How people in northeast Nigeria protect themselves


Borno state Gov. Kashim Shettima speaks to journalists during an interview in Abuja. (Sunday Alamba/AP)

One month after the kidnapping of more than 300 students in Chibok, Nigeria, international teams from the U.S., U.K., China, France  and Israel have arrived in Nigeria to assist local authorities in the hunt for the 276 girls who are still missing. International outcry, which took off in social media via the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls on Twitter and Instagram, has drawn so much attention to the crisis as to make it impossible for Nigeria’s leaders to ignore. The role of these teams is primarily advisory. It’s highly unlikely a team of Chinese commandos will descend into the Sambisa forest to rescue the girls. Instead, assistance to Nigeria in the hunt for the Chibok girls is centered around expertise in locating them, negotiations with Boko Haram for their release, ensuring that potential rescue attempts don’t cause more harm than good and assisting returned girls with counseling and other needed services.

While some are calling for  U.S. military action to rescue the Chibok girls, realistically, the task of saving and protecting them will fall largely to Nigeria’s security and intelligence services, with the assistance of the outside experts. As Human Rights Watch’s Sarah Margon notes, any action to assist the Nigerian army is fraught with moral hazard; this is an army that is responsible for almost as many abuses against civilians in northeastern Nigeria as Boko Haram itself. There are few alternatives to doing so, however. The Nigerian army is not going to disappear, which is why Margon is right to argue that assistance in fighting Boko Haram should be part of a more comprehensive effort to improve respect for human rights in Nigeria’s armed forces.

For ordinary Nigerians, though, the problem of lacking basic protection remains. This is true throughout Nigeria, not just in Boko Haram-affected areas. Nigeria’s police are often corrupt, under-equipped and incapable of reaching crime scenes in a timely fashion. In the northeast, even when communities have warning of an attack — as was apparently the case in Chibok — neither the police nor the army can be counted upon to respond quickly enough to stop such abuses.

Faced with a government that cannot protect their property or lives, some Nigerians in the northeast are creating vigilante groups to do so themselves.  Though they lack the same kind of formal accountability a police force would ideally have, vigilantes in Nigeria are not lawless mobs, but rather function as community-based police forces with varying levels of official and unofficial sanction from community members, leaders and the government.

Variation among vigilante groups operating in Nigeria is high on almost every metric. Some are officially registered with local police, with the tacit understanding that the vigilantes will respond to local crimes of a non-serious nature (like petty theft) while the police will be called in for more serious crimes like kidnapping or rape. Many vigilante groups operate under some form of accountability to local customary authorities, and as the membership in the vigilante groups are usually known to communities, they will be held accountable for any abuses by their fellow citizens as well. Other vigilantes operate on subscription-based models; if you have a problem with a crime committed against you and are a subscriber, you can call the vigilantes for help.

Vigilantism in Nigeria is an example of what scholars term hybrid forms of governance in weak states. These forms of governance are not fully undertaken by the state, but neither is the state completely uninvolved in regulating, overseeing or even partially providing the public services it cannot independently provide. The process of hybrid governance  is seen in widely varying sectors around the world, from public trash collection by community organizations to public education  systems run by religious actors.

Hybrid governance is not always ideal; in particular, the lack of well-formed mechanisms of accountability can be highly problematic when vigilantes or other service providers behave badly. But for communities that cannot count on the state to protect or provide for them, hybrid governance can be, as scholars Kate Meagher, Tom De Herdt and Kristof Titeca note, a “process through which state and non-state institutions coalesce around stable forms of order and authority.”

Hybrid governance’s contribution to stability both appeals to communities and poses challenges to the long-term process of state-building in places such as Nigeria. In his  study of two  vigilante groups, political scientist Johannes Harnischfeger found that they straddle the lines of state and non-state-based forms of authority. Nigerian vigilantes at once cooperate with the state and customary authorities while demonstrating the state’s weakness in delivering a service the state is unable to provide. Scholar Adrienne LeBas found that local-level security forces in Nigeria and Kenya are strongly affected by and can be co-opted by politicians seeking to manipulate them for their own game – and those leaders sometimes use unorganized gangs to perpetrate violence against their political enemies.. Other vigilantes sometimes acquire illegal arms, exposing people in and around their communities to more danger than protection. As both challengers, co-opters and necessary substitutes for or partners of the state, vigilante groups raise questions about what it means when we speak of Nigeria’s state, what states are normatively “supposed” to do, and what forms of governance might emerge in places where reality rarely works according to Western norms and ideals.

It’s unlikely that a vigilante group will find the missing Chibok girls. Regardless of the level of support it has from community members, those vigilantes will not have access to the weapons, training or intelligence resources necessary to undertake such a difficult task against a well-armed and vicious opponent. But Nigerian vigilantes’ existence is a reminder that people the world over are not passive victims of their state’s weakness. The people of northeastern Nigeria will pool what resources and talents they have to protect themselves and their communities. There’s no predicting what forms of social organization might ultimately arise as a result.

Laura Seay is an Assistant Professor of Government at Colby College. She studies African politics, conflict, and development, with a focus on central Africa. She has also written for Foreign Policy, The Atlantic, Guernica, and Al Jazeera English.

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