floated new unit names, probably to avoid too explicit links to the security services and Borno state. Significantly, the designation Borno State Youth Vanguard (BSYV) has now been replaced by Borno Youth Association for Peace and Justice (BYAPJ). But “CJTF” has captured the imagination and often remains on their IDs along with the new acronym.In Borno state in particular, attempts have been made to increase control over vigilantes, leading to some professionalisation. The initial groups included many underaged youths, but CJTFs are less numerous, and leaders insist they mobilise only adults. This seems largely true, though children still act as informers or are part of crowds that occasionally rally behind vigilantes for arrests. There is also increasing use of women, who are better able to check and search women without creating too much tension in a context where women are playing a greater role in the insurgency. Women are also occasionally involved in patrol and combat roles in vigilante units.States have been cautious about weapons, equipment and training. Rather haphazardly, the civilian and military authorities, as well as non-state backers, have provided some non-lethal equipment, such as metal detectors, phones, radios and torchlights, as well as transportation ranging from four-wheel drive vehicles to bicycles. All have been wary of arming and training most vigilantes, in