The spread of vigilante organisations across Nigeria, encompassing volunteers as well as state-sponsored groups, is both helping authorities fight crime and insurgency, and exacerbating those problems. In many parts of the country, vigilantes essentially fill in for the Nigeria Police Force, which is under federal rather than local control. They have become so important to providing security that for now the country has little choice but to rely on them. Yet there are dangers. Reliance on vigilantes raises constitutional questions. Poorly trained and equipped, some commit grave human rights violations. The emergence of ethnically exclusive groups threatens to stir up communal tensions. Over the long term, Nigerian authorities need to rebuild trust in their capacity to protect the public without vigilante assistance through comprehensive police reform. They should listen to those leaders pressing to devolve certain policing functions to the state and community levels, likely a necessity. Meanwhile, federal and state governments should develop a framework for regulating vigilantism, emphasising oversight and accountability.
The surge of new vigilante groups, particularly since the mid-2010s, owes to several factors. These include the Boko Haram insurgency in the North East geopolitical zone; long-running ethno-religious conflict in the North Central zone, coupled with the escalation of herder-farmer violence in that zone and in several southern states; and the rise of violent crime, especially in the North West, as well as in cities and on highways. These challenges have overwhelmed the police force, which is underfunded, understaffed and under-equipped. As they must often await orders from their federal headquarters, the police seem increasingly unable to respond swiftly to distress calls in many places. Many Nigerians have lost faith in the federal government’s commitment to protecting all citizens in all parts of the country equally. These trends are driving citizens and ethnic groups to devise alternative arrangements for protecting themselves.
Perceptions of the vigilante groups are varied. Many offer important services, leading citizens and state officials to view them favourably. But vigilante actions have also created controversies. Opponents, including some federal officials, say the mandates of some groups contravene the 1999 constitution, which vests law enforcement powers primarily responsible for serious abuses that have deepened a culture of impunity in areas hard hit by violence. In the countdown to the 2023 general elections – and beyond – vigilante groups could wind up captured by politicians looking for muscle with which to intimidate voters or perpetrate fraud. Lastly, ethnically exclusive groups have emerged of late, straining communal relations and risking damage to national cohesion.
To reduce reliance on vigilantism, the federal government can take several steps to dissuade communities and regions from mobilising vigilantes to defend themselves. The first is to improve the federal government’s own capacity to provide security and mete out justice. It is urgent that the government commence long overdue police reform, while boosting the force’s funding and manpower. It should also boost the judiciary’s capacity to deter crime and restore trust in the justice system. To better meet community needs, political leaders who have been pressing for some devolution of police powers to the state and community levels should continue to do so, until a more effective system of multi-level policing can be put in place.
But these are huge and long-term undertakings, the fruits of which may not ripen for quite some time. In the meantime, to enhance management of vigilante organisations and contain the above-referenced risks, the federal government should work with state governments to formulate a national legal framework for regulating the groups. The key features of this framework should include, at a minimum, provisions compelling all vigilante groups to register with local, state or federal governments (depending on the scope of their operations); oversight mechanisms; basic training standards for new recruits; a code of conduct for group members together with disciplinary mechanisms; and protocols for relations between vigilantes and police, as well as modalities for funding and equipment. At the same time, the patrons and sponsors of vigilante groups, from state governments to community associations, should improve recruitment procedures and training programs, ensure that groups have adequate resources and strengthen oversight mechanism.
The resort to vigilantism in Nigeria is understandable as a desperate response to a dire security situation. But given the risks, the federal government should be taking steps that aim to make this response a temporary one. It should move quickly to rebuild confidence in its commitment to keeping all citizens safe, regardless of who they are or where they live. It should also work to ensure that so long as vigilante groups remain part of the security landscape, their efforts are appropriately channelled and the risks they present appropriately managed.