Double-edged Sword: Vigilantes in African Counter-insurgencies

Executive Summary

As weak African states face growing insurgencies, they do what weak states tend to do: subcontract certain security functions to non-state actors or vigilante groups, many of which had taken up arms to protect their communities. This approach at times is viewed as a necessity, but is often dangerous, particularly in politically fluid and fractious states. The more fragile the state, the more it is dependent on vigilantes, but also the less able it is to police them or prevent abuse of power. The more successful the vigilante group against insurgents, the harder it is to demobilise, and the more likely it will become entrenched. As a result of ethnic rivalries and allegiances, community defence groups can morph into predatory, quasi-criminal organisations or enemies of the central state. Yet even when risks outweigh benefits, African leaders may not have the luxury of choice. At a minimum, African governments and their international backers should learn from the past, try to prevent abuses, guard against vigilantes’ mission creep and plan how to manage them once the conflict dies down.

By their very nature, vigilante groups carry inherent risk. Typically recruited from local communities, their members likely share the same ethnic or political identity, collective interests and threat perceptions, raising the odds that they will act as local militias – potentially more powerful than state authorities – and pursue narrow ethnic agendas; a short-term necessary evil that could pave the way for longer-term conflict. A solution for states in dire need of backing, vigilantes too often take advantage of their newfound capacity – and compensate for inadequate support and resources – by seeking to maximise their power and wealth through extortion, kidnapping, and other violent abuses.

But there are positive lessons to be learned too. Vigilante groups can be far more effective than state actors in providing local security. They generally enjoy greater legitimacy by virtue of community roots, and can be more efficient in identifying, tracking and combating insurgents thanks to their familiarity with local languages, geography and culture. Successfully managed by state authorities – and international actors – they can enable national leaders to forge lasting political pacts with provincial elites and bolster state legitimacy among local communities. In short, and while African and international policymakers rightfully may be concerned that empowering non-state forces will undermine the state, vigilantes also can serve as valuable intermediaries between local communities and central authorities.

Drawing on four illustrative cases – Sierra Leone, Uganda’s Teso region, South Sudan’s former Western Equatoria State and Nigeria’s north east – this report seeks to shed light on factors that determine vigilantes’ evolution and impact on security and stability with the objective of helping governments and their international partners navigate this dilemma.

Among these factors: regime neglect of, or hostility toward such groups (as in South Sudan) can give rise to new rebels, while unbridled state support (as in Sierra Leone) can empower armed groups controlled by strongmen and motivated in part by narrow self-interest. The clearer vigilantes’ objectives and mandate are set in advance, and the greater the oversight by national and local leaders, the state military and local communities, the more effective the group can be and the less likely it will veer away from community defence and counter-insurgency goals. This is more likely to occur in instances where the political interests of the central state and local leaders are roughly aligned (as in Uganda). By contrast, a less defined mandate – one that allows vigilantes to step into local governance roles – can be a recipe for trouble, prolonging the existence of vigilante groups and enlarging their scope, enabling them to consolidate their power and creating greater economic incentives for them to hold on to it. In the longer term, investing in sufficiently generous demobilisation and reintegration programs is key to offering vigilante members viable alternative livelihoods and due recognition. Transitioning selected members to community policing units also could help prevent their reactivation in more hostile guises.

Several broad lessons, each to be applied with due care for local conditions, emerge from the case studies. In particular, African leaders that enlist vigilante groups for counter-insurgency purposes should:

  • Engage local leaders with influence over vigilantes with the aim of settling on finite, mutually acceptable objectives within an overarching counter-insurgency strategy, and ensuring they provide political oversight over rank-and-file members;

  • Be clear upfront with vigilante leaders and foot soldiers as to what they should expect as reward for their efforts and compensation for any losses;

  • Provide vigilantes with adequate political and material support, including weapons when necessary, with the goal of ensuring they are able to pursue their objectives, thereby reducing the risk of extortion of resources from civilians;

  • Where possible, provide military oversight of, and ensure accountability for vigilantes’ abusive actions;

  • Put in place upfront a gender-sensitive plan to demobilise vigilantes once the insurgent threat has receded and to help them find work in locally-relevant sectors.

