The headquarters of one part of the CJTF vigilante group, who have been fighting Boko Haram

This article is a preview from the Summer 2019 edition of New Humanist

Many would see 33-year-old Hadiza Garba as an unlikely hero. Married at 14, she gave birth to her first child two years later. After an accident killed her husband when she was seven months pregnant with their second child, she moved back to live with her parents first, then her older brother, a respected imam of their town of Biu in Borno state of north-east Nigeria. When a group calling themselves Jama’atu Ahl al-Sunna li-l-Da’wa wa-l–Jihad (JAS), now commonly known as Boko Haram, started speaking against corruption and symbols of the “West” like the government, civil service and education system, Hadiza’s brother could not stay quiet. His preaching started to counter this ideology, urging people not to join the group and that education, far from being forbidden, is a force for good required by the Koran.

Then one night during the holy month of Ramadan, a neighbour came to their door. Hadiza, thinking he had come to give the traditional gifts of the season, welcomed him inside and called her brother to meet him. The next thing she knew, the neighbour was shooting her brother in the back and he lay dying.

The imam was not the only person JAS members killed in Biu. The day after his murder, her family went to the funeral prayers of three brothers also assassinated during the night. All of a sudden, one of the men present stood up. He declared he could no longer sit in silence knowing their murderer was among the mourners. The group grabbed the suspected killer and handed him over to security forces for questioning.

When Hadiza heard about this incident, she too started looking for – and caught – the neighbour who had killed her beloved brother. “Even if they will kill me, let me join hands to fight them,” she said. She did not stop there, and nor was she the only one moved to resistance. She joined other women and men who went house to house in the town and surrounding villages searching for weapons, arresting known members and handing them over to security forces. Women were particularly effective. JAS members would often hide weapons under their mothers’ beds, and men were not allowed to enter women’s rooms.

The remaining JAS members who had not been seized left Biu, fearing they would be next. They returned with reinforcements aiming to take over the town. They met girls, women, boys and men of all ages who fought back with sticks, stones, locally made guns, bows, arrows and any other weapons they could find. Soldiers joined in and the attacking fighters fled. Knowing they could no longer defeat Biu militarily, they started sending in people wearing IEDs, instructing them to detonate in crowded places.

At this point, Hadiza and the others started running checkpoints along the roads coming into Biu, carrying out searches to make sure this tactic would not be successful. Their group joined the yan gora or Civilian Joint Task Force which was taking similar action in Maiduguri, the state capital. It is just one such group currently operating in north-east Nigeria.

These kinds of groups are not a recent phenomenon and not limited to north-east Nigeria. They have a long historical background. In many parts of Nigeria, hunters, skilled in shooting arrows and later bullets, were the defenders of their community. Moreover, the colonial state relied on and appointed local leaders to suppress dissent, mobilise labour and collect taxes. In the 1980s, Nigeria experienced an economic downturn linked to population growth, budget issues and World Bank and International Monetary Fund structural adjustment programmes. At the same time, changes in climate and rainfall patterns were making it more difficult to earn livelihoods. Poverty, inequality, insecurity and crime were on the increase. People found themselves being robbed on their way to market and having goods and livestock stolen.

Community security mechanisms were created or revived. In many communities, hunters, who hunted for their livelihoods but also had roles in community governance, started patrolling roads to markets and other streets at night to deter thieves. Over time, they became known as vigilantes and joined the nascent Vigilante Group of Nigeria (VGN), a national organisation bringing together similar groups. “There were lots of criminals, thefts and killings due to lack of jobs and poverty,” Mohammed Tar, a Borno State vigilante commander, told me. “This reduced due to our work.”

Twenty-five years later, people in north-east Nigeria faced a new threat. On the one hand, JAS were engaging in targeted killings of those seen to oppose them. On the other, Nigerian security forces were treating everyone – particularly young men – as members, by carrying out mass arrests, reprisal attacks and extrajudicial killings. In this context, the yan gora in Maiduguri, described by everyone I spoke with as “a child of necessity”, were instrumental in chasing JAS members from the city.

Seeing the effectiveness of the yan gora, the Nigerian military asked them to take their model to other communities. People I spoke with last year for a research study (“Civilian Perceptions of the Yan Gora”, Center for Civilians in Conflict, 2018) told me how these groups are proactive in investigating reports, and provide concrete protection by conducting patrols, security scans and body searches, helping people to safety and giving escort to farmlands. They credit them for bringing back some stability and safety to the region.

In today’s wars, communities around the world have found ways to protect themselves in contexts as diverse as Afghanistan, Colombia and Uganda. Nearly two thirds of all civil wars fought between 1989 and 2010 have involved militias, according to Jessica Stanton of the University of Minnesota. Another academic specialist in civil wars, Corinna Jentzsch of Leiden University in the Netherlands, defines militias as armed organisations that exist outside the formal state security apparatus to counter insurgents, on the initiative of either local communities or the state.

