The plight of residents in some of Nigeria’s violence hotspots may be ending soon. On March 3rd 2021, Garba Shehu, a presidential spokesperson, said Nigerian President, Muhammadu Buhari, has directed security agencies to shoot anyone seen with an AK-47. This directive is targeted at flushing out bandits in northern Nigeria. In recent years, states in northern Nigeria have witnessed an unprecedented rise in non-state armed groups’ violence. It has resulted in thousands of deaths and displacements, large scale ransom kidnaps. Many policy options, including a potential amnesty deal, have come up as responses to armed banditry. But in February 2021, President Buhari ended speculations on a possible amnesty programme for bandits instead suggested the likelihood of increased military engagements to end the violence.
President Buhari’s new directive is both commendable and worrisome. First, it will increase a much needed military commitment to end banditry and stabilise the volatile areas. Second, it will be an indirect effort to silence guns in Nigeria. But the directive’s apparent indefiniteness may create confusion in the classification of bandits and non-state security units. Due to the rise of violence, many non-state actors such as local hunters and militias groups have come up to defend themselves and communities against armed bandits’ menace. The many years of poor securitisation of the violent hotspots have led to the proliferation of non-state security units poised to fill in security gaps and manage rural violence. Therefore, the reinvigorated military responses to banditry must take cognisance of the assortment of quasi-security units providing policing functions in rural locations.
The new wave of these informal security actors is already creating violent tensions, especially those established along ethnic or identity lines. In some instances, identically-diverse communities are forming vigilante groups to defend themselves against known enemies. The United Nations Special Representative to West Africa says there are already reports of alleged abuses by volunteer groups and self-defence militias by communities. Terrorists may also be capitalising on the state’s absence in peripheral areas to exploit the latent ethnic animosities. This situation may explain the recent spate of violence in the bandits rampaged northwest and northcentral zones. Security agencies are faced with more significant challenges of combating existing security challenges and new group tensions.
President Buhari-backed new security commitments in bandits-burdened states in Nigeria must factor in existing defence militias providing security needs. Military forces must work with state governments, civil society organisations and community actors to identify and register local security actors in target locations of renewed military missions. This will help to avoid a looming crisis of lumping bandits and informal security units that bear arms. Indiscriminate combat against defence militias may radicalise and turn them into enemies of the state, whereas they complement the ineffectual securitisation of the violent hotspots.
Additionally, there should be a robust regulation of self-defence militias by security agencies. This strategy will aid local partnerships for the securitisation efforts against banditry and other forms of rural violence. However, engagements with self-defence militias must be inclusive of militia groups. Excluding some groups could exacerbate tensions between different militias. The Centre for Civilians in Conflict recommends that engagement with militia groups must be balanced and inclusive of all community militias. Nigerian forces must apply tactical steps to implement President Buhari’s order to shoot anyone seen with AK 47 guns in areas prone to banditry. This narrative may lead to extrajudicial killings of harmless non-state armed security groups. Nigerian military must be wary not to compound the violence it intends to combat.