Local hunters known as Vigilantes armed with locally made guns are seen on a pick up truck in Yola city of Adamawa State in Nigeria before they move to border region between Nigeria and Cameroon to support Nigerian army fighting with Boko Haram militants ISSOUF SANOGO / AFP
Report 244 / Africa

Watchmen of Lake Chad: Vigilante Groups Fighting Boko Haram

Regional armies in the Lake Chad basin deploy vigilantes to sharpen campaigns against Boko Haram insurgents. But using these militias creates risks as combatants turn to communal violence and organised crime. Over the long term they must be disbanded or regulated.

Executive Summary

Vigilante groups in Nigeria, Cameroon, Niger and Chad play a major role in the fight against Boko Haram, but their presence raises concerns. They make military operations less blunt and more effective and have reconnected these states somewhat with many of their local communities, but they have also committed abuses and become involved in the war economy. In Nigeria in particular, vigilantism did much to turn an anti-state insurgency into a bloodier civil war, pitting Boko Haram against communities and leading to drastic increases in violence. As the conflict continues to evolve, so will vigilantes. They are enmeshed with high politics, especially in Nigeria, and in local intercommunal relations, business operations and chiefdoms. Their belief that they should be rewarded will need to be addressed, and it is also important for the Lake Chad basin states to address the common gap in community policing, particularly in rural areas. To ensure vigilantes are not a future source of insecurity, these states will each need to devise their own mix of slowly disbanding and formalising and regulating them.

Vigilantism, the recourse to non-state actors to enforce law and order (of a sort), has a history in the Lake Chad region. Colonial powers there relied, to a substantial degree, on local traditional chiefs and their retinues. The multi-faceted crisis in governance and decline in services among the Lake Chad states since the 1980s gave rise to new vigilante groups. The law and order challenges vigilantes tried to address were a factor in the formation and growth of Boko Haram, itself an attempt to provide regulation and guidance.

The vigilante fight against Boko Haram started in 2013, in Maiduguri, the Borno state capital and the insurgency’s epicentre, under the twin pressure of mounting jihadist violence and security force retaliation. The Joint Task Force (JTF), led by the Nigerian army, quickly realised the vigilantes’ potential as a source of local knowledge, intelligence and manpower and set out to help organise it, with the assistance of local and traditional authorities. Operating under the unofficial but revealing name of Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF), vigilantes were essential in flushing Boko Haram out of the city, then began replicating throughout the state. The official use of vigilantes to fight the movement spread further in Nigeria, then to Cameroon in 2014 and Chad in 2015, where the groups are known as comités de vigilance. Niger has been more cautious, partly because of past struggles with armed groups and because it has not needed them as much.

Vigilantes have played many roles, from mostly discrete surveillance networks in Niger to military combat auxiliaries or semi-autonomous fighting forces in Nigeria. For the region’s overstretched and under pressure militaries, they have somewhat filled the security gap and provided local knowledge. They have made the military response more targeted and more efficient, but their mobilisation also provoked retribution by Boko Haram against their communities and contributed to the massive levels of civilian casualties in 2014 and 2015. Paradoxically, this, too, has favoured regional governments’ strategy of pushing civilians away from the jihadists.

… the time has come to measure the risks posed by such a massive mobilisation of vigilantes …

As the insurgency splinters and falls back on more discrete guerrilla operations and terror attacks, however, the time has come to measure the risks posed by such a massive mobilisation of vigilantes (they claim to be about 26,000 in Borno state alone). Their compensation demands will have to be addressed, especially if authorities consider offering deals to Boko Haram militants to lay down their weapons. In the longer term, vigilantes may become political foot soldiers, turn to organised crime or feed communal violence. Vigilantism can be a powerful counter-insurgency tool, but there is a compelling need to confront the immediate concerns it raises, notably in terms of impunity, and to begin planning for its long-term post-conflict transformation.


To protect civilians, limit risks to vigilantes and improve accountability

To the governments of Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Niger:

  1.  Abstain, as much as possible, from creating additional standing vigilante units and focus instead on building intelligence and communication networks through which civilians can obtain state protection when needed.
  2.  Ensure that as many civilians as possible have access to functional communication networks and can call on regular security forces, especially where risks remain high.
  3. Encourage, when necessary to maintain vigilante forces, their formalisation, including registration, and systems for internal oversight and external accountability, and include community oversight in accountability mechanisms.
  4. Supply assault rifles only to select groups of better-trained CJTF and for mission-specific purposes, such as when they serve as auxiliaries, while ensuring that those weapons are registered and remain security-service property.
  5. Synchronise CJTF accountability mechanisms with those of the federal Nigeria Police Force.
  6. Hold to account those vigilantes suspected of abuses, notably for sexual and gender-based violence, and ensure transparent and fair investigation of all suspects in accordance with domestic and international law, while publicising any judicial decisions.
  7. Provide vigilantes training programs that mix practical skills (eg, intelligence, first aid, handling of landmines and improvised explosive devices) and instruction in applicable national and international laws, while involving the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and relevant human rights groups (eg, in Nigeria, the National Human Rights Commission) in the latter.

To donors:

  1. Adjust legal guidelines to permit assistance in building justice and accountability mechanisms.

To acknowledge the contribution of the vigilantes and manage expectations

To the governments of Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Niger:

  1. Combat stereotyping that certain entire ethnic communities, notably the Kanuri, support Boko Haram by highlighting vigilante efforts from those groups.
  2. Respect vigilantes publicly and give sufficient and standardised assistance packages to those wounded or killed in the line of duty and their families.
  3. Set expectations for compensation transparently through public announcements on what is being offered and to whom, who is not eligible and when it will end, so as not to motivate more vigilantism.

To prepare for a transformation of the vigilantes and prevent the emergence of mafias and ethnic militias

To the governments of Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Niger:

  1. Plan to transform vigilante units when the situation stabilises further, with each country following its own pace according to its security situation and according to the extent and role of vigilantism, notably by:
    1. planning demobilisation processes for the majority of vigilantes that include small grants to help them go back to their former occupations, complete their education or develop businesses;
    2. creating, given the likely continuation of some form of lower-level jihadist activity and rural unrest, particularly in Borno and Adamawa states, a temporary auxiliary body under the army or Police Mobile Force, drawing on the vigilantes who have received weapons training and served directly with security forces; and providing for their potential integration into the security forces if they meet the educational and other requirements and undergo retraining;
    3. combatting police and vigilante corruption vigorously, so it does not undermine professionalism, and improving ties with local communities; and
    4. selecting, vetting, retraining and equipping a number of vigilantes with the help of local civil society organisations, so that they feed reports and early warning into both police and civil society networks.
  2. Prepare a disarmament plan that focuses exclusively on taking functional automatic weapons out of circulation.

To donors:

  1. Support programs for vigilante demobilisation and to professionalise the police and their capacity to monitor and regulate temporary auxiliary forces.

Dakar/Nairobi/Brussels, 23 February 2017


I. Introduction

The insurgency launched in 2009 by Boko Haram, a radical revivalist Islamist movement established earlier in Borno state, in Nigeria’s north east and adjacent to Lake Chad, is now regional, affecting the border areas of Chad, Niger and Cameroon. In 2014-2015, it gained control of large swaths of territory in north-east Nigeria. Since 2015, Nigeria and its neighbours have progressively developed a stronger military response. Boko Haram has mostly been forced into enclaves on Lake Chad, the hills along the Nigeria-Cameroon border and forested areas of Borno state. It has reverted to suicide attacks and guerrilla war. Military pressure, importantly aided by vigilantes, has aggravated its internal divisions.[fn]For background, see Crisis Group Africa Reports N°s 213, Curbing Violence in Nigeria (II): The Boko Haram Insurgency, 3 April 2014; and 168, Northern Nigeria: Background to Conflict, 20 December 2010; on recent counter-insurgency progress and its limits, see Briefing N°120, Boko Haram on the Back Foot?, 4 May 2016. The organisation has two rival factions, Abubakar Shekau’s Jama’tu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad (People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad, JAS) and Abu Musab al-Barnawi’s Wilāyat al-Islāmiyya Gharb Afrīqiyyah (Islamic State in West Africa Province, ISWAP), affiliated to the Islamic State (IS). This report uses the term “Boko Haram” (“Western education is forbidden”, in Hausa) for clarity and given its wide recognition, though supporters reject it as derogatory.Hide Footnote

This report describes how the vigilante groups were born, their connection with state agencies and institutions, how they function and their role in the conflict’s evolution. While special attention is paid to Borno, one of Nigeria’s 36 federated states and the heartland of the insurgency, it also analyses vigilantes’ operations elsewhere in the north east of the country and in Niger, Chad and Cameroon. It assesses vigilantism’s long-term impact and risks. As Boko Haram splinters and morphs into more discrete guerrilla forces, with renewed emphasis on terrorist attacks, it is timely to rethink the role of vigilantes and their governance and prepare for their transformation.

Analysts working on all four affected countries were involved in preparation of the report, which feeds into Crisis Group’s larger research on curbing violent religious radicalism.[fn]Crisis Group Special Report N°1, Exploiting Disorder: al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, 14 March 2016.Hide Footnote Desk research was followed by interviews in the region’s capitals with state and military officials, intelligence officers, international military advisers and senior politicians. Research was also done in Maiduguri and Yola, the capitals of Nigerian Borno and Adamawa states, in Maroua, Mokolo, Makari and other localities of Cameroon’s Far North and in Niger’s Diffa region and Chad’s cities of Bol and Baga Sola, on Lake Chad. Researchers interviewed vigilantes, local state and security and non-governmental organisation officials, human rights activists, journalists, academics and citizens to investigate their understandings of the situation and their perceptions of peace, law and order.

II. From Vigilantism to the CJTF

A. State and Vigilantism: A Tale of Four Countries

Law and order in the Lake Chad basin bears the imprint of pre-colonial and colonial times, when massive disruption occurred as states formed and disappeared due to a fast-changing regional economy increasingly shaped by global connections.[fn]Bawuro Barkindo, “The early states of the Central Sudan: Kanem, Borno and some of their neighbours to c. 1500 AD”, in J. Ajayi and M. Crowder (eds.), History of West Africa (Harlow, 1985), pp. 225-254.Hide Footnote Slave-raiding, banditry and cattle rustling fed local forms of self-defence. After often violent conquest, and frequently in alliance with local warlords, colonial states maintained relative peace, but particularly in rural areas they habitually relied on decentralised forces, the retinues of chiefs.

Much has been made of the differences between colonial administrations, France’s Jacobin “direct rule” and the British tradition of “indirect rule” and reliance on pre-existing aristocracies.[fn]Nigeria was a British colony; Chad, Niger and Cameroon were part of the French empire.
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They should not be overstated: the colonial state relied everywhere on a strata of chiefs and their followers to levy taxes, mobilise labour and suppress dissent. The presence of local forces that are not part of the police or the army but are involved in providing law and order thus has a history in the region.

This tradition became increasingly important as insecurity increased around Lake Chad from the 1980s, due to many factors, including population growth, the states’ budgetary problems, the resulting “structural adjustments”, urbanisation, the crisis in pastoralist societies (notably the Fulani) and the influx of automatic weapons and battle-hardened men from vanquished armies in Niger’s and Chad’s wars. Insecurity ranged from banditry (the kwanta kwanta in Nigeria and zargina in Cameroon) to all-out armed rebellion (most recently the Chad civil war, 2005-2010, and the Tuareg insurgencies in Niger in the 1990s and 2007).[fn]See notably Issa Saibou, Les coupeurs de route: Histoire du banditisme rural et transfrontalier dans le bassin du lac Tchad (Paris, 2010); Christian Seignobos, “Le phénomène zargina dans le nord du Cameroun. Coupeurs de route et prises d’otages, la crise des sociétés pastorales mbororo”, Afrique contemporaine, no. 239 (2011), pp. 35-59; Mirco Göpfert, “Security in Niamey: an anthropological perspective on policing and an act of terrorism in Niger”, Journal of Modern African Studies, vol. 50, no. 1 (2012), pp. 53-74; Mohammed J. Kuna and Jibrin Ibrahim (eds.), Rural banditry and conflicts in northern Nigeria (Abuja, 2016).Hide Footnote The situation was made worse by deterioration in the security forces.[fn]Drops in budgets, 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 the various corps supposed to maintain law and order. See for instance, Samuel Decalo, “Modalities of civil-military stability in Africa”, Journal of Modern African Studies, vol. 27, no. 4 (1989); Eboe Hutchful and Abdoulaye Bathily (eds.), The military and militarism in Africa (Dakar, 1998); Herbert M. Howe, Ambiguous Order: Military Forces in African States (London, 2001). For Niger, see Kimba Idrissa (ed.), Armée et politique au Niger (Paris, 2008); for Nigeria, see Crisis Group Africa Report N°237, Nigeria: The Challenge of Military Reform, 6 June 2016.Hide Footnote

Alternative local security structures were reactivated or created. In the Lake Chad basin, they have often drawn on brotherhoods of hunters (yan baka, in Hausa, the region’s lingua franca) typical of West Africa or on the traditional chiefs’ palace guards (dogari, in Hausa).[fn]Crisis Group interview, Adamawa state hunters’ association official, Yola, 30 October 2016.Hide Footnote Some scholars argue that contemporary vigilantism has also been influenced by U.S. and European promotion of community policing.[fn]David Pratten, “The politics of protection: perspectives on vigilantism in Nigeria”, Africa: The Journal of the International African Institute, vol. 78, no. 1 (2008), pp. 1-15.Hide Footnote In many cities, night watches appeared, paid for by traders’ consortiums or the town councils.

Each country’s history of war and rebellion has marked its response to Boko Haram.