International donors and partners face a similar conundrum. They too should benefit from relatively strong state authorities enjoying a monopoly over the use of violence. But when the state is too weak to confront an insurgency alone, or when the insurgent group doubles up as a terrorist organisation threatening outside interests, the temptation will be great for international actors to support a militia or vigilante group – with or at times without the state’s consent. Those international actors’ interests would be best served by working in concert with state authorities, helping them manage relations with vigilante groups, cautioning against the pitfalls of unfettered support or counterproductive repression. To the extent international players interact with vigilante groups, they should avoid providing direct support, lest they weaken national authorities’ bargaining position. Instead, they should be willing to assist states with resources to better control vigilantes and more effectively demobilise and reintegrate them.

Reliance on vigilante groups often is a faute de mieux solution for states facing a threat they cannot address alone. But as the cases in this report illustrate, there are better and worse ways of doing so, and of ensuring that a short-term expedient not turn into a long-term headache.

Nairobi/Dakar/Brussels, 7 September 2017


African states confronting insurgent groups face a dilemma when civilians mobilise and take up arms to protect their local communities. These forces can play a major role in fending off attacks and provide regular armed forces with critical local knowledge, thereby bolstering the effectiveness of counter-insurgency campaigns. But vigilante groups also can undermine central authority, widen conflict by targeting ethnic or political rivals or threaten longer-term stability by continuing as an autonomous armed force after the original conflict has subsided. To use them is to wield a double-edged sword.

This report examines four cases in sub-Saharan Africa: the Kamajors, who fought in Sierra Leone’s civil war (1991-2002); the Arrow Boys of Teso, who confronted the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in eastern Uganda (2003-2007); the Zande Arrow Boys, who battled the LRA and later rebelled against South Sudan’s Dinka-led regime (2005-present); and the Civilian Joint Task Force, which has worked closely with the armed forces and police to counter Boko Haram in north-eastern Nigeria (2013-present).

Although primarily based on field research conducted in 2016 and early 2017 in Sierra Leone, Uganda, South Sudan and Nigeria, the report also incorporates analysis from Crisis Group’s past work, putting into wider geographic and historical perspective more than fifteen years of analysis regarding the conflict in Sierra Leone, the LRA in Uganda and subsequently the broader region, and Boko Haram in the Lake Chad basin. This research also draws on Crisis Group’s wider research into curbing violent religious radicalism.

Crisis Group uses the term vigilantes to refer to members of civilian self-defence groups, community defence forces and civil militias, which are formed to protect their communities from non-state or state actors or to combat insurgents. This term, widely used in the African context, is not meant to imply that their activities are illegal, even though they initially might have lacked state authorisation.

II.A Recurrent Policy Dilemma

Vigilante groups have formed and continue to exist in weak African states where governments are unable or unwilling to protect civilians from security threats ranging from large-scale insurgency, to political or ethnic violence, to low-level banditry. The nature of the threat shapes the kinds of activities that vigilantes undertake, whether counter-insurgency roles typically played by the military or more policing-type duties. Yet, regardless of circumstance, the phenomenon of vigilantes faces an essential problem: states too weak to provide security on their own are most prone to enlist non-state armed actors and delegate some local security functions to them, but also most likely to lack resources and capacity to control vigilantes and prevent them from abusing power for their own individual or group interest.

This report examines cases of vigilante groups formed in response to insurgent threats as opposed to general lawlessness, since vigilantism in non-conflict settings presents a related but different set of challenges and policy implications. The four cases – historical and current cases from West and East Africa – were selected to assess what factors ultimately determine the outcomes – positive or negative – of reliance on vigilantes. While Crisis Group does not claim that these form a representative sample of vigilantism in African conflicts, they cover a range of experiences, from the relatively positive (Arrow Boys in Teso, Uganda) to decisively harmful in terms of human suffering and political instability (Kamajors in Sierra Leone and Arrow Boys in South Sudan). Case selection also was informed by Crisis Group’s institutional expertise and fresh field research.

