With his homemade rifle resting on the sandbags of the checkpoint, Mustapha Musa scans the red-mud road and the lush green fields surrounding his small village of Molai Kiliyari on the outskirts of the north-eastern city of Maiduguri.
For now, the only sound is bird-song. But Mr Musa, 24, and three other vigilantes on duty are tense – they know danger is just down the road. This is a place where strangers are treated with suspicion for good reason.
A few weeks ago, in the dead of night, several suicide bombers blew up their explosives bringing carnage to the village. Eight vigilantes were killed. “We don’t know when they’ll come and whether they’ll come with guns or bombs,” says Mr Musa, his trigger-finger resting on the wooden barrel of his rifle. “But I’m not scared of anything. There are soldiers nearby if we needed reinforcements.
The only problem we face is that the enemy is well-armed – and my gun only fires one round.” The young men are among the estimated 26,000 members of vigilante groups defending their communities from attacks by militants from the Boko Haram Islamist group. The eight-year insurgency has devastated north-eastern Nigeria and spilled over into neighbouring Chad, Niger and Cameroon. The vigilantes first came to prominence in Maiduguri in 2013. With the Nigerian army in disarray, there were fears that the city would fall. “Initially, the youth in Maiduguri were caught up between the brutality of Boko Haram and the harsh reprisals of the Nigerian military,” says Nnamdi Obasi, one of the authors of a recent International Crisis Group report on vigilante groups in the region.
“They formed vigilante groups so they could isolate and eliminate Boko Haram members and also demonstrate they were not complicit in the group’s attacks and atrocities.” The overstretched Nigerian military quickly realised the value of extra manpower and the local knowledge the vigilantes possessed. It joined up with them in order to flush out the insurgents. Unofficially, the vigilantes are now called the Civilian Joint Task Force (JTF), working alongside and liaising with the military. More than 650 have been killed in the violence.
Most are volunteers – petty traders, civil servants, and unemployed youth – and are not paid for their work. But around 2,000 vigilantes received some military training and are now on the government’s payroll. Often they man checkpoints, spotting potential suicide bombers. But they also operate alongside the army in the bush where Boko Haram militants take shelter. “It’s like rich people that go hunting,” one vigilante told me. “When the army says there’s an operation we all want to go.” The vigilantes are normally armed only with wooden clubs, machetes and homemade weapons. The authorities are cautious given that heavy-duty weapons could fall into the wrong hands or be turned against them.
While many Nigerians view the vigilantes as heroes in the fight against Boko Haram, they have been accused of human rights abuses from rape to extortion – and extra-judicial killings of suspected militants. Now, after years of fighting, there is a growing concern that battle-hardened vigilantes could turn into a militia that the authorities are not able to control. “There is a strong sense of entitlement among the vigilantes,” says Mr Obasi. “They believe they not only saved Maiduguri but have fought an insurgency on behalf of the Nigerian government.
He says that most wish to be formally absorbed into the military and security forces or at least be recognised, and paid, by the government, while others expect scholarships, skills training or grants to set up small businesses. “The fear is that unless these expectations are addressed, the authorities could have a big problem on their hands.” At an abandoned office building used by the vigilantes as a make-shift headquarters, scrawled on the wall in chalk is the message: “Forgiving a terrorist is left to god. But fixing their appointment with god is our responsibility.”
No jobs, no peace
It is here that I meet Lawan Jaafar, 39, the chairman of the Civilian JTF. He still works as a leather merchant and cattle trader when not leading the organisation. He’s a man of quiet intensity and purpose – he commands the respect of the thousands of vigilantes he heads. Earlier this year, he was detained by the Nigerian security forces on suspicion of selling cattle to Boko Haram militants. He was later released without being charged.
But it shows how Mr Jaafar is now a powerful player in this part of the country – and some other actors want to clip his wings. He carefully weighs his words: “I’m appealing to the government to provide jobs to the vigilantes and to take care of the poor families of those who lost their lives for the cause.” He has this warning if nothing happens: “We’re going to have problems with armed robbery and kidnapping – because if a man has no job, he will do anything to survive.”
No-one in north-east Nigeria doubts the bravery of the vigilantes. They have helped immensely in putting Boko Haram on the back foot. But unless their sacrifices are recognised, they could end up presenting a new security threat.