Each country’s history of war and rebellion has marked its response to Boko Haram. Chad and Niger view vigilantes with peculiar concern because of their recent revolts.[fn] Nonetheless, Chadian authorities occasionally encouraged vigilantes to fight against bandits in the past.[fn]In south-west Chad in 2007, for instance, the interior minister explicitly called on villagers to form comités d’auto-défense to combat a kidnapping epidemic. “Délégation gouvernementale à Pala en mars 2007”, on file with Crisis Group.Hide Footnote For Niger, neighbouring Mali, where the army has long abandoned its pretence of a monopoly in use of force and communal militias have gained influence, is a powerful counter-model. Nevertheless, Nigerien vigilantes, such as the dan banga, were recently patrolling the market areas in the cities of Diffa and Mainé Soroa, and the governor of Niamey tried to mobilise similar groups a few years back.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, state officials, Niamey, May 2016; NGO protection officer, Diffa, 14 October 2016; Göpfert, “Security in Niamey”, op. cit. In Diffa, the dan banga disappeared after a European Union (EU)-funded program created local police in 2015. Dan banga is Hausa pidgin for “vanguard”, initially used to designate Nigerian political parties’ youth wings. This suggests a Nigerian model spreading to Niger.Hide Footnote

Cameroon has long relied on vigilantes. Groups controlled by chiefs played a strong part in the fight against the left-wing Union des Populations du Cameroun from the 1950s to the early 1970s. In the 1990s and early 2000s, the state cooperated with comités de vigilance against bandits in northern regions. However, in 2001 it created a well-armed elite force, the Bataillon d’Intervention Rapide (BIR), now at the forefront of the fight against Boko Haram. But vigilantes have always been part of the picture, for instance to combat cotton smugglers.[fn]Cameroon cotton farmers were required to sell crops to the state firm, SODECOTON, often well below Nigerian prices, leading to big illegal exports. Crisis Group interview, Cameroon academic, Paris, 29 March 2016. On vigilantes fighting bandits, see Saibou, Les coupeurs de route, op. cit. In 2009, a Catholic official called for vigilantes to fight human trafficking. “Catholic church fights tip in Cameroon’s North West”, U.S. embassy Yaounde cable, 23 April 2009, made public by WikiLeaks.Hide Footnote  The state is confident enough to mobilise the comités de vigilance on a large scale and feels it can control them through its territorial administration and local chiefs.[fn]The Cameroon authorities insist the comités are about “vigilance” not self-defence, thus affirming the state did not default on its obligations to defend its citizens. Crisis Group interviews, Far North, October 2016.Hide Footnote

In Nigeria, history provided both precedents and cautions. As elsewhere, vigilantes have long been involved in fighting bandits, usually without state coordination or official support.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, CJTF and civilians, Maiduguri, January 2017.Hide Footnote  However, they have a record of getting out of hand.[fn]See, for instance, Kate Meagher, “Hijacking Civil Society: The Inside Story of the Bakassi Boys Vigilante Group of South-Eastern Nigeria”, Journal of Modern African Studies, vol. 45, no. 1 (2007), pp. 89-115; Yvan Guichaoua, “Les mutations d’une milice ethnique sous le régime civil d’Olusegun Obasanjo. Le cas de l’Oodua People’s Congress”, Politique africaine, no. 106 (2007), pp. 92-109; Johannes Harnischfeger, “Ethnicity, Religion and the Failure of Common Law in Nigeria”, in Kirsch, T.G. and Grätz, T. (eds.), Domesticating Vigilantism in Africa (Woodbridge, 2010), pp. 51-78.
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 Some have become involved in violent local politics or have run protection rackets.[fn]Crisis Group Report, N°113, Nigeria: Want in the Midst of Plenty, 19 July 2006, pp. 27-28; Briefing N°79, Nigeria’s Elections: Reversing the Degeneration?, 24 February 2011, pp. 5-6; Daniel Jordan Smith, “The Bakassi Boys: Vigilantism, Violence, and Political Imagination in Nigeria”, Cultural Anthropology, vol. 19, no. 3 (2004), pp. 429-455; David Pratten, “The Politics of Protection”, op. cit.Hide Footnote  The massive communal violence in central Nigeria has also fed authorities’ suspicions of irregular local forces. And while the 1999 constitution makes policing a federal prerogative, many states have been forming quasi-police forces.[fn]Crisis Group interview, civil society police reform expert, Abuja, 17 January 2017. Section 214 (1) of the constitution provides that: “There shall be a police force for Nigeria, which shall be known as the Nigeria Police Force, and subject to the provisions of this section no other police force shall be established for the Federation or any part thereof”. Local police were disbanded after the 1966 military coup. On one such quasi-police force in Kano state, see Fatima L. Adamu, “Gender, Hisba and the Enforcement of Morality in Northern Nigeria”, Africa: The Journal of the International African Institute, vol. 78, no. 1 (2008), pp. 136-152.Hide Footnote

B. CJTF’s Birth: The Battle for Maiduguri

The quasi-official narrative on anti-Boko Haram vigilantism is that in early 2013 Baba Jafar Lawan, a trader from Hausari, a borough of Maiduguri, went after a Boko Haram militant with a stick, capturing and delivering him to the authorities.[fn]See, for instance, “Nigeria: Civilian JTF – Unsung Heroes of the Boko Haram War”, This Day, 4 October 2015. Variants to the story say it was another man, by the name of Modu Milo, who did the capture, and Baba Lawan, with prior ties to the security forces, possibly as an informant, put Milo in touch with them. An international NGO official suggested Lawan was the victim of a racket by Boko Haram supporters and mobilised youths to fight back, a version CJTF leaders rejected. Crisis Group interviews, Maiduguri, January 2017; Crisis Group email, human rights worker, 8 April 2016.Hide Footnote Others, the story goes, started patrolling Hausari with him. Little by little, offshoots sprung up throughout the city. Several suspected Boko Haram members were handed over to the authorities; others were brutally killed by crowds. By June 2013, some 500 vigilantes were manning city checkpoints, armed with sticks and cutlasses.[fn]“Nigeria deploys vigilantes against Boko Haram”, Deutsche Welle, 9 July 2013.Hide Footnote They became known as the Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF), indicating they operated as a counterpart to the Joint Task Force (JTF) that coordinated the police, army and other security units fighting Boko Haram in Borno state.

There was more to this than a spontaneous, popular resistance to a bloody and fanatic jihadist insurgency. Boko Haram’s violence was certainly hard on people in Maiduguri. Security officers, Islamic clerics critical of Boko Haram and civilians otherwise associated with the Borno state or the federal government were threatened and assassinated, and the wealthier members of the communities were extorted by the jihadists. But the security forces, too, were brutal, as they implemented collective punishment strategies, especially when soldiers and police were killed, including the burning of homes and mass arrests of male youths.[fn]“Spiralling Violence. Boko Haram Attacks and Security Force Abuses in Nigeria”, Human Rights Watch, 11 October 2012.Hide Footnote Commanders’ unwillingness to curb these abuses provoked mounting tensions in Maiduguri. In addition, a state of emergency, from May to December 2013, that included a shutdown of phone services, fuelled economic problems for city traders.

Many Maiduguri inhabitants felt their community had to fight Boko Haram so as to deflect security forces’ suspicion and retaliation.

Many Maiduguri inhabitants felt their community had to fight Boko Haram so as to deflect security forces’ suspicion and retaliation. CJTF leaders confirm that many people joined because they feared both the jihadists and that if they did not isolate Boko Haram members, “they would be killed [by] soldiers who could not distinguish them from other youth and were killing indiscriminately”.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, CJTF members and leaders and civilians, Maiduguri, October 2016, January 2017. See also “Youth vigilantes set another suspected Boko Haram sect member ablaze in Maiduguri”, Information Nigeria, 27 July 2013.Hide Footnote

Professor Mohamed Kyari, a noted analyst of the insurgency, has argued that the army’s retaliations were part of “a strategy aimed at compelling residents to cooperate with troops in exposing Boko Haram insurgents”, and that the CJTF included “repentant members of Boko Haram who were recruited by the military”, a textbook counter-insurgency move. Whatever the truth, CJTF members acknowledge that the security forces, and particularly the army, which had the JTF lead, were quick to appreciate the potential of a vigilante response in Maiduguri. The JTF organised the groups along its own lines of command, with Maiduguri divided into ten sectors. JTF officers were also involved in the selection of CJTF leaders, a chairman and a secretary for each sector, with whom they worked closely. A number of JTF checkpoints were handed over to the CJTF.[fn]“Civilian vigilante groups increase dangers in northeastern Nigeria”, IRIN, 12 December 2013. Crisis Group interviews, CJTF leaders, Maiduguri, 18 October 2016, January 2017. The JTF command (and its successor, the 7th Division), based in Maiduguri, seems to have been in charge. A committee was formed in September 2014 around the Abuja-based chief of defence staff to supervise the CJTF, but it seems to have never really functioned.
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Soon after, the CJTF formed links to the state’s major leaders, the Shehu of Borno, Abubakar Ibn Umar Garbai El-Kanemi, and Governor Kashim Shettima.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, CJTF leaders, Maiduguri, January 2017. The Shehu is the traditional ruler of the Borno Emirate, which was defeated in 1893 and subsequently integrated into the British colony of Nigeria. He is the ceremonial head of the Kanuri people and retains influence over much of Borno through a network of chiefs.Hide Footnote The army and Borno state government cooperated in structuring the CJTF further. A number of mid-ranking state officials took key CJTF positions. As early as September 2013, an “orientation program”, the Borno Youths Empowerment Scheme (BOYES), selected and screened young men, who then received some military training from the army. State authorities gave them uniforms, patrol cars and identification documents (IDs), as well as a stipend. It was eventually announced that BOYES would train up to 6,000, but it stopped at around 1,850, apparently due to the army’s uncertainty about training so many potentially unreliable persons. Some recruits, suspected of association with Boko Haram and of trying to get training or intelligence, were arrested.[fn]“War against Boko: Borno holds orientation for 800 ‘BOYES’ Civilian JTF”, NewsRescue, 28 September 2013. All who demonstrated unexplained prior mastery of automatic weapons during training were arrested. Crisis Group interviews, CJTF leaders and BOYES members, Maiduguri, 18 October 2016, January 2017.Hide Footnote

CJTF-military cooperation has remained very close. The army later provided standard military training to about 200 members to create a “CJTF Special Force”, with greater weapon skills and operational capability, that could be used in front-line operations. By late 2013, Maiduguri was largely purged of Boko Haram cells, and there have been few subsequent attacks in the city, other than suicide operations, often against refugee camps on its periphery. Most intra-city checkpoints have disappeared.[fn]Crisis group interview, member of CJTF special force, Maiduguri, 15 January 2017; observations, Maiduguri, January 2017.Hide Footnote

C. Spreading the CJTF Model

Nigerian security services and Borno state authorities cooperated to spread the CJTF model. First, Maiduguri CJTF elements began accompanying the army outside the city. In July 2013, they were involved in operations in neighbouring Jere Local Government Area (LGA), as well as in more distant localities like Dikwa and Dawashi. As the army defended or took back LGAs throughout Borno state, it encouraged the formation of CJTF units, and Baba Jafar Lawan toured the state to raise them. Where there was scepticism, military officers visited communities to insist this was the government’s wish.[fn]“Boko Haram hunters burn suspect alive in Maiduguri”, Daily Trust, 25 July 2013. Crisis Group interview, CJTF, Maiduguri, 14 January 2017.Hide Footnote The deputy governor publicly pressed the emir of Biu, a city in southern Borno where CJTF were not well received, to “encourage youth in his domain to form [a] vigilante group”.[fn]“Deputy governor urges Biu Emirate to form CJTF”, Daily Post, 5 July 2013.Hide Footnote Much like in Maiduguri, communities knew refusing would be suspicious.

The security services were closely involved in identifying local CJTF leaders. In a large northern Borno town, the CJTF chairman was a paid State Security Service (SSS) informant; in a small town close to Maiduguri, the appointee was a trader close to the authorities and security forces.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Diffa region, Niger, May 2016; Maiduguri, 15 January 2017.Hide Footnote CJTF leaders claimed to have recruited up to 45,000 members in Borno state, though the current leadership now speaks only of about 26,000, covering 22 of the state’s 27 LGAs.[fn]Crisis Group interview, CJTF leaders, Maiduguri, 18 October 2016; “Nigeria- La communauté se retourne contre Boko Haram”, IRIN, 11 August 2014.Hide Footnote

Vigilante forces have also emerged in the other north-eastern Nigerian states, at a pace and intensity largely dependent on the Boko Haram threat, but always in close connection to the security services and state authorities. Boko Haram’s threat in late 2014 to march on Yola, the capital of Adamawa state south of Borno, was met with a mobilisation of hunter brotherhoods.[fn]Multi-ethnic hunter brotherhoods, found in many West African areas, are particularly strong in Adamawa, a forested region with much game. There are hunters in Borno state, and some became vigilantes, but the CJTF did not follow the brotherhoods’ organisation. This may be because the Borno state CJTF initially mobilised urban youth.Hide Footnote  In addition to state authorities, several leading local political figures were essential in that, including former Vice President Atiku Abubakar (under President Olusegun Obasanjo), who has vast local investments; the then Senate Committee on Defence Chairman Jibrilla Bindow; Adamawa State House Representative Emmanuel Tsandu; and Federal House Representative Adamu Kamale.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Adamawa, October 2016.
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The local hunters played a major part in blocking Boko Haram and helped the army take back the cities of Gombi and Mubi in northern Adamawa.

