Written by Khadijat N. Yakubu (October, 2018)
It is no longer news that the security challenges in Nigeria are enormous, and that Nigeria’s police and judiciary system has failed to provide necessary protection to its people. In recent years the problem has gotten worse, especially in the Northern part of the country largely due to high rates of extreme poverty and under-employment and the menace of Boko Haram, a violent terrorist group that operates in the Northeastern part of Nigeria. Kaduna State, where I live and work, is no exception as it has been threatened by security challenges including religious riots, tribal wars, and the so called “bandit herdsmen” attacks on villages. In this blog post, I want to focus on the under-studied but crucial coping strategies that have emerged to address these security challenges at local scales: the increase in community policing, neighbourhood-watch and other informal security initiatives where individuals volunteer aiming to make their neighbourhoods safe and crime free.
Informal security groups: what we know and do not know
These security initiatives, although relatively new in the northern part of Nigeria, have existed for some time in the Southern regions. The Pan-Yoruba group O’odua People’s Congress (OPC), which derives its name from that of Oduduwa, the ancestor of the Yoruba race, is responsible for defending, protecting and promoting Yoruba interests. Around 1999, the OPC began to get involved in crime-fighting activities. They are usually employed by local governments in southwest States, for example residents pay about 500 Naira a month, some more, some less as tax for security which is in turn is paid to the OPC directly in Lagos state. An example of the OPCs approach to vigilantism is the use of force towards other ethnic groups to combat violence committed against the Yoruba’s. Similarly, in the late 90’s, the Bakassi Boys emerged as a vigilante group in the Southeast of Nigeria as a result of sharp increases in the crime rate in that part of the country. This group, like the OPC, has enjoyed popular support in the areas where they operated due to lack of alternatives to safety provision. Despite using extremely violent and brutal methods, these groups were hailed as heroes by many residents and credited with dramatically reducing the rate of violent crime in their areas of operation. These perceived successes, however, does not dismiss the fact that both OPC and Bakassi Boys, and other similar groups, have been alleged of extreme you of force and human right abuses.
Our research findings in Kaduna-based neighbourhoods
In the northern part of Nigeria where Kaduna is located, the activities of informal security organisations remains especially under-documented, most likely because there was no serious demand until recently. During the course of our research examining perceptions and experiences of crime in various Kaduna-based neighbourhoods, we have interviewed over 100 residents of major districts within Kaduna metropolis. A common theme raised by community respondents in relation to security challenges was the rise of informal security providers locally known as ‘En kato da gora’ (loosely translated as giant men with sticks), ‘Jarumai da Gora’ (loosely translated as warriors with sticks) ‘Civilian JTF’ (civilian joint task force), but most often referred to as the “Committee’.
The modus operandi of the Committee is similar to the vigilantes but the Vigilantes are usually paid on a monthly basis for their services while the committees do a volunteering kind of service without pay. Also, the vigilantes popularly known as En Banga, are formally recognized by the government and usually operate around high- and middle-income residential neighbourhoods while the Committees (informal securities) are usually formed in response to an increase in crime in communities around mostly low-income neighbourhoods that have little or no access to formal security services. As one of the local leaders we interviewed explained, these committees’ function to assist the police and most members volunteer to be part of the group, alongside their formal or informal jobs. The committee relies on donations from the community and its members are mostly active as security patrollers during night hours. One of the residents interviewed about the committee said; ‘The committee guys do what they do because of God and don’t depend on people’s money, they do what they can to help the community and the police’.
Mr. Saifullah, one of the leaders of the Committee we interviewed, shed light on the challenges and experiences of community members who volunteer to take part in the Committee. Saifullah is a young man in his early twenties who works as a Mason, he has a petrol shop in the informal economy. He also produces and sells local yoghurt during the day. He volunteered to join the ‘En kato da gora’ because of the rising security challenges in his community, specifically the rise of a criminal group known as ‘En sara suka’ (meaning people that go around stabbing and cutting).
Image 1: A typical En Kato da Gora establishment in Kaduna
According to over 12 interviewees familiar with the practices of Committees, these informal community-based security groups are usually formed in response to increases in crime in areas that have little or no access to formal security services, and most of these groups act to assist the police. Of course, we should also consider the fact that policing resources are overstretched in Nigeria, coupled with the inadequate number of police officers in the country proportionate to the number of residents. We have 180 officers for every 100,000 residents, which is among the lowest ration in the world. Therefore, what the police can actually do is debatable, but the key point here is that the role of local informal security providers is crucial at addressing local crime (and resolving the problem at local scales first), and at liaising with formal authorities if matters are considered serious enough to warrant formal policing responses. Saifullah, a member of the committee in Unguwann Dosa, explained how such groups are usually formed:
“You can all be seated and if you notice there is a lot of crime going on within your neighbourhood and you want to do something about it, it can start from two to three people forming the group to do something about crime and safety.”
Recounting how they first started the group, he explained:
“ You first go to the Sarkin Unguwa (community head) to tell him about your intentions of forming the group, he will then take you to the police station closest to the neighbourhood to inform the DPO [Divisional Police Officer – the senior officer in charge of the police division where the neighbourhood is located] about your plans, then the DPO will also take you to the court which will give you permission. After this process we start recruiting members from interested people within the neighbourhood. We will then be given an office and other resources such as ID Cards for members and other equipment’s needed to safeguard the community by the Sarkin Unguwa, after which we can start operating to safe guard the community.”