In South Sudan and Uganda, the Arrow Boys, mostly farmers and hunters, came together to protect communities from attacks by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). Their strong information networks let them know if and when attacks might take place. Their connections with Ugandan and Sudanese armies meant they were able to ensure quick follow-up after attacks, and they were supported by local civil society and church groups, who provided food in exchange for night patrols that made people feel safer.

In Afghanistan, community shura councils talk with armed actors including the Taliban and Afghan security forces. They have negotiated ceasefires at certain times of the day, so children can attend school and adults can go to work. In Sierra Leone, community peace monitors approach conflicting parties through those close to them, building up confidence and relationships before starting initial discussions. These can lead to larger peace negotiations with resulting agreements witnessed by the entire community.

While individuals can show great bravery to come together in such militias, their existence also points to the state’s failure to protect. A report by the International Crisis Group on Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria (“Watchmen of Lake Chad”, 2017) charts how “drops in budget, an unreformed authoritarian mindset from colonial times, growing weaknesses in training and command, their instrumentalisation in internal politics, their factionalism and clientelistic turn combined to demoralise and sap the professionalism” of security forces in the region. It states that “vigilantism is as much a long-term symptom of state weakness in the Lake Chad basin as a short-term solution to it.”

The formation of militias also puts their members and the communities in which they live at risk. In Uganda and South Sudan, many Arrow Boys, not trained in fighting and armed with bows, arrows and other local weapons, have been killed by the LRA. In Nigeria, yan gora and vigilante leaders told me that many of their members have been killed, injured or left disabled. Survivors and their families typically receive no compensation and have to struggle for livelihoods. Raising community militias to fight JAS was instrumental in transforming the group from one primarily focused on the state into one that attacked civilians.

At the same time as the state is relinquishing or outsourcing its responsibility to provide for those living in it, coercive control has been increasing. In November 2018, the CIVICUS human rights monitoring organisation published a report showing that civil society is under serious attack in 111 out of 196 countries. Only 4 per cent of the global population lives in countries where governments respect freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression. It recorded attacks on journalists, censorship, harassment, excessive force during protest, intimidation and detention of human rights defenders and protesters. By a large margin, women activists were most likely to be targeted. Governments are also increasingly using the internet and new technologies as well as more traditional methods to monitor activities, clamp down on criticism and control narratives.

This widespread state repression and violence adds to already existing grievances around increasing inequality, control of natural resources, corruption and public services. Once violence arises, communities are increasingly left to fend for themselves or forced to create militia groups to help security forces. The male community leader of a village in Borno state told me how security forces started beating villagers, including elders, after they refused to form a village militia. In other locations, young men have reported how they were forced to join the yan gora and threatened if they did not do so.
Furthermore, while militias may start out with positive aims, this does not always last. Sierra Leone’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission has documented how the Civil Defence Forces, formed to protect civilians from violence by rebels, went on to harm them. The Arrow Boys of South Sudan are now fighting South Sudanese government forces. Human Rights Watch and other groups have noted human rights violations by their members.

In Nigeria too, yan gora members have been involved in assault and extrajudicial killings, sexual violence against women and girls, and intimidation, harassment, extortion and theft. “When they came in, we celebrated them as heroes but along the line they have been abusing a lot of their duties by inflicting injury on civilians,” one female activist told me. She went on to talk about cases of yan gora members withholding food from women unless they had sex with them, and forcing people to vote for certain politicians in the last elections. Many of these groups also discriminate against and marginalise their women members.

Despite all of this, back in Biu, Hadiza and the rest of her group continue to protect their people. She herself has survived two bomb blasts while running checkpoints. The first one came a while back. She was searching two men. One started shooting while the other detonated a bomb. Her friend was shot in the chest and died. Hadiza was hit by a bullet in her shoulder while the bomb exploded around her. Despite being told by her doctor to rest for at least two weeks after her release from hospital, she told me, “I was just eager to go and continue with my work so I voluntarily went again.”

Some time later, she was about to close the checkpoint for the day when she saw a man who looked suspicious. She refused to allow him to enter the town and asked him to raise his shirt to prove he was not carrying explosives. At that point, she saw him moving his hands together as if trying to detonate. She tried to stop him by grabbing one of his hands. “It detonated while I was there,” she told me.

This time, she was seriously injured and had to spend three months in hospital. She was given some money by a former government official and a local military commander but had to sell her belongings and borrow money to pay the rest of her medical costs.

Hadiza showed me where bomb fragments and the bullet from the two incidents had entered her left shoulder, knee and hand and across her back. Months after the latest bomb blast, she is still in pain, especially in the hand she used to try and stop the explosion. Yet she is back on the checkpoint. Despite the pain and the two bomb blasts she has already survived, her focus is on protecting her community. “I have not stopped,” she said. “I still have the zeal to continue."