Adamawa’s Kanuri minority formed its own 300-men CJTF in March 2013, in close collaboration with security forces, to help screen internally displaces persons (IDPs) fleeing Borno state. Many Boko Haram leaders and members are Kanuri, and this sought to show “both the public and security agencies … that not all Kanuri in Yola were Boko Haram” and to preserve trader livelihoods.[fn]Crisis Group interview, CJTF leader, Yola, 31 October 2016.Hide Footnote Civilian and security officials push less for organised vigilantes in Yobe and Gombe states, which were not so affected by the insurgency and where the security forces never seemed overwhelmed.[fn]Mobs reportedly lynched some Boko Haram suspects in these states. “Jungle justice meted out to man plotting to bomb bus station in Gombe”, Sahara Reporters, 18 November 2014.Hide Footnote

Community leaders from the north east based in other regions have extended the monitoring of suspected Boko Haram activities, notably in Abuja and Lagos, Nigeria’s political and economic capitals respectively. They have been reporting to security services and occasionally conducting citizen arrests, sometimes with the support of CJTF who would come from Borno state and take the prisoners to Maiduguri.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, CJTF officials, members, Maiduguri, 18 October 2016, 12 January 2017; “Wanted Boko Haram chieftain, five others arrested in Lagos”, The Guardian (Lagos), 11 July 2016.Hide Footnote

As Boko Haram stepped up activities in Cameroon and Chad, and the state and army realised their limitations, communities were called on to form self-defence groups.

The CJTF model has spread to Nigeria’s Lake Chad neighbours. As Boko Haram stepped up activities in Cameroon and Chad, and the state and army realised their limitations, communities were called on to form self-defence groups. In Cameroon, the Far North region governor, Augustine Awa Fonka, issued an arrêté regional (regional decree) creating the comités locaux de vigilance in June 2014. After suicide bombings in Maroua, the region’s capital, in July 2015, the authorities pushed even harder. All villages in the Far North now reportedly have comités; according to one source, 16,000 vigilantes are on duty.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, senior gendarmerie officer, sous-préfets, Far North, October 2016; journalist, December 2016. “Arrêté régional n° 19 portant création des comités locaux de vigilance dans la région de l’Extrême-Nord”, June 2014. “Tchad: vigilance accrue contre Boko Haram”, Xinhua, 21 February 2015.Hide Footnote Similarly, after Boko Haram’s first terror attacks in Chad’s capital, N’Djamena, in February 2015 the territorial administration minister called on local chiefs to “increase their vigilance”. During Chadian President Idriss Déby’s visit to Baga Sola in October 2015, authorities urged villages around the lake to create their own comités de vigilance.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, civilians and vigilantes, Lake Chad region, April 2016; politician from the Lake Chad region, N’Djamena, September 2016; “Tchad: vigilance accrue contre Boko Haram”, Xinhua, 21 February 2015.Hide Footnote

Niger’s case is somewhat unique. Though the mobilisation of armed civilians, based notably on the example of Algeria’s war on islamists in the 1990s, was discussed in Niamey policy circles, fears of ethnic militias, concerns about the cost of their demobilisation and their potential for political instrumentalisation and the country’s fragility led President Mahamadou Issoufou to decide otherwise. The Nigerien defeat in Bosso in June 2016 revived the debate, but the idea was rejected again. When militias were formed in 2016 among the Peul and Mohamid Arabs, deemed loyal to the state (or, more precisely, hostile to other communities, such as the Buduma, suspected of supporting Boko Haram), the authorities gave them free rein only briefly and quickly tried to resolve ethnic tensions.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Nigerien officials, Buduma and Peul community leaders, Niamey, Diffa region, May 2016.Hide Footnote

The cautious approach may also be due to early problems with Nigerian refugees, CJTF members among them, who organised self-defence groups in fear pursuit from Boko Haram. Locals in Yébi and Bosso accused Nigerian vigilantes of abuses and disrupting profitable cross-border trade. Some were detained and sent back with the help of Nigerian authorities.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, NGO protection officer, Diffa, 14 October 2016; CJTF member, Maiduguri, 14 January 2017.Hide Footnote Instead of mobilising vigilantes, Niger has been using informant networks, though vigilante groups eventually formed in some of the more insecure areas, such as Bagara and Toumour.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, local official from Toumour, Niamey, 11 October 2016; vigilante official, Bagara, 14 October 2016. See also “Au Niger, Baouchi Dao veut vaincre Boko Haram avec ses flèches”, Voice of America (VOA) Afrique, 21 June 2016.Hide Footnote

Officials in Nigeria, Chad and Cameroon recognise the vigilantes’ services. Senior officials have met with their leaders and handed out medals and prizes. Chad’s President Idriss Déby has visited vigilantes in the field (notably in Ngouboua on 4 June 2016), and then Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan once hailed them as “new national heroes” in July 2013.[fn]“North-east youths hunt insurgents”, Vanguard, 17 June 2013.Hide Footnote

III. Vigilantism, an Effective Counter-insurgency Tool?

A. Variations in Profiles and Structures

Depending on the country, vigilantes have been involved in a variety of missions. Nigeria has made the most intensive use of them, particularly in Borno state, where CJTFs have been carrying out intelligence, surveillance and protection missions in their communities, notably operating checkpoints and patrolling to check on newcomers in public spaces (mosques, markets and the entrances of villages and towns). As some communities were displaced, CJTF have followed, often continuing surveillance in their IDP camps or host communities. They perform arrests and deliver suspects to the security forces, and some have been closely involved as auxiliaries to those forces. They have also screened and interrogated suspects in detention centres. The army has asked them to join in long-distance operations, usually mixing CJTF familiar with the targeted terrain with groups from other areas. They have also been deployed away from their communities, to control newly captured towns or support local CJTF. In several instances, they have launched autonomous armed operations.[fn]Borno state Governor Shettima, for instance, “ordered mobilization of some 500 Civilian Joint Task Force elements to beef up security in areas Boko Haram had used as corridors to attack villages in Chibok”. “Boko Haram weakening, despite suicide bombings – Shettima”, Daily Trust, 30 November 2016. Crisis Group interviews, CJTF, Maiduguri, January 2017.Hide Footnote

Niger is at the other end of the spectrum, having made the most cautious use of vigilantes. After incidents with Nigerian vigilantes who had taken refuge in Niger, it banned civilians from manning roadblocks and bearing weapons, demanding that vigilantes work as an informant network with the army’s civil-military cooperation teams. Civilians, sometimes bearing crude weapons, have guided security patrols. As the conflict hit Niger harder, some front-line communities, such as Toumour and Bagara, eventually set up or remobilised classic vigilante groups for protection, often mixing local youth and IDPs. They man roadblocks and checkpoints, patrol and perform arrests.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, local official from Toumour, Niamey, 11 October 2016; NGO protection officer, Diffa region, 14 October 2016; vigilante official, Bagara, 14 october 2016.Hide Footnote

Chad and Cameroon are between these two extremes. Chad, which has been less exposed to jihadist attacks, is closer to the Nigerien case. Cameroon, attacked early and intensely, is closer to the Nigerian response. For instance, its vigilante units have launched their own small-scale assaults against Boko Haram bands, sometimes pursuing them across the Nigerian border.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, vigilante leaders of Limani, Kerawa, Mora and Kolofata, Mora, October 2016; “Limani: 70 membres des comités de vigilance attaquent Boko Haram au Nigéria”, L’Oeil du Sahel, 3 May 2016.

Because the states pushed for formation of vigilantes, they have exerted a degree of oversight, each in conformity with its habits and capacities. In Borno state, the few CJTF selected for BOYES training went through a vetting process, with the support of state authorities and security forces, including background checks and medical screening. The CJTF, though in a somewhat piecemeal fashion, issued IDs and compiled membership lists that were made available to the authorities. All BOYES trainees and some other CJTF received uniforms. Cameroon also tried to register vigilantes, as it had done in previous instances.[fn]Crisis Group email, human rights worker who visited the CJTF vetting and registration centre in 2013, 8 April 2016. Seignobos, “Le phénomène zargina”, op. cit. Chad, with a weaker bureaucratic tradition, has relied much more on the chiefs, delegating selection, identification and control to them. In Niger, existing vigilante groups have registered their own members and given lists to the civilian and security officials.[fn]No ID cards seem to have been distributed. Crisis Group observations, Diffa region, October 2016.Hide Footnote

In all cases, oversight falls somewhere between local military commanders, the territorial administration (elected governors in Nigeria, the sous-préfets, préfets and governors appointed by the territorial administration or interior minister in Cameroon, Chad and Niger) and the local chiefs who answer to the local governments. In all four countries, vigilante leaders reported having the phone numbers of relevant military and civilian officials, and newly arrived officials quickly link up with them. In Cameroon and Chad, chiefs have played a major role in recruitment. In Cameroon, they sign IDs along with the sous-préfets and forward membership lists to the administration and security forces.

In Borno state, both governor and army seem directly involved, to the point where they appear to give orders to CJTF.[fn]“Boko Haram weakening, despite suicide bombings – Shettima”, op. cit.Hide Footnote CJTF leaders, however, now insist they are independent. Symbolically, they have removed reference on their most recent IDs to the 7th Army Division and floated new unit names, probably to avoid too explicit links to the security services and Borno state. Significantly, the designation Borno State Youth Vanguard (BSYV) has now been replaced by Borno Youth Association for Peace and Justice (BYAPJ). But “CJTF” has captured the imagination and often remains on their IDs along with the new acronym.[fn]Committees to supervise the CJTF were created by the chief of defence staff in 2014 and the Borno state governor in 2015 but do not seem to have been operational. Crisis Group interviews, CJTF leaders, Maiduguri, January 2017. For a sample of a CJTF ID, see “#FallenHero: Mustapha was the 03 Sector Chairman of CJTF in Borno RIJF”, www.insidearewa.com, 14 December 2016. CJTF has become so popular that other groups not fighting Boko Haram, for instance in Kaduna, have picked up the name.Hide Footnote

Attempts have been made to increase control over vigilantes, leading to some professionalisation.

In Borno state in particular, attempts have been made to increase control over vigilantes, leading to some professionalisation. The initial groups included many underaged youths, but CJTFs are less numerous, and leaders insist they mobilise only adults. This seems largely true, though children still act as informers or are part of crowds that occasionally rally behind vigilantes for arrests. There is also increasing use of women, who are better able to check and search women without creating too much tension in a context where women are playing a greater role in the insurgency. Women are also occasionally involved in patrol and combat roles in vigilante units.[fn]On the female part in the insurgency and female vigilantes, see Crisis Group Africa Report N° 242, Nigeria: Women and the Boko Haram Insurgency, 5 December 2016; also “Meet Aisha, a former antelope hunter who now tracks Boko Haram”, The Guardian, 8 February 2017. In a paradoxical confirmation of the patriarchal nature of societies in the Lake Chad basin, the female vigilante discussed in that piece derived her combat skills from her grandfather. In 2015, CJTF leaders reportedly admitted that children made up “nearly a quarter of the more than 10,000-strong” movement. Quoted in “The child soldiers fighting Boko Haram”, The Daily Beast, 3 July 2015.Hide Footnote

States have been cautious about weapons, equipment and training. Rather haphazardly, the civilian and military authorities, as well as non-state backers, have provided some non-lethal equipment, such as metal detectors, phones, radios and torchlights, as well as transportation ranging from four-wheel drive vehicles to bicycles. All have been wary of arming and training most vigilantes, in order to limit weapon proliferation in general and avoid creating what a Cameroonian officer called “uncontrollable militia”. That the Boko Haram-affected areas in all four countries are those with ethnic Kanuri concentrations has made the four cautious about arming that community.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Cameroon, Chad, Niger, Nigeria authorities, September 2016-January 2017. On the states’ reluctance to arm vigilantes (and the vigilantes’ frustration), see, for instance, Ngala Killian Chimtom, “Cameroon: volunteer vigilance committees call for more help in combatting Boko Haram”, African Arguments, 23 December 2015. There is little doubt that Boko Haram has roots among the Kanuri, but it is not an exclusively Kanuri rebellion, and the movement has never claimed to fight for that community in particular, despite the assertions of some commentators. See, for example, “Fulani, Kanuri behind Boko Haram, Archbishop says in Jonathan’s presence”, Premium Times, 12 January 2015.
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In Maiduguri, the vigilantes initially used mostly sticks and cutlasses. As the CJTF expanded into rural areas, they carried traditional weapons such as bows and arrows, spears and “Dane guns” (locally manufactured rifles) or shotguns. In Borno state, only the sector commanders were permitted to own a modern weapon, though the army lent assault rifles to the CJTF for specific operations.[fn]Similarly, only the head of the Adamawa CJTF unit received a licence to buy a gun for self-defence. Crisis Group interviews, CJTF leader, Adamawa, 31 October 2016; CJTF, Maiduguri, January 2017.Hide Footnote Cameroon does not officially allow vigilantes automatic weapons, though a few former soldiers who have joined the comités have kept their modern arms. In Niger, the few Peul and Arab vigilante groups reportedly have some automatic weapons, which many nomads obtain to protect their herds. The Adamawa hunters, who had their own weapons, were given ammunition and additional guns by state officials and local patrons.[fn]Crisis Group interview, official of Adamawa state hunters’ association, Yola, 30 October 2016.Hide Footnote Chad, more willing to rely on and trust traditional leaders, gave automatic weapons to chiefs and a dozen or so of their guards (the goumiers) in some threatened areas.

This reticence to provide weapons is resented. A CJTF leader, an ex-member of earlier, anti-banditry militias, complained they were only Yan Gora (people with sticks, in Hausa), a phrase Boko Haram used to mock them. A Cameroon vigilante leader similarly deplored that it would be difficult to “keep terrorists at bay” with their “rudimentary weapons”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Diffa region, Niger, May 2016. Chimtom, “Cameroon: volunteer vigilance committees call for more help”, op. cit.Hide Footnote Throughout the region, there are indications that some vigilantes are buying weapons, taking them from defeated Boko Haram fighters and getting them from sympathisers in the security services.[fn]“Nigerian violence spawns homemade responses”, The Wall Street Journal, 25 June 2014; Crisis Group interview, official of hunters’ association, Yola, 30 October 2016.Hide Footnote

B. Resourcing for Vigilantes

The Lake Chad states struggle with a dilemma: formalising the vigilantes would enable greater oversight but also cost, money that could be applied to other pressing needs, not least the humanitarian catastrophe triggered by the insurgency. It might also raise expectations and feed a sense of entitlement that could prove unsustainable, as well as create incentives that encourage the formation of more groups. Indeed, some vigilantes have been calling for “a permanent mechanism to help [them] provide the basics for [their families]”.[fn]Cameroon vigilante leader quoted in Chimtom, “Cameroon”, op. cit.Hide Footnote Vigilantes, especially when they are high up in the hierarchy, often insist they are not paid for their service and have to spend their own money on duty.