Alluding to the community politics and multiple steps that surround any community-based decision or mobilisation, Saifullah mentioned that the process “…is not as easy as it sounds”. When we asked him how they choose and recruit members, he informed us that most members volunteer to be part of the group, alongside their formal or informal jobs and are mostly active as security patrollers at night. He also discussed what motivated individuals to take part, and specified that, “We are aware that some people don’t join for the right reasons, some join to spy on the group, but if we get such people we usually expel them from the group.” To fund their activities, Saifullah explained that they rely on donations from the community and sometimes the Divisional Police Officer (DPO) and other well-off members within the community usually help out.
One of the key functions of the committee relates to conflict management. As he explained, “we also help resolve disagreements not just fighting criminals. So, for example if someone is owing you money and the person does not want to pay, people sometimes involve us and we meet the person and help resolve the issue making the person pay back and such people can show gratitude by giving us something but we are not saying you have to give us something for that. We also help parents discipline their kids and sometimes they give us something for that too but it’s not compulsory they pay us for these services because we are not doing it for that”.
Image 2: An informal security post in a residential neighbourhood in Kaduna
Saifullah explained that there were cases where the Committee members took laws into their own hands which led to the death of suspects. He further said their mandate is to catch suspects, counsel and advise them to desist from such activities and in extreme cases subject them to corporal punishment. In other words, Committee members are not permitted to harshly punish or kill anyone. The committee members were also advised by the police commissioner of the state not to punish anyone in any way, instead arrest/apprehend them and bring them to the police station if they need to be punished and anyone that resists will be jailed. Yet, when we discussed offenders, he explained how the committee treat offenders when they apprehend them. Here Saifullah admitted that the committee involves corporeal punishment for certain offenders, but it is not arbitrary. He explained that the punishment seeks to match the degree of bodily harm committed by the crime itself. As he explained:
“We don’t punish all criminals alike, we have a notorious group of criminals called ‘en sara suka’, when we catch these sorts of criminals we usually do to them what they do to others. This may involve cutting people with sharp objects such as machete and knives after beating them to a pulp before we hand them over to the police where they will face another torture. But for other criminals that are involved in petty crimes, we just beat them to an extent that they will not be able to stand up after the beating to teach them a lesson. For other issues like disagreements or quarrels we just simply intervene by discussing with them and helping them resolve the issue and ask them not to do such things again and if they are caught doing it again we flog them’.
As he explained how committees were formed, resourced, and what their disciplining tactics towards offenders tend to be, Saifullah stated that the State Governor recently tried to ban the Committee because of reported cases of committee members torturing suspected criminals and collaboration between them and criminals. One of the residents of Unguwan Dosa spoke of an incident where he suspected one of the committee members to have robbed his shop:
“There is this vigilante member I know, I once told him I was sick and not coming to my shop that day, and that same day my shop was burgled, when I confronted him about it he said it had rained and does not know anything.”
Residents we interviewed spoke of the effectiveness of the Committee in increasing security within the community, and claimed that there was an increase in crime within the neighbourhood after the State Governor placed a ban on Committees early this year. More than 60% of respondents have also said that they don’t trust the police and prefer reporting crime cases to the committee especially since most criminal cases reported to the police linger for a long time without resolution as opposed to their experiences with the informal security providers who address local crime right away. Commenting on the issue Mr. Balarabe (a pseudonym to respect his anonymity) a resident of kwaru said ‘ we catch a lot of en en sara suka members in this neighbourhood and used to take them to the police station straight away as advised by the Divisional Police Officer so that they can take them to prison but we noticed that such criminals are set free after a few days, including those that were accused of killing without any justice served. So, these are the kinds of actions that discourage us from reporting crime cases to the police’.
When we asked about how crime management could be improved within the neighbourhoods almost everyone said; ‘by supporting the committees.
As we start to analyse our recently completed interview data, we learn that just like in other parts of the country, informal security providers keep coming up in response to the increase in crime rates especially in low income neighbourhoods where there is high rates of poverty and unemployment, as well as a limited access to the formal security (police). A report by the Human Rights Watch in 2003 on Fighting Violence with Violence in Lagos, Nigeria attributed the rise of such groups to the fundamental inability of the national police force to perform its law enforcement functions effectively, and the consequent lack of public confidence in the police, which has resulted in the perception on the part of the general public that it is futile to report crimes to the police, or expect any remedial action from them.
In sum, the introduction of informal security provision and community policing has been a topic of discussion for some time now in Nigeria. In some cases, committee groups risk becoming influenced by desperate politicians during elections, causing mayhem and becoming uncontainable as well as too powerful. But they have already been regarded as a vital pillar of crime mitigation and security provision. For example, in Lagos state residents confirmed that the OPC’s vigilante role was well established and that it maintained an active presence, patrolling the streets and ostensibly maintaining security in the local communities (Human Rights Report 2003). Recently, Mr. Suleiman Abba, a former Inspector General of Police, supported the idea of community policing saying, “for Nigeria to drastically reduce crime and terrorist activities, she urgently needs to encourage community Policing”. So, the question this raises is whether it is acceptable to formally identify committed volunteers and have the Government empower and formally integrate these informal security providers into the National security system as the Civilian Joint Task Force (JTF) was in Maiduguri, assisting the Nigerian Army in the fight against Boko Haram? This was also the case with the OPC in Lagos that assisted the police in the fight against the notorious Badoo cult group. Or conversely, should such practices be discouraged given their informal set up and the lack of checks and balances to ensure appropriate responses and control?
The fact remains that something will have to be done about the increase in crime rate in most parts of the country. So far in our study, we have found that informal security providers have helped curb security challenges especially in low income neighbourhoods, and efforts to discourage them from operating has led to an increase in crime rates in some cases. At the same time, the ban on committees also reflects the difficulty of controlling groups whose ‘security provision’ methods go too far.