A.Kamajors in Sierra Leone

Over eleven years (1991-2002), one of Africa’s most brutal civil wars unfolded in Sierra Leone, killing tens of thousands and displacing up to a quarter of the population. Among the most powerful fighting groups were the Kamajors, who evolved from bands of young men defending their villages to the core of a state-armed national militia fighting alongside both the regular army and foreign forces. The Kamajors (whose name means hunter in Mende, the predominant language and tribe in the Southern and Eastern provinces) became a highly divisive entity. Many Sierra Leoneans still revere them for their bravery in defending first their home areas and later a democratically-elected government. But they also are reviled as a brutal tribal militia, which looted and killed suspected rebel collaborators and further destabilised the country. Such diverse, but not necessarily incompatible, views reflect ethnic and political prejudice and how people’s experiences of the Kamajors differed over time and in different places.

The Kamajors’ trajectory over the course of the long war demonstrates how vigilante groups can be effective community protectors and, at times, military auxiliaries, principally by virtue of their superior local knowledge. It also illustrates the dangers of helping vigilantes become militarily powerful forces operating outside their communities, without adequate state monitoring or control, particularly in countries riven by ethno-political tensions.

1.From community protectors to unwieldy paramilitary force

Sierra Leone’s civil war began in the early 1990s as a battle between government forces and the Revolutionary United Front (RUF). Originally based in Liberia, the RUF launched attacks on both military and civilian targets, principally in the Eastern and Southern provinces. In response, local leaders started mobilising young men, including Kamajor hunters, to defend their home areas. A former army captain and local chief, Sam Hinga Norman, organised youth around Bo, the country’s second largest city. Thanks to his military experience and strength of character, Norman soon became the Kamajors’ national leader and figurehead. As fighting spread, other tribes formed defence groups in their areas, but the Kamajors in the south and east remained by far the largest and earned a reputation as the fiercest.

The beleaguered government, recognising the local forces’ effectiveness and the usefulness of their local knowledge, allowed them to act as army auxiliaries, serving principally as guides and informants. But distrust between Kamajors and soldiers soon undermined cooperation. To counter the insurgency, the government rapidly expanded the army, quadrupling its numbers from about 3,000 before the war to approximately 13,000 by 1992. Rapid expansion, coupled with deficient leadership, training and equipment, saw some front-line troops become so-called sobels (soldier/rebels) who preyed on civilians, sometimes in collaboration with insurgents. In response, the Kamajors defended their communities against both rebels and soldiers.

To compensate for its military weakness, the government hired a private South African military company – Executive Outcomes – which fought rebels from 1995 to early 1997. They relied heavily on the Kamajors’ local expertise. Their joint operations ushered in a period of sufficient stability to allow elections to be held in February 1996; these brought the Mende-dominated Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) to power. Norman, the Kamajors’ best-known leader, became deputy defence minister, and the state ramped up its support to the local defence forces. In 1996, to reassure those who believed the Kamajors were becoming the ruling party’s army, the government established a national umbrella organisation for all vigilante groups, known as the Civil Defence Forces (CDF). A central coordinating committee, including representatives from diverse tribal defence groups, used government funds to buy arms, ammunition, food and medical supplies, which it distributed to field units.

Despite this façade of national unity, the Civil Defence Forces’ ethnically distinct units operated largely independently of each other. The Kamajors remained numerically dominant, partly because Mendeland saw the most insurgent activity, and received the lion’s share of government resources. Jealousy and fear of these irregular, largely Mende, forces helped fuel further army discontent, prompting a May 1997 coup by junior soldiers who established the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) and invited the rebel RUF to join their government. “The SLPP tribal hunter militia, the Kamajors, received logistics and supplies far beyond their immediate needs”, wrote a coup leader, arguing that the ruling party was favouring a “private army over our armed forces”. Only a small portion of the military remained loyal to the toppled government, now exiled in Conakry, Guinea. That government appealed to the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) for help and regional troops deployed under the banner of the ECOWAS Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) pushed the rebels and Armed Forces Revolutionary Council out of Freetown in Februar