A variety of support systems provision and compensate vigilantes. The 1,850 Nigerian CJTF members formally recruited in the BOYES program are an exception, as they receive 15,000 naira (about $50) monthly, plus some health coverage. In Adamawa, hunters received a small state salary only during the tense moments when they were most needed. Otherwise, vigilantes have received haphazard financial support, gifts in cash or kind from state officials, local authorities, politicians, businessmen and military commanders. In Borno state, CJTF members participating in intelligence meetings or going with the army on operations may get per diem or a share of spoils captured from Boko Haram suspects and camps. In IDP camps, they often get a special share of the incoming aid.

Communities used to provide for pre-Boko Haram vigilantes, sometimes raising money to pay small salaries or providing necessities in kind. This still happens, but there are reports that some vigilantes “beg” at checkpoints, where the voluntary nature of “donations” is open to debate. There also are reports of ad hoc, uneven assistance being given to the families of vigilantes killed in action. Communities have sometimes been left to fend for their own casualties.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, CJTF, Maiduguri, January 2017.Hide Footnote

The same is true in the other three countries: vigilantes have been receiving some equipment and gifts of money and food from the presidency and military, as well as gifts in cash and kind from local notables and communities. Some form of “taxation” of communities has likewise been documented. In Cameroon, there have been several reports of Boko Haram’s loot being appropriated by the vigilantes, sometimes in association with the security forces.[fn]“Scandale autour du bétail saisi à Boko Haram”, L’Oeil du Sahel, 21 November 2016.Hide Footnote

C. The Vigilante Effect(s)

Assessing the vigilantes’ impact seems at first rather easy. In operational terms, there is little doubt they have been useful. Most soldiers, recruited from throughout their respective countries, often have little understanding of the local terrain (social or physical). Vigilantes have a better “sense of the normal and the abnormal” locally, which makes them apt to detect threats.[fn]Crisis Group, security expert, Maiduguri, 15 January 2017.Hide Footnote Many people insist that the military’s lack of local language skills is a big problem that has resulted in unnecessary casualties. In the Lake Chad basin’s varied geography, from the marshes of Lake Chad to the hills and caves in Gwoza and the Mandara regions, soldiers can have a hard time without local guidance. Local knowledge explains the contribution of the lightly armed hunters of Adamawa, when they faced a Boko Haram force comprised of many city dwellers.

Having witnessed the growth of Boko Haram groups in their communities, vigilantes often know some of the militants and their business partners, as well as who from their immediate environment is unexplainably absent. On many occasions, they have prevented suicide attacks or limited their impact by detecting suspicious characters early.[fn]In Cameroon, some vigilante units have a member endowed with charms and mystical preparation and tasked to run at and grab suicide bombers that have not been shot down. Crisis Group interviews, vigilante members, soldiers, local authorities, Mokolo, Tourou, Mora, Yaoundé, October 2016.Hide Footnote Overall, vigilantes have helped make the military response more likely to hit proper rather than collective targets. For all this, they have paid a price. The recent official toll for the Borno state CJTF alone was 600 dead.[fn]Crisis Group interview, CJTF officials, Maiduguri, 18 October 2016.Hide Footnote

Examining the broader impact brings more nuanced results. First, the decision by states to mobilise vigilantes has exposed them and their communities to Boko Haram retribution. As early as June 2013, a Boko Haram audio clip declared “an all-out war” on the youth of Maiduguri and Damaturu, “because [they] have formed an alliance with the Nigerian military and police to fight our brethren”.[fn]Audio clip, 18 June 2013, from Boko Haram spokesman Abu Zinnira quoted in “Civilian vigilante groups increase dangers in northeastern Nigeria”, IRIN, 12 December 2013. At one point, Boko Haram executed at roadblocks any male traveller from Maiduguri, to punish the city. Crisis Group interview, Maiduguri, January 2017.Hide Footnote Boko Haram has launched many attacks on vigilantes, the traditional chiefs associated with them and their communities. It frequently used suicide attacks against CJTF groups and their markets, mosques and transport terminals. Much of the 2014-2015 peak in casualties was due to such retribution.[fn]See, for instance, “Boko Haram weekend killing spree leaves at least 40 dead in Borno villages”, Information Nigeria, 29 July 2013; and “Au Nigeria, ‘Boko Haram élimine des villages entiers suspectés d’avoir collaboré avec le pouvoir’”, Le Monde, 18 March 2014. On a recent attack on the home of the CJTF chairman in Kaleri, Mafa LGA, see “Boko Haram suicide bomber attack home of Civilian JTF commander”, Sahara Reporters, 25 January 2017. On the body count of Boko Haram victims in Nigeria, see Appendix C below.Hide Footnote There is evidence of extreme Boko Haram violence in response to vigilantism in the other three countries. In Niger for instance, the communities of Lamana and Ngoumao, among the few to have set up armed units, were brutally attacked in June 2015, and 38 villagers were killed.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, IDPs from Lamana and Ngoumao, Ngaroua IDP camp, October 2016; “Niger: attaques meurtrières de Boko Haram dans des villages isolés”, Radio France Internationale (RFI), 19 June 2015.Hide Footnote

Promotion of vigilantism was a principal driver that turned the conflict from an anti-state insurgency into a messy civil war.

Promotion of vigilantism was a principal driver that turned the conflict from an anti-state insurgency into a messy civil war, pitting Boko Haram against communities. Early on, a CJTF leader in Maiduguri noted: “We have crossed the Rubicon, and there is no going back. Boko Haram have declared war on us and even if we stop hunting them down, they will still come after us, so we have to fight to the finish”.[fn]“Civilian vigilante groups increase dangers in northeastern Nigeria”, IRIN, 12 December 2013.Hide Footnote This forced ever more people to pick a side, when many would have preferred not to get involved. In at least one case in a small Borno town, the local traditional leader opposed forming a vigilante unit, lest it lead to retribution. When some Boko Haram members came to threaten the community, he mockingly referred the population to the vigilantes, who could only flee and hide when the jihadists returned in force to kill suspected opponents and loot.[fn]Crisis Group interview, CJTF leader, Maiduguri, 14 January 2017.Hide Footnote

Forcing communities to pick a side may well have benefitted the states, as most seem to have favoured their governments. Vigilante mobilisation and Boko Haram reprisals have helped recreate a link between the security services and substantial portions of the population, particularly in Borno state. An observer noted that Cameroon troops no longer detain those who volunteer information, assuming a Boko Haram connection, a habit that would scare off potential informers.[fn]Crisis Group interview, NGO worker, Yaoundé, December 2016.Hide Footnote

Vigilantism has been a way for some civilians to regain a form of control in a situation of extreme uncertainty and powerlessness. The material benefits have mattered, but perhaps even more important than these occasional profits has been the relative protection from security-service suspicions that vigilante membership affords. Indeed, the groups grew when it became clear they had official support. In the uncertainty created by blunt, abusive counter-insurgency operations, an official ID or being on a list of approved members can mean appreciable protection, a modicum of security that vigilantes can hope to extend to their kith and kin. Affiliation with a vigilante unit can also importantly make travel through government-controlled areas safer.

Vigilantism, however, is not without problems. Cooperation with security forces is not easy: there is considerable mutual suspicion and accusations, particularly in Cameroon and Nigeria. Security sources say that some vigilantes double as Boko Haram agents or resell goods stolen by the jihadists. Several Cameroonian chiefs and comités de vigilance members, as well as the CJTF chairman of one of Maiduguri’s ten sectors (along with some military personnel), have been accused and arrested.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, local authorities, security forces and vigilante members of Amchidé, Kerawa, Limani, Fotokol, Far North, October 2016, January 2017; CJTF and civil society activists, Maiduguri, January 2017; “Cameroun: des membres de comités de vigilance complices de Boko Haram”, L’Oeil du Sahel, 7 December 2015.Hide Footnote Vigilantes also have occasionally accused the security services of double-dealing – selling weapons to Boko Haram, or being too lenient with suspects they handed over, sometimes releasing them within hours. In March 2014, CJTF captured five armed men in Maiduguri, whom the army later claimed were soldiers in civilian garb. This led to a clash, with angry youths chanting that “soldiers are the real Boko Haram; soldiers are masters of Boko Haram”.[fn]“Two killed, others injured in Civilian-JTF revolt against soldiers in Maiduguri”, Information Nigeria, 4 March 2014.Hide Footnote Two vigilantes were killed. At the least, this episode attests to a degree of mistrust between the army and some vigilantes.

The justice issue is particularly sensitive. Vigilantism, because it emerges from the weak state’s inability to maintain law and order and is frequently fed by a desire for revenge for personal losses, has a built-in bias for rough justice. There have been ample reports of abuses. In the CJTF’s early Maiduguri days, June-July 2013, several Boko Haram suspects were burned alive. The International Federation for Human Rights says “hundreds of summary executions” took place then. Subsequently, CJTF were reportedly involved, with the army, in rounding up and killing 600 prisoners who had escaped from the main military detention centre in Maiduguri, Giwa Barracks, in March 2014. According to one account, vigilantes paraded in the town of Biu in southern Borno in November 2014 with the heads of some 40 alleged Boko Haram militants on pikes. In June 2015, Amnesty International reported that Nigerian vigilantes and the army committed severe human rights violations, including torture and execution of Boko Haram suspects. CJTF officials admit to “tough measures” during interrogations.[fn]“Boko Haram hunters burn suspect alive in Maiduguri”, Daily Trust, 25 July 2013; “Nigeria. Les crimes de masse de Boko Haram”, International Federation for Human Rights, 10 February 2015, p. 9; “41 Boko Haram members beheaded in Biu after failed attack”, Daily Post, 31 October 2014; “Stars on their shoulders, blood on their hands. War crimes committed by the Nigerian military”, Amnesty International, June 2015. For another case, “How I escaped death in Maiduguri – Ex-Borno commissioner”, Vanguard, 25 March 2014. For a video account, see “Nigeria’s Hidden War: Channel 4 Dispatches”, Channel 4, 18 August 2014. CJTF officials denied their members were involved. Crisis Group interviews, January 2017; Maiduguri, 18 October 2016.Hide Footnote

Some observers suggest that the security services, particularly in Nigeria, have delegated suspect interrogation to vigilantes because of language skills and to keep as clean a human rights record as possible. CJTF says otherwise and seems to defer to the military on summary executions. In 2014, a CJTF reportedly knew it could not “render justice themselves”, so took suspects to the barracks, “where soldiers kill[ed] them”. A CJTF leader mentioned in an interview that he had handed over to the army his own nephew, who he knew was a jihadist militant, and that it had (rightly) executed him.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, human rights experts, Abuja, January 2017; CJTF, Maiduguri, January 2017; “Nigeria – La communauté se retourne contre Boko Haram”, IRIN, 11 August 2014; “Inside the vigilante fight against Boko Haram”, The New York Times, 5 November 2014.Hide Footnote

Several interviewees mentioned that some CJTF members were “pompous”, hinting that they derived an undue sense of self-importance and impunity from their power. Vigilantes also have engaged in other abuses, including sexual violence and extortion. Herdsmen in particular, as they circulate in the bush with valued cattle, have been targets. There are reported cases of vigilantes levelling false accusations against persons with whom they have personal feuds.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, NGO protection officer, Diffa, 14 October 2016; civilians, Maiduguri, January 2017; “Boko Haram: faut-il renoncer aux groupes d’autodéfense?”, Journal du Cameroun, 5 August 2016.Hide Footnote Human rights organisations have noted how those with a bit of power in IDP camps demand sexual services or money in exchange for favours, including the right to leave the camps or build a house there.[fn]Nigeria: Officials Abusing Displaced Women, Girls. Displaced by Boko Haram and Victims Twice Over”, Human Rights Watch, October 2016.Hide Footnote These include the CJTF, though a human rights specialist said that because vigilantes are usually from the IDP communities, they are somewhat less prone to commit abuses. In one instance at least, IDPs in a camp fought abusive vigilantes.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Maiduguri, 13 January 2017. “Boko Haram still controls Abadam, Mobbar in Borno –IDPs”, Daily Post, 22 January 2016.Hide Footnote

CJTF leaders assert that an organisation was needed precisely to curb abuses and insist they put in place a structure to monitor behaviour, with provosts and a disciplinary committee chaired by a member who is a lawyer. Sources verified that they suspended or dismissed several members and referred others to the police. The leaders also say civilians have filed abuse charges against a dozen members, though Crisis Group was unable to confirm this. Some CJTF leaders have received instruction in international humanitarian law. There is some understanding among the vigilantes and their state and army partners that abuses can reduce the efficiency of a mobilisation. The replacement of rough justice mobs by partly-professionalised vigilantes and recruitment of female vigilantes are attempts to address these concerns. It seems that community pressure is an important form of control, which is why in Maiduguri (after initial abuses) it was quickly decided that vigilantes would operate close to their neighbourhoods, where they would know and be known by people.

There is evidence the human rights situation has improved somewhat under President Buhari, for a variety of reasons.[fn]eyond Buhari’s attitude, other factors include military commanders’ realisation they are under international scrutiny for possible war crimes, better organisation and oversight of the CJTF and decline in Boko Haram threats and violence as it was driven farther from Maiduguri.Hide Footnote International human rights organisations and civil society activists report changes in Maiduguri, including in the main military detention centre, Giwa Barracks.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, human rights experts and civil society activists, Maiduguri and Abuja, January 2017.Hide Footnote International focus on sexual and gender-based violence in IDP camps led to several arrests in December 2016 in Maiduguri, including of two CJTF members. But there is not much solid evidence to suggest vigilantes are often held accountable for human rights violations. Little is known about what goes on during operations in remote territory or the impact of any abuses on local communities and vigilante relations with Boko Haram or the state. Nevertheless, the bottom line for many civilians seems to be that vigilantes have done more good than harm.[fn]“Ten suspects arrested in connection with IDP sexual abuse scandal”, Sahara Reporters, 6 December 2016. Crisis Group interviews, civil society officials, traders, Maiduguri, January 2017.Hide Footnote

IV. The Possible Risks Ahead

Vigilantism is a symptom of the weaknesses of the Lake Chad states, especially their disappointing delivery of security and law and order. Almost as soon as vigilante groups formed, especially in Nigeria, a debate began on the risks they could pose for the future.[fn]See, for instance, “Civilian vigilante groups increase dangers in northeastern Nigeria”, IRIN, 12 December 2013.Hide Footnote State and security services understand some of these, as exemplified by caution over providing weapons, attempts at screening and the strong Nigerian army oversight of the CJTF. But the Lake Chad states have often struggled to control the risks resulting from reliance on vigilantes to fight Boko Haram. All these risks are more acute in Nigeria, where the conflict has been most intense, vigilantes are more numerous and active and the state faces bigger challenges and the difficulties of policymaking in a federal system.

A. The Handling of Claims

One of the most significant issues may be the handling of vigilante claims for service and sacrifice, particularly when economies are struggling at both national and local levels. The conflict has devastated the interlinked Lake Chad regional economy. Trade in cash crops is banned or severely depressed (often intentionally by the military to prevent Boko Haram from taxing it); many traders have fled, fighting has destroyed much of the physical and social infrastructure, and agricultural production is extremely low. Massive displacement has triggered a humanitarian disaster, especially in Borno state. All this makes it harder to address vigilantes’ demands.

Some vigilantes joined not only for protection or short-term material benefits, but also for the rights and prospects they felt membership opened for future state rewards. Many have post-war jobs, scholarship or demobilisation money in mind. Some CJTF members mention the Niger Delta Presidential Amnesty Program, under which insurgents were pardoned, put on the government payroll and given vocational training or education: “These rebels get something, so what should we get, we who have fought for the state?”[fn]Crisis Group interview, CJTF, Maiduguri, 12 January 2017. The Amnesty Program was set-up by President Umaru Yar’Adua in 2009. Due to end in 2015, it was extended to 2017.Hide Footnote Some vigilantes view their service explicitly as an advance against an expected reward. Through cooperation with the security services, particularly in Nigeria, vigilantes have become de facto apprentices, a classic path to a job, including a state job, in West African societies.

Vigilante leaders have sometimes been quite outspoken about their expectations from and frustration with the state, and some political leaders have begun to respond. The BOYES program was one such response. The Borno State Vigilantism and Youth Empowerment Agency Law voted in May 2015 was another, and in April 2016, Borno state Governor Shettima announced a program to create 20,000 jobs for CJTF members. In Borno, the army and DSS have absorbed 280 vigilantes into their ranks, but the actual demobilisation programs are only at the planning stage, which makes sense given the persisting security risks.[fn]Crisis Group interview, CJTF leaders, Maiduguri, 18 October 2016; “They’re defeating Boko Haram but are they Nigeria’s next security threat?”, IRIN, 22 August 2016.Hide Footnote

One of the tricky aspects in handling claims is their administration. There are several instances where previous rewards and incentives, for instance inclusion in the BOYES program, have created strong tensions and competition among vigilantes, with accusations of nepotism and favouritism. Denouncing how some leaders have gotten rich, secured homes in government housing projects or “privatis[ed]” cars, some vigilantes insist they have left the movement, refuse to register and will not become involved in an eventual demobilisation program.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, academic and CJTF, Maiduguri, 14 January 2017; vigilantes and state officials, Maroua, Mokolo, and Mora, October 2016.Hide Footnote The handling of vigilantes is even more important at a moment when states are pondering programs to encourage Boko Haram members to “exit”.[fn]Niger, Chad and Nigeria have all set up programs, though their functionality is not always easy to assess.Hide Footnote Several vigilantes expressed displeasure about these, some asserting bluntly that death should be the only way out.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, CJTF, Maiduguri, January 2017.Hide Footnote  This attitude is fed by vigilantes’ security concerns and memories of Boko Haram violence, but also by their sense of entitlement.

B. From Vigilantes to Political Thugs, Mafias or Ethnic Militias

Vigilantism’s downside and risks are well-known in Nigeria, where groups such as the Bakassi Boys and the Oodua People’s Congress have turned into major political forces in other regions.[fn]Crisis Group Report, Nigeria: Want in the Midst of Plenty, op. cit., pp. 27-28.Hide Footnote There are various ways in which vigilante groups can evolve, even as the situation which has given rise to them fades away – and the Boko Haram threat is still far from that.

The first risk, politicisation of vigilantes, notably around elections, is particularly acute in Nigeria, because votes for governors, who control opaque budgets funded by enormous oil revenues, can be extremely competitive and violent.[fn]Governors also get a “security vote” from the federal government, an undisclosed, unaccounted monthly transfer of money they can use as they want, ostensibly for public safety. Obiamaka Egbo, Ifeoma Nwankoby, Josophat Onwumere and Chibuike Uche, “Security votes in Nigeria: Disguising stealing from the public purse”, African Affairs, vol. 111, no. 445 (2012), pp. 597-614.Hide Footnote Gangs of thugs hired to attack opponents’ supporters and to provide security are common. Indeed, Borno ex-Governor Ali Modu Sheriff relied on a vigilante group, ECOMOG (named after the West African peacekeeping force), for his 2003 campaign. Some analysts argue that soon after his victory, he let most go and that some later turned to Boko Haram in disappointment. An internal source reported that when the CJTF formed, a number of ECOMOG thugs still backing Sheriff joined, but CJTF leaders prevented them from rising in the ranks, fearing they were political proxies.[fn]Crisis Group interview, CJTF, Maiduguri, January 2017; “Boko Haram: les monstres de Maiduguri”, Le Monde, 23 June 2014.Hide Footnote

Whether this is an indication of the CJTF’s neutrality or their own politicisation is open to interpretation. Some observers suspect current Borno Governor Shettima’s BOYES program is partially political clientelism, an attempt to turn the vigilantes into a political network using counter-insurgency funding. At least one episode suggests the vigilantes’ political potential: in 2013, CJTF burned the house of the Borno state chairman of the All Nigeria Peoples’ Party (ANPP), alleging he supported Boko Haram, but some suspect this had to do with an internal ANPP feud.[fn]Crisis Group interview, civil society official, Maiduguri, January 2017. “Our chairman is not a Boko Haram sponsor – Borno ANPP”, Premium Times, 5 July 2013; “Borno ANPP officials disown state chairman”, Daily Trust, 12 July 2013. Shettima was a party member at the time.Hide Footnote During the 2015 election campaign, many CJTF were seen at rallies of the All Progressives Congress (APC), Shettima’s current party. It is not clear how much control he has over the CJTF, but throughout the Lake Chad region politicians on all sides are keen on cultivating relations with these groups.

Vigilantism has potential to feed ethnic or ethno-religious cleavages, because its focus is the defence of a specific local community.

Vigilantism has potential to feed ethnic or ethno-religious cleavages, because its focus is the defence of a specific local community. In the Cameroon locality of Amchidé, for instance, the initial comité de vigilance was controlled by Christians and harassed Muslims. It was eventually dissolved by the authorities and replaced by a mixed comité.[fn]Crisis Group interview, vigilantes, Amchidé, March 2016; vigilantes and state officials, Mora, October 2016. For examples from other parts of Nigeria, see Harnischfeger, “Ethnicity, Religion”, op. cit.Hide Footnote

Vigilantism is often also in an ambivalent relationship with the established orders of chiefdom and patriarchy, particularly in rural areas. It can cut both ways, sometimes revalidating “decentralised despotism”, a two-tier state system whereby peripheral areas, usually rural, are governed on the cheap, through delegation to chiefs with dubious claims to legitimacy and fitness to rule.[fn]Decentralised despotism” is a phrase borrowed from Mahmood Mamdani, Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism (Princeton, 1996).Hide Footnote At other times, it can give some autonomy to the young men (and occasionally women) who are the muscle of the vigilante forces.

Finally, if vigilantes are not disbanded, they can become mafias that turn to protection rackets and organised crime. The question is what happens when those who have become accustomed to receiving salaries or “gifts” react when these cease. This is not a new phenomenon in the Lake Chad basin, where the distinction between vigilantes, regular security force members and bandits or rebels can be fluid. Some vigilantes have already been using their relative impunity to engage in crime, from small-scale drug trafficking to resale of stolen goods.[fn]Janet Roitman, Fiscal Disobedience: An Anthropology of Economic Regulation in Central Africa (Princeton, 2005); Debos, Living by the Gun, op. cit. Crisis Group interviews, CJTF and CSO officials, Maiduguri, January 2017.Hide Footnote

V. Marching on with Vigilantes

Given vigilantism’s size, the persistent insecurity and security forces’ overstretch, notably in Nigeria and Cameroon, neither neglect nor suppression is feasible.

A. In the Short Term, Improving Accountability

Niger’s choice to use vigilantes relatively modestly as surveillance networks is predicated on the ability of its regular forces more or less to keep Boko Haram at bay. This in turn has been possible in part because the jihadists’ assault has come later and been less intense, and because, having largely abandoned its portion of Lake Chad, the country’s remaining area is more easily watched. These conditions may well be changing, as Barnawi’s Boko Haram faction appears to be gathering strength on Lake Chad and along the Komadugu River, which delineates the eastern Niger-Nigeria border.[fn]A Crisis Group report on Boko Haram in Niger is forthcoming.Hide Footnote That there is now a full-fledged vigilante force in Toumour and some other sites may be a sign of the times.

Oversight and accountability improvements are much needed. The institutional mechanisms created by the Borno state CJTF, with provosts and a disciplinary committee, are welcome and could be improved and replicated elsewhere. It also would be useful to show that vigilantes are held accountable by making information publicly available on cases and decisions submitted to the committee, perhaps by a yearly report and periodic engagement with human rights entities.

In any case, the courts must examine allegations of grave human rights violations by vigilantes. Governments should devise a legal framework for their operations that holds members explicitly accountable, and the security services should give vigilantes instruction on human rights and legal obligations along with such practical skills as demining and intelligence work.[fn]The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) might supplement legal training.Hide Footnote The Lake Chad countries should acknowledge a responsibility to those they mobilise. Among other things, they should make sure all vigilantes have access to functional communication networks and can call in regular troops promptly when needed.

B. Symbolic and Material Rewards

There is need to acknowledge, including in national media, the effort vigilantes make. In societies where ethnicity can be very political, and the communities most affected by Boko Haram have come under suspicion as a whole, skilful promotion of some exemplary vigilante figures would be a good way both to recognise their commitment and courage and to contain stereotyping that links certain ethnic groups to Boko Haram.

Symbolic rewards also matter. Ceremonies, medals and diplomas have become standard and have some impact. Honouring those killed or maimed in association with some material attention to their families would also help, but action on this count has been too haphazard. Disbanding vigilante groups should be linked with some gainful sustainable employment and be supported by donors. If this is not fully practical, perhaps a distinction could be made, particularly in Borno state, between those who have stayed local and for whom militia service has been just one aspect of continuing lives, and those who have been displaced or chosen to move and become security-force auxiliaries. For those who have stayed in their community, governments, with donor help, should plan on some sort of association (as paid labour or staff) with the rehabilitation of damaged infrastructure that is featured in all post-conflict plans.

National security is the sector most often mentioned by vigilantes themselves with regard to jobs after their groups are disbanded. Nigeria has already taken small steps. This should only apply to a small fraction of vigilantes, however, because normal educational requirements need to apply so as to avoid further weakening the security institutions. This is particularly the case in Nigeria, where the constitution requires a balance between communities in public recruitment, according to the principle of the country’s “federal character”.[fn]On this issue, see, for instance, Abdul Raufu Mustapha, “Institutionalising ethnic representation: How effective is the Federal Character Commission in Nigeria?”, Centre for Research on Inequality, Human Security and Ethnicity (CRISE) Working Paper no. 43, June 2007.Hide Footnote To make it acceptable that not everyone can be taken, recruitment has to proceed in as transparent a manner as possible.

For the bulk of vigilantes, demobilisation must be carefully planned, with grants to help them go back to their occupations, finish education or develop businesses. Such programs are never fully successful, but they help motivate returns to normal lives. It is the least the countries can do, and partners should assist. It would also help kick-start a regional economy that is in ruins.

C. In the Long Term, Rethinking Community Policing

Throughout the Lake Chad basin, police are largely or exclusively national. Nigeria’s federal police is a dysfunctional, often brutal force, one reason why vigilantes have formed in the first place and Boko Haram has appeared. Some have suggested recreating local forces as a solution.[fn]For an analysis that views local police as an alternative to vigilantes, see Peter Ekeh, “A Review of HRW’s and CLEEN’s Report ‘The Bakassi Boys: The Legitimization of Murder and Torture’. On State Sponsored Vigilante Groups in Nigeria”, www.waado.org, 27 May 2002.Hide Footnote Given how tense state politics has become in Nigeria, a full-fledged police force at the governor’s command would be risky. At least as far as Borno state is concerned and given the likely continuation of some form of jihadist activity and rural unrest, it would make sense to create a federal body of auxiliaries under the army, State Security Service, Nigerian Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC) or the mobile police to accommodate a portion of the CJTF, notably those with weapons training. Transparent recruitment is essential, and provision should be made for their potential integration, if they meet educational requirements and are retrained. This breach of the principle of Nigeria’s “federal character” would need national assembly approval.

With the help of local civil society organisations, other selected vigilantes might be retrained and redirected toward reporting and early-warning mechanisms linked to both the police and civil society organisations. This would build usefully on the fact that, particularly in rural areas, vigilantes have become important connectors to the state.

D. For a Reasoned Disarmament

The proliferation of weapons in the Lake Chad basin is part of the structural problems that have fed instability and allowed Boko Haram, at least initially, to portray itself as a provider of (religious) law and order. A disarmament program is necessary. States are already calling for it and have restricted access to gun licences in conflict areas. However, not all guns are the same. The program should be limited to functional automatic weapons and not spend money on decommissioning hunting rifles and locally produced guns, which are easily replaced and less lethal.

VI. Conclusion

Vigilantes have been essential in turning back the Boko Haram tide, but the jihadist group remains resilient. As the conflict continues to evolve, so will vigilantes. They are enmeshed with high politics, particularly in Nigeria, and local intercommunal relations, business operations and chiefdoms. Vigilantism is as much a long-term symptom of state weakness in the Lake Chad basin as a short-term solution to it. To address the drivers of armed extremism, Lake Chad countries must return state presence to the region, not least by reintroducing accountability and law and order. As part of this process, the CJTF and comités de vigilance will need either to be slowly disbanded or formalised and regulated. Getting relations and expectations right with their members should be an urgent aspect of rebuilding security in the region.

Dakar/Nairobi/Brussels, 23 February 2017

Appendix A: Map of the Lake Chad Basin

Map of the Lake Chad Basin Mike Shand/International Crisis Group, 2017

Appendix B: Glossary

ANPP: All Nigeria Peoples’ Party

APC: All Progressives’ Congress

BOYES: Borno Youths Empowerment Scheme

BSYV: Borno State Youth Vanguard

BYAPJ: Borno Youth Association for Peace and Justice

CJTF: Civilian Joint Task Force

CLEEN: Centre for Law Enforcement Education

HRW: Human Rights Watch

IDP: Internally Displaced Person

JTF: Joint Task Force

LGA: Local Government Area

NSCDC: Nigerian Security and Civil Defence Corps

SSS: State Security Service

Appendix C: Number of People Killed by Boko Haram 2013-2016

Number of People Killed by Boko Haram 2013-2016 References: Realtime 2016 All Africa File and Version 6 (1997-2015) dataset. Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), 2016; “Global Terrorism Index 2015. Measuring and Understanding the Im-pact of Terrorism”, Institute for Economics and Peace
A woman holds a child as she marks the one-year anniversary of the mass kidnapping of more than 200 schoolgirls from a secondary school in Chibok by Boko Haram militants in Abuja, Nigeria, on 14 April 2015. REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde
A woman holds a child as she marks the one-year anniversary of the mass kidnapping of more than 200 schoolgirls from a secondary school in Chibok by Boko Haram militants in Abuja, Nigeria, on 14 April 2015. REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde
Report 242 / Africa

Nigeria: Women and the Boko Haram Insurgency

Women have suffered violence and abuse by Boko Haram, but they are not only victims: some joined the jihadists voluntarily, others fight the insurgency, or work in relief and reconciliation. Women’s experiences should inform policies to tackle the insurgency, and facilitate their contribution to peace.

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Executive Summary

Boko Haram’s rise and insurgency have dramatically changed the lives of thousands of women and girls, often casting them voluntarily or by force into new roles outside the domestic sphere. Some joined to escape their social conditions; others were abducted and enslaved. Seven years of war have caused gender-specific suffering. While men have disproportionally been killed, women are an overwhelming majority among the estimated 1.8 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the North East. As former wives, slaves or fighters, many bear the stigma of association with the insurgents and are barred from reintroduction into their communities, in part because the lines between militant, sympathiser and forced accomplice are blurred. Although Boko Haram faces strong pushback, it remains capable of launching attacks and conducting multiple suicide bombings. Understanding how women experience the conflict, not only as victims but also as actors, needs to directly inform policies and programs to tackle the roots of the insurgency and strategies for curbing it, as well as facilitate women’s contribution to lasting peace.

Since its emergence in 2002, Boko Haram has paid particular attention to women in rhetoric and actions, partly because of the intense debate surrounding their role in society in the North East. Among other revivalist Islamic movements, the sect called for tighter restrictions on them in some areas of life but also promoted their access to Islamic education and offered financial empowerment. With patriarchy, poverty, corruption, early marriage and illiteracy long thwarting their life chances, some women saw an opportunity in Boko Haram to advance their freedoms or reduce their hardship. Many valued the religious and moral anchoring.

Thereafter, Boko Haram began to abduct women and girls for both political and pragmatic ends, including to protest the arrest of female members and relatives of some leaders. The seizure of more than 200 schoolgirls near Chibok in 2014 was a much publicised spike in a wider trend. The group took Christian and later Muslim females to hurt communities that opposed it, as a politically symbolic imposition of its will and as assets. By awarding “wives” to fighters, it attracted male recruits and incentivised combatants. Because women were not considered a threat, female followers and forced conscripts could initially circulate in government-controlled areas more easily, as spies, messengers, recruiters and smugglers. For the same reason, from mid-2014, Boko Haram turned to female suicide bombers. Increasingly pressed for manpower, it also trained women to fight.

As vigilante militia members, including with the Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF), hundreds of women help security forces, particularly to frisk females at checkpoints, gather information and identify suspects, and also sometimes to fight Boko Haram. Others work in non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and women’s associations or care privately for war victims. In some cases, the war has opened opportunities for women’s activism, illustrated by the establishment of several new women-led NGOs in Maiduguri and the Nigerian involvement in the Bring Back Our Girls international campaign.

Boko Haram attacks, the military’s persecution of suspects and its strategy of emptying contested areas have forced over a million women and girls to flee homes. Some suspected supporters are in detention. Hundreds of thousands of females are in government camps where food is scarce and healthcare dismal; in unofficial camps, the situation can be even worse. Separated from husbands and sons conscripted or killed by Boko Haram or arrested by security forces, many women are now fully responsible for their families’ protection and economic wellbeing.

Harsh treatment of IDPs in camps and detention centres could undermine military gains. If corruption in aid delivery and abuses persist, communities may harbour grievances that could lead them to reject state authority. Meanwhile, the stigma carried by women and girls known or suspected to have been Boko Haram members risks leaving them and their children isolated and alienated, generating new frustration and resistance of the kind that gave rise to Boko Haram.

How gender dynamics play a part in fuelling the Boko Haram insurgency should be a clear warning that women’s integration into decision-making processes at all levels is critical to a durable peace. Countering the sect and rebuilding a peaceful society in the North East requires the government and its international partners to tackle gender discrimination, better protect women and girls affected by the violence and support women’s economic and social reintegration, as well as enhance their role in building sustainable peace. In the short term, reunification of families should be a priority. In the longer term, improvements and gender balance in accessing education, in both state schools and upgraded Quranic schools, is vital.


To better protect women and girls affected by the violence and respond to immediate humanitarian needs

To the Government of Nigeria:

  1. Screen the predominantly female adults from areas formerly controlled by Boko Haram with diverse teams that include protection officers provided by national civil society organisations and trained by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), to ensure adequate treatment of both suspects and victims.
  2. Implement urgently greater accountability in distribution of food and gender-sensitive assistance in IDP camps and host communities, including access to sexual and reproductive health information and services for women and girls; give local and international humanitarian organisations access to IDP camps and transfer their management to civilian organisations as soon as possible.
  3. Develop urgently programs to increase women’s recruitment in local police forces and deploy them in IDP camps as soon as possible.
  4. Activate referral mechanisms for women and girls to report sexual and gender-based violence in IDP camps and host communities and ensure that authorities, including the judiciary and police, properly investigate allegations of abuses by security forces and/or the vigilantes that assist them.
  5. Develop special support programs, in partnership with women’s organisations, religious associations and health centres, for women victims of sexual abuse to ensure they and their children are free from discrimination, violence and stigmatisation.
  6. Distinguish Boko Haram ideologues from those who joined for other motives and ensure transparent and fair investigation of both male and female Boko Haram suspects according to international law, including taking account of the level of involvement and seriousness of their crimes; hold all detainees, including women, in humane conditions monitored by humanitarian agencies; and ensure children are granted adequate care.

To support women’s economic and social reintegration, as well as enhance their role in building sustainable peace

To the Government of Nigeria:

  1. Commit to greater representation of women in government-funded programs and support inclusive peacebuilding initiatives in the North East.
  2. Ensure that public and private development and reconstruction plans are based on a gender-sensitive analysis of the insurgency and counter-insurgency.
  3. Make reunification of families a priority, including by allocating more resources to the task and establishing a federal database to facilitate the search for missing persons.
  4. Facilitate access to credit and land for women, recognising that single females and especially widow-headed households need particular support to restart productive activities, for example in traditional crafts, trade or agriculture.

To the affected northern-state governments, especially Borno state:

  1. Engage community leaders, including religious groups, to facilitate reintegration and rehabilitation of all women released from Boko Haram and provide psycho-social support as possible.
  2. Design programs to strengthen women’s participation in politics and local governance.
  3. Prioritise increasing girls’ access to primary and secondary schools; and develop a program to upgrade Quranic education, ensuring equal access for girls.
  4. Develop community-based approaches and sensitisation to address social stigma around former Boko Haram wives and slaves as well as children fathered by Boko Haram members, including by dramatically increasing investment in schools in the North East so as to allow the latter to attend school with other children in the region; and improve coherence and open a public debate by producing a blueprint for reintegration of these groups.

To donors, UN agencies and international NGOs:

  1. Expand and improve gender-sensitive aspects of aid programs in all Boko Haram-affected areas.
  2. Strengthen programs, in partnership with women-led NGOs, to tackle gender stereotypes and raise awareness about women’s roles, including in relation to peacebuilding and post-conflict reconstruction.

Abuja/Dakar/Brussels, 5 December 2016

I. Introduction

President Muhammadu Buhari, elected in 2015, has reached out to neighbouring Lake Chad basin countries, Cameroon, Chad and Niger, and, despite the army’s structural weaknesses, mobilised a more powerful military campaign against Boko Haram, the jihadist insurgency that has destabilised Nigeria’s North East since 2010.[fn]For previous reporting on the North East and Boko Haram see Crisis Group Africa Reports N°s 168, Northern Nigeria: Background to Conflict, 20 December 2010; 216, Curbing Violence in Nigeria (II): The Boko Haram Insurgency, 3 April 2014; and Briefing N°120, Boko Haram on the Back Foot?, 4 May 2016. For more on the army, see Africa Report N°237, Nigeria: The Challenge of Military Reform, 6 June 2016.Hide Footnote  The regional effort seems to have put the movement on the defensive, but it still holds some ground, launches deadly attacks on civilians and security forces and has deep roots in certain communities. Even as the fight continues, the government, at state and federal levels, and its international partners must think carefully about how to address the war’s diverse effects on the region’s heterogeneous population, lest Boko Haram or similar groups remain a long-term regional threat.

This report analyses experiences of women and girls in the North East in order to inform interventions to better alleviate their suffering, facilitate their contribution to lasting peace and mitigate the threat from female Boko Haram members. It examines patriarchal norms the sect exploited to attract recruits and tracks the diverse, changing female roles, as valuable abductees, combatants’ wives and slaves, forced or willing fighters, heads of displaced families, community leaders, mothers, wives and daughters. It identifies policy priorities tailored to women’s experiences, including immediate humanitarian aid and protection, longer-term reintegration into normal life of those stigmatised by Boko Haram association and women’s roles in a peaceful North East.

The analysis is based on research in the North East, the federal capital, Abuja, and south-eastern Niger with Boko Haram victims, captives or supporters, as well as community leaders, government officials, humanitarian workers and academics.[fn]Boko Haram has affected neighbouring parts of Cameroon, Chad and Niger, but this report focuses on women and girls in Nigeria’s North East, where it was born and has been most active. The North East comprises Borno, Yobe, Adamawa, Taraba, Bauchi and Gombe states. Boko Haram has most affected Borno, Adamawa’s north and parts of Yobe, Bauchi and Gombe states.Hide Footnote  Scores of internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees were interviewed in formal and informal camps in Nigeria and Niger and a rehabilitation centre for ex-sect members in Maiduguri, as well as Boko Haram suspects held in Niger.

II. Women, Patriarchy and Islam in the North East

Boko Haram’s appeal to some women and the significance of women and girls for the group should be understood in the context of the North East’s heavily patriarchal societies, a widespread adherence to Islamic tenets and challenges to established beliefs and practices. The region’s religious and cultural norms, codified in law, have defined women’s status through marriage and childbearing and largely confined them to a domestic role. Their private and public places have been hotly contested by both the male-dominated political and religious elite and civil society, including female activists. What Islam says and what should be codified have been at the debate’s centre.

A. Entrenched Patriarchy

Male dominance has by and large been entrenched in law. Colonialism did little to challenge patriarchal structures in the mostly Muslim north, and independence altered little.[fn]The colonial administration relied on “indirect rule” through the northern emirates and did little to promote girls’ education. Christian missionaries provided most Western education. The 1960 northern penal code, inspired by the Sudanese model, includes the right for a husband to act “for the purpose of correcting his wife”. Jamila M. Nasir, “Sharia Implementation and Female Muslims in Nigeria’s Sharia States”, in Philip Ostien (ed.), Sharia Implementation in Northern Nigeria 1999-2006: A Sourcebook, vol. 3 (Ibadan, 2007), p. 89.Hide Footnote  At the urging of religious conservatives, Borno and eleven other northern states enacted a stricter version of Sharia (Islamic law) in 2003, with elements of Islamic criminal law.[fn]On Sharia, see Crisis Group Report, Northern Nigeria, op. cit.; Johannes Harnischfeger, Democratization & Islamic Law. The Sharia Conflict in Nigeria (Frankfurt, 2008). That Sharia criminal law is implemented only in Bauchi state has been a main Boko Haram grievance.Hide Footnote  Other provisions reinforced male dominance and further restricted women’s freedoms and rights, including access to education and jobs. As is the norm throughout Nigeria, Muslim women in the North East do not usually own land or homes.[fn]Of the 56.2 per cent of the North East population who own land, 4 per cent are women, the lowest rate in Nigeria. “Gender in Nigeria Report”, British Council, 2012. Women own some household property, have access to farmland and are involved in the pastoral economy, but titles to individual and communal or family land are usually held by men or community leaders.Hide Footnote  While Nigeria does not recognise polygamous unions under federal civil law, the twelve northern states did so under state law at the beginning of the 2000s.

Northern Muslim women are politically marginalised. In 2007, only six of 360 state representatives in the twelve northern states were women, none in Borno. Wives of politicians and traditional rulers generally have no prominent public role, partly due to the practice of purdah (secluding women from society).[fn]Nasir, “Sharia implementation”, op. cit., p. 83. Only 53 of Nigeria’s 990 state representatives are women.Hide Footnote  This power imbalance, combined with high poverty, has contributed to a disproportionately lower socio-economic status for women and girls. Marrying soon after puberty is a main reason the North East has Nigeria’s lowest school attendance ratio and very high female illiteracy.[fn]In 2013, 49 per cent of North East men and 72 per cent of women were illiterate, compared to 15 per cent in the South East. Nigeria Demographic and Health Survey 2013 (DHS), National Population Commission, June 2014, p. 37. A 1990s study found many Kanuri marriages were between ages twelve and fifteen for girls, and eighteen and twenty for men. Editha Platte, Kanuri Women of Borno (Nigeria): Perspectives from the little kingdom of Musune (Maiduguri, 2011).Hide Footnote  This correlates with large age gaps between husbands and wives, reinforced male dominance and some of the world’s highest fertility rates. The average marriage age has increased slightly in cities and other places with girls’ access to education.[fn]The North East’s fertility rate of 6.3 births per woman compares to 5.5 (nationally) and 4.3 (the South) and about a third of North East girls begin to have children between fifteen and nineteen. DHS, op. cit., p. 68. Illiteracy, poverty, young pregnancies and limited clinic access explain high maternal mortality, 1,549 per 100,000 live births, five times the global average. “Gender in Nigeria Report 2012: Improving the Lives of Girls and Women in Nigeria: Issues, Policies, Action”, British Council Nigeria, p. 39. In 2013, the median age at first marriage was 16.4 for North East women now between twenty and 49 and 25.5 for North East men now 30 to 49. DHS, op. cit., pp. 57-58. Marriage practices vary according to ethnicity, religion, education and urbanisation.Hide Footnote

Many women and girls in the North East have long experienced oppression and gender-based violence, but stereotyped views need qualification. Despite a cultural, religious and legal setting that disproportionately restricts them, many women are economic providers in their own right; some sell goods in the market or from home, or perform farming activities, while others work in offices.[fn]Women who do domestic work or are secluded often sell food or other goods from home or send children to hawk on the streets or markets. This is a substantial source of female income in the North. Polly Hill, “Hidden Trade among the Hausa”, Man: Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, no. 4 (1969), pp. 392-409; Yakubu Zakaria, “Entrepreneurs at Home: Secluded Muslim Women and Hidden Economic Activities in Northern Nigeria”, Nordic Journal of African Studies vol. 10, no. 1 (2001), pp. 107-123.Hide Footnote

B. Contested Womanhood

Womanhood has become a central theme in male-dominated political debate, especially with the rise of revivalist Islam and its increasing influence on northern politics. Religious revivalists perceive the female body as a battleground in a global conflict between Islam and “the West”. All North East states thus refused to sign the 2003 Child Rights Act (CRA), which set eighteen as the minimum marrying age for men and women, thus preventing its implementation on their territory. Some Islamic revivalist groups also push for full purdah, long limited to religious and political elites.[fn]Salafist groups have surged in the North East since the 1970s and broadly share goals of promoting a purist vision of Islam based on Sharia, eradicating “heretical” innovations and, for many, establishing an Islamic state. Crisis Group Report, Northern Nigeria, op. cit., pp. 13-20, 57. Some northern politicians have argued that the CRA was “a ploy to introduce Western standards with the ultimate aim of reducing the Muslim population”. The quote is a summary by a critic of that position, then Federal Women’s Affairs Minister Hajiya Miriam Inna Ciroma, a Borno Muslim. “Islam is No Hindrance to Women’ Child’s Rights – Gov”, This Day, 29 August 2005.Hide Footnote

In what may seem to foreign observers a paradox, many women engage with non-violent Islamic movements such as Izala, Nigeria’s largest Salafi group.[fn]Izala was established in the northern city of Kaduna in 1978 by Sheikh Abubakar Gumi, the former Grand Qadi of the region, heavily influenced by Wahhabi doctrine.Hide Footnote  Salafi Islam embraces conservative interpretations, including on women’s public roles and relations with established Sufi Islam and non-Muslims. But it promotes women’s education, Islamic and Western, and allows believers to free themselves from an Islam mediated by established Sufi clerics. Many women find it useful for advancing in their lives on an Islamic basis on their own terms.[fn]Elisha Renne, “Educating Muslim Women and the Izala Movement in Zaria City, Nigeria”, Islamic Africa, vol. 3, no. 1 (2012), pp. 55-86; Adeline Masquelier, Women and Islamic Revival in a West African Town (Bloomington, 2009); Roman Loimeier, “Boko Haram: The Development of a Militant Religious Movement in Nigeria”, Africa Spectrum, vol. 47, nos. 2-3 (2012), p. 141.Hide Footnote  In a context of endemic corruption, widespread poverty and social anomie, many value the moral order Islam provides.[fn]This is why many women and most Muslim groups, including opposing ones such as Izala and the Sufi Tijaniyya, supported implementation of Sharia.Hide Footnote  Civil society groups in the North East occasionally invoke Islam to challenge patriarchal structures and gender inequalities.[fn]Ibrahim N. Sada, Fatima L. Adamu, Ali Ahmad. “Promoting Women’s Rights through Sharia in Northern Nigeria”, British Council and Department for International Development, 2006.Hide Footnote

While men have dominated the political and religious debate on the place of women in society, some women have also raised their voices. In Borno state, women in a number of civil society organisations and professions such as law, academia and health, and some female civil servants (including the few directors in state ministries) have advocated greater women’s rights and freedom.[fn]Women-led NGOs complain about lack of support from donors and international NGOs (INGOs), who were said to hardly work with female civil society activists or use their local knowledge. Crisis Group interviews, Maiduguri, August 2016. The difficulties faced by Muslim women’s NGOs are not new. See Fatima L. Adamu, “A double-edged sword: challenging women’s oppression within Muslim society in Northern Nigeria”, Gender and Development, vol. 7, no. 1 (1999), pp. 56-61.Hide Footnote

Boko Haram leaders made use of the opening created by patriarchy, constraints on women and girls (particularly by patriarchal family members) and grinding socio-economic hardship in the North East to attract followers. Similarly, the debate over a female’s place and role offered opportunity to invoke religious authority to back up the movement’s claims and made women and girls significant for its rhetoric and actions.

III. Boko Haram and Women’s Changing Roles

Boko Haram and the subsequent insurgency and counter-insurgency have dramatically changed the lives of thousands of women and girls, casting them voluntarily, by force or for lack of other options into new, evolving roles outside the domestic sphere. Some joined the movement, first as members of a religious community, later as insurgents, while many are targets of its violence. Some fight against it within local vigilante units; others play critical roles in relief and reconciliation, while many displaced by fighting find themselves with new responsibilities. How roles evolve and relate to discrimination or empowerment have significant implications for North East recovery and stability.

A. Mohammed Yusuf’s Female Supporters

Well before Boko Haram turned to mass violence, when it was essentially one of a variety of revivalist Islamic movements in the Nigerian North, its founder, Mohammed Yusuf, attracted female followers.[fn]At the time, his group was a vocal member of a galaxy of movements calling for Quranic study and purified Islamic practice as the answer to societal ills. Yusuf (1970-2009) led Boko Haram from about 2002 until he was extra-judicially executed by police. The following year Abubakar Shekau emerged as leader and, according to sources in Maiduguri, took a Yusuf widow as one of his four wives. See Crisis Group Report, Curbing Violence in Nigeria (II)op. cit.Hide Footnote  A reason Boko Haram, not unlike Izala, appealed to many, especially young women, was the opportunity to study the Quran and learn Arabic. Some had received Western education in government schools and, like men, tore up their certificates to show their new allegiance and rejection of the Nigerian state, which they deemed immoral and disappointing.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, female Boko Haram members, government safe house, Maiduguri, June 2016; Federation of Muslim Women’s Associations of Nigeria (FOMWAN) representatives, Maiduguri, 13 August 2016.Hide Footnote  Other factors were Yusuf’s encouragement of marriage within the sect and alleviation of traditional financial demands and social obligations, which gave young women some relief from family pressures. For women involved in hard labour such as farming or fetching water, purdah as promoted by the group may have been an attractive alternative.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Maiduguri, June, August 2016. A 55-year-old woman from Damasak, Borno state, stressed that the situation in her region changed under Yusuf’s influence, as he promoted quick, simple weddings and ordered the dowry to go to the bride, not her family. Crisis Group interview, refugee who escaped from Boko Haram, Chettimari, Niger, May 2016.Hide Footnote

Like many other Islamic Salafi leaders worldwide, Yusuf put special emphasis on treatment of the female body to show adherence to correct Islam. He encouraged wearing the niqab, a Saudi-style dress introduced in Nigeria in the 1970s that fully covers face and body.[fn]For men, Yusuf recommended the Wahabbi style, typically long beards, turbans and trousers worn above the ankles.Hide Footnote  Initially, women could hear him preach at the mosque, where they sat apart from the men. Subsequent debate among Boko Haram clerics over whether to allow women in public led to the decision they should be taught at home and not allowed in mosques. Yusuf considered mixing of sexes a proof of unbelief.[fn]Zainab Usman, Sherine El-Taraboulsi, Khadija Gambo Hawaja, “Gender Norms and Female Participation in Radical Movements in Northern Nigeria”, Nigeria Stabilisation and Reconciliation Programme, British Council, Department for International Development, 2014, p. 24. Muhammad Yusuf, This is Our Doctrine and Our Method in Proselytization (Ibadan, forthcoming), English translation of Hādhihi ‘Aqīdatunā wa-Manhaj Da’wa tinā (Maiduguri, 2009).Hide Footnote  A mixed Western style was a major reason to consider a school impure (haram). Unlike in Izala, purdah was required for female followers.

B. The Insurgency

A government crackdown after violent confrontations in June and July 2009 in Maiduguri and several other cities led to the extrajudicial execution of Yusuf by the Nigerian police, as well as the killing of a number of other sect leaders and at least 1,000 supporters.[fn]Female supporters did not play a direct part in the 2009 violence. “Although there were women among the followers of Muhammad Yusuf, none was arrested or found among the dead. This might be because the sect leader evacuated them to safety when the invasion of his enclave became imminent”. Usman Gaji Galtimari, “Report of the Administrative Committee of Inquiry into the Boko Haram Insurgency in Borno State” (Maiduguri, 2009), vol. 2, chapter 2.Hide Footnote  Many members fled to rural areas and neighbouring counties, where they reorganised and began to engage in revenge terror and guerrilla attacks, led by Abubakar Shekau, a Yusuf deputy. Boko Haram recruited women and men, primarily from Maiduguri and other urban areas, with a mixture of coercion and incentives. In 2013, the security forces and civilian vigilantes (the Civilian Joint Task Force, CJTF) forced it out of Maiduguri, but as its insurgency spread to rural areas, more women were recruited or forced to join from villages, cutting across classes. Many married Boko Haram members.

A. Women in Boko Haram’s insurgency

Women’s and girls’ importance for Boko Haram stems from their roles and how they are perceived in society – both in the North East and in Nigeria as a whole. As wives, they enhance social status and provide sexual or domestic services (sometimes forced), thereby becoming valuable incentives for potential male recruits. Their adherence, willing or forced, to the movement’s version of Islam can also contribute to the spreading of its ideology among other women, but possibly also young men. Women can perform roles very different from traditional stereotypes. As the war evolved, women have become recruiters, spies, domestic labour, fighters and forced or willing suicide bombers.

Targeting of women and girls in certain communities helped to attract supporters, establish a political ideology in opposition to the state and sometimes attack Nigerian institutions in areas where it was perceived it would hurt the most. During the insurgency’s early phase, from late 2010, militants targeted individuals, mostly men, suspected of assisting the security forces in their initial crackdown on the sect. Boko Haram began kidnapping women and children in mid-2013, initially Christians in the Gwoza area of south east Borno. Shekau publicised the captures, demanding the government release the wives and children of several Boko Haram leaders, including his own spouses, arrested in 2012, an issue he had repeatedly raised.[fn]Video of Abubakar Shekau, 30 September 2012, extract translated by Elodie Apard, “Le jihad en vidéo”, Politique africaine, no. 138 (2015), p. 146. In a January 2012 message to President Jonathan, Shekau said, “you took over our women and made of them whatever you wanted”. Ibid., p. 59 (Crisis Group translation).Hide Footnote  A deal was negotiated between the authorities and Boko Haram and an exchange was organised, but abductions of women became a core tactic.

On 14 April 2014, Boko Haram seized more than 200 schoolgirls in the town of Chibok, southern Borno state. This became a global affair, with leading female civil society activists throughout Nigeria joining in the Bring Back Our Girls international campaign. The state’s response was apathetic. It took three weeks for President Goodluck Jonathan to make a statement, and his wife, Patience, speculated that the abduction never happened.[fn]“First Lady Labels Women Activists Terrorists, Orders Arrest”, International Centre for Investigative Reporting, 5 May 2014.Hide Footnote  This so fed into a mounting debate on Jonathan’s performance that some of his allies claimed, without basis, that the abduction was a ploy by northern elites to weaken his government. Boko Haram said it would force the mostly Christian schoolgirls to convert, while trying to use them as bargaining chips.[fn]The Chibok girls were reportedly not forced to convert, but conversion under heavy pressure has been mentioned by other former captives. “Boko Haram did not rape, abuse freed Chibok girls – Source”, Reuters, 9 November 2016.Hide Footnote  They remain a major symbolic issue. Shekau’s release of 21 Chibok girls in October 2016 after negotiations has been good news for President Buhari.

There have been many more kidnappings. In April 2015, a well-documented report estimated Boko Haram had taken more than 2,000 girls and young women, most unmarried, over the previous twelve months alone. But that figure is a mere indication. Boko Haram probably controlled a few hundred thousand women at the height of its insurgency, and abductions were many. The practice remained extensive well into the second half of 2015, when the movement further expanded its territorial control in Borno state.[fn]“‘Our Job is to Shoot, Slaughter and Kill’: Boko Haram’s Reign of Terror in North-East Nigeria”, Amnesty International, April 2015. On more recent developments, see “‘Beyond Chibok’: over 1.3 million children uprooted by Boko Haram”, UNICEF, April 2016.Hide Footnote  Reports show that militants mostly killed men (civilian and military), but generally abducted women. In a video, Shekau told followers to kill men but “spare the old, women, the lunatic, and the repentant”.[fn]Of course, women have been killed in attacks in large numbers. For instance, 59 Shuwa women trying to escape from Kirenowa in June 2014 were pursued and shot dead at the mosque in the next village, Ngalori. Crisis Group interview, Shuwa Arab women, Maiduguri, 14 August 2016. But the bulk of available narratives indicate the insurgents kill many more men. For instance, a survivor said there were only three women among the 43 killed during a February 2016 attack on Kache, a Shuwa Arab settlement in Marte LGA, Borno state. Most women but only five men escaped. Crisis Group interview, Maiduguri, 18 June 2016. See also the incidents detailed in “Our Job is to Shoot …”, op. cit., pp 37, 40-41, 43, 48. Available data on Boko Haram deaths (eg, www.cfr.org and www.crisis.acleddata.com) do not distinguish between male and female victims. “Boko Haram: Shekau claims responsibility for attack on Giwa Barracks, threatens to attack universities, Civilian-JTF”, Premium Times, 24 March 2014.Hide Footnote

Beyond trying to free its own female detainees, Boko Haram’s reasons for abducting women and girls are probably mixed. In some local contexts, its actions have ethnic underpinnings; since it recruits more in certain communities than others, the history of hostility between communities has occasionally become part of its jihadist struggle. That it first abducted women in mainly Christian communities and pressured them to convert suggests it sought to spread its version of Islam as well as punish local adversaries.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, IDPs, Maiduguri, Yola and Jalingo, 14 June 2016. During the July 2009 uprising, Yusuf and his followers held Christians, including women, captive in their Markas (base) in Maiduguri and reportedly killed those who refused to convert. Galtimari, “Report”, op. cit.; Crisis Group interview, Borno state representative, Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), Maiduguri, May 2016.Hide Footnote  There are early reports of gang rape of Christian women, while Muslims were spared.[fn]Atta Barkindo, Benjamin Tyavkase Gudaku, Caroline Katgurum Wesley, “Our Bodies, Their Battle Ground. Boko Haram and Gender-Based Violence against Christian Women and Children in North-Eastern Nigeria since 1999”, Nigeria’s Political Violence Research Network, working paper no. 1, 2013.Hide Footnote

Boko Haram probably controlled a few hundred thousand women at the height of its insurgency, and abductions were many.

There is much ex-captive testimony about insurgents trying to obtain allegiance through a mix of threats, preaching and enticements.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, former captives and IDPs, Abuja, 3 June 2016.Hide Footnote  In so doing, Boko Haram seems to follow a pre-colonial Lake Chad-area pattern of raiding and enslavement, whereby women and children are captured and integrated into the victorious group.

With the state-sponsored emergence from 2013 of civilian vigilante groups to fight Boko Haram in all communities, the jihadists turned on both Christian and Muslim communities, killing men and capturing women, including Muslim women. For instance, when they captured Kareto, Borno state, in 2015, they treated Muslim women harshly because they had taken part, under military pressure, in desecrating the bodies of killed comrades.[fn]Crisis Group interview, refugee, Chettimari, Niger, May 2016.Hide Footnote

Economic motives may also explain the increase in abductions. As in the nineteenth century wars in the Lake Chad area, Boko Haram used women and girls as rewards to fighters, a significant enticement since raising the resources for marriage is not easy.[fn]“In the absence of lucrative trafficking and foreign financial support, Boko Haram compensates … by a stream of plunder. Human beings turn into wealth”. Christian Seignobos, “Boko Haram et le lac Tchad”, Afrique contemporaine, no. 255 (2016), p. 99. On the history of capture in sub-Saharan Africa, see Jane Guyer, “Wealth in people and self-realization in Equatorial Africa”, Man, vol. 28, no. 2 (1993), p. 243-265.Hide Footnote  A former captive reported overhearing lengthy conversations between fighters over marriage prospects. That Boko Haram has occasionally released older women, for instance when food stocks were low or the war moved on, but not younger women demonstrates the latter’s value.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, academic who interviewed former captive, Paris, 29 March 2016; former female captive, Chettimari, Niger, 19 May 2016.Hide Footnote

Management of marriageable women and girls, including widows, appears to have been a prerogative of leaders and a contentious issue within the sect. In a 2016 recording, Mamman Nur, a Boko Haram splinter faction leader, criticised Shekau for betraying his promise to marry the Chibok girls to sect members. Boko Haram seems to have distinguished between slaves and wives based on religion, protecting the latter more from abuse.[fn]“In Islam, it is allowed to take infidel women as slaves, and in due course we will start taking women away and sell them in the market”. “Boko Haram: Shekau claims responsibility of attack on Giwa barracks, threatens to attack universities, Civilian-JTF”, Premium Times, 24 March 2014.Hide Footnote  But even that has been controversial, with Nur criticising Shekau for enslaving Muslim women he deemed unfaithful to his version of Islam.[fn]“Since those [Muslim who are not followers of Boko Haram] are the apostates, then what they should do is to repent but not to be hold as slaves”. David Otto, “Boko Haram ‘Exposed’ – The Greatest Betrayal Ever – How Shakau Was Forced to Pledge Allegiance to ISIL”, 9 August 2016.Hide Footnote

Captured women have generally been kept under surveillance, required to wear the niqab and often compelled to listen to sermons and Quranic education.[fn]Lectures emphasised “looking after your husband, having good morals and learning Arabic”. Crisis Group interview, female ex-captive, safe house, Maiduguri, 16 June 2016.Hide Footnote  Eventually, they could be put to work, for instance as carriers, including in attacks, or cooks. While the sect’s claims to moral rigour may have given captive women some protection from sexual violence, as seems to have been the case for several Chibok girls, there have been reports of clandestine, extra-marital rapes in Boko Haram camps. Rape seemed more frequent after captives, sometimes quite young by local standards, were pressured to marry fighters.[fn]On the Chibok girls, see Abubakar Yahaya, “The ongoing violations of women’s rights in the context of insurgency in Borno State, Nigeria”, in Habu Galadima & Moses T. Aluaigba (eds.), Insurgency and Human Rights in Northern Nigeria (Kano, 2015), p. 44. More generally, see “‘Those terrible weeks in their camp’. Boko Haram violence against women and girls in Northeast Nigeria”, Human Rights Watch, October 2014, p. 3.Hide Footnote  

After the 2009 crackdown, some women already loyal to Boko Haram left Maiduguri, following their husbands to other towns or the Sambisa forest, a large savanna area south of Maiduguri where Boko Haram has bases. Others stayed behind to care for families or clandestinely support husbands. Yet others continued to join Boko Haram willingly.[fn]Crisis Group interview, community leader, Maiduguri, 14 August 2016.Hide Footnote

In Boko Haram-controlled areas, marriage could bring a measure of security and well-being for women and their extended family. In a village near Kerenowa in the Local Government Area (LGA) of Marte, Borno state, insurgents married 80 girls, offering dowries of 15,000 naira (about $70 in 2014), a considerable sum in a war-torn rural area.[fn]Crisis Group interview, project manager of local NGO, Maiduguri, 11 August 2016.Hide Footnote Some fathers gave their daughters to fighters under pressure from Boko Haram, and at times women chose such marriages against family wishes. A woman from Walasa, a Kanuri village near Banki, Bama LGA, divorced her husband and married the Boko Haram naqib of Banki. She said her new husband looked after her better and gave her a higher stipend than her first husband. She lamented losing the money she had saved when the military took back her village, burned their house and arrested her.[fn]Crisis Group interview, government safe house, Maiduguri, 15 June 2016. A naqib (Arabic for “he who investigates, verifies”) is above an amir (village head) in the Boko Haram hierarchy.Hide Footnote  In 2014, Kanuri elders and officials in Niger became increasingly worried about a small but increasing number of single women leaving the Diffa region for Boko Haram-controlled areas in search of business opportunities or a “lucrative” marriage.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Kanuri elder, Niamey, December 2014.Hide Footnote

Economic motives may also explain the increase in abductions.

Some may have become Boko Haram wives more inadvertently. A nineteen-year-old from Banki said that when she married, in 2013, she did not know that her husband, a trader selling suitcases who would leave for weeks at a time, was in Boko Haram. She never saw him with a weapon until there was fighting nearby with the military, and they had to leave for the Sambisa forest. Her parents told her to go with him, possibly fearing violence from Boko Haram if they prevented her from accompanying her husband.[fn]Crisis Group interview, female ex-captive, government safe house, Maiduguri, 16 June 2016.Hide Footnote

The sect values Quranic education for women so they can take part in the religious community and obey its rules. Some women joined because they found this attractive and were eager to “acquire knowledge, to memorise the Quran and to learn about Islam more deeply … [all] unique opportunities”.[fn]“Motivations and Empty promises: Voices of Former Boko Haram Combatants and Nigerian Youth”, Mercy Corps, April 2016, p. 15.Hide Footnote  As they grew in militancy, they considered any non-supporter an apostate or non-Muslim and an enemy to be fought. Many were involved as domestic labour, but also recruiters of other women, their husbands or young men, as spies, messengers and smugglers (including of food).[fn]Ibid; Crisis Group interviews, IDPs, Yola, June 2016; Jacob Zenn and Elizabeth Pearson, “Women, Gender and the evolving tactics of Boko Haram”, Journal of Terrorism Research, vol. 5, no. 1 (2014), p. 46-57.Hide Footnote  For a time, as the army and CJTF focused on male suspects, women were well suited for these roles, as their supposed innocuousness allowed them to circulate more easily than male militants in government areas.

Unlike other West African insurgent groups, such as those in Liberia and Sierra Leone, Boko Haram has nothing like a women’s brigade. Yet, under manpower pressure, particularly from 2014, some women and girls were trained and joined in attacks.[fn]“Our Job is to Shoot …”, op. cit., p. 72; “Getting behind the profiles of Boko Haram members and factors contributing to radicalisation versus working towards peace”, Network for Religious and Traditional Peacemakers, Finn Church Aid and Kaiciid Dialogue Centre, October 2016.Hide Footnote  The wife of a Boko Haram leader in the Gwoza Hills reportedly carried a gun and killed a vigilante.[fn]Crisis Group researcher interview in another capacity, former captive, Abuja, September 2013; Crisis Group interview, CJTF chairman for Gwoza, Maiduguri, 22 June 2016; Adam Higazi, “A Conflict Analysis of Borno and Adamawa States”, unpublished report for the Danish Refugee Council, Yola, February 2016. The testimony of the former captive is partially recounted in “‘Those terrible weeks …’”, op. cit. p. 26.Hide Footnote  Armed female militants were sighted in the Sambisa forest, riding their own motorcycles. Women were said to be involved in a 2016 ambush on the military. On 10 July 2014, armed females between fourteen and 21 and fighting “like professionals” attacked Kirenowa in Marte LGA, Borno state.[fn]Crisis Group researcher interview in another capacity, women’s leader in IDP camp, Yola, 18 October 2015; Crisis Group interview, civil society leader and conflict analyst, Maiduguri, 12 August 2016; account recorded by the Nigeria Stabilisation and Reconciliation Programme (NSRP), seen by Crisis Group in Maiduguri, 12 August 2016.Hide Footnote

Use of young females as suicide bombers, the first instance of the tactic in Nigeria’s history, has attracted much publicity. The attacks, which have killed hundreds, have become symbolic of the insurgency’s brutality. The first suicide bombing was in 2011, but women bombers, usually with improvised explosives strapped to their bodies, became prominent only in the second half of 2014. Attacks grew in frequency and severity, but declined from mid-2015, mainly due to the army’s cutting of Boko Haram’s supply lines and improved prevention measures, including at checkpoints.

The youngest female bomb-carriers are often victims themselves, with little awareness, duped by relatives and possibly drugged.[fn]Crisis Group interview, former official involved in debriefing surviving perpetrators of suicide attacks, Abuja, February 2016; The first female suicide attack seems to have been in Maiduguri in June 2013, not in Gombe in July 2014 as has often been claimed. See Hamza Idris and Ibrahim Sawab, “Women as Boko Haram’s new face”, Daily Trust, 6 July 2013. For further analysis on suicide attacks, see Mia Bloom and Hilary Matfess, “Women as Symbols and Swords in Boko Haram’s Terror”, Prism, vol. 6, no. 1 (2016), pp. 1-8; and Patricia Taft and Kendall Lawrence, “Confronting the Unthinkable: Suicide Bombers in Nigeria”, The Fund for Peace, 2016.Hide Footnote  But the older bombers seem to have volunteered. A woman who spent two years as a captive in Gwoza LGA said she saw seven such women who were recruited as suicide bombers and deployed to Maiduguri around March-April 2015. They reportedly were moved by commitment to jihad and apparently indoctrinated over a long period, including with promise of direct admission to al-jinnah (paradise). Some were widows of fighters. Overall, there was supposedly no shortage of volunteers.[fn]Crisis Group interview, former Boko Haram captive, Jalingo, Taraba state, 14 June 2016.Hide Footnote

B. Fighting back

Some women have fought Boko Haram as part of the vigilante groups that emerged throughout the Lake Chad basin under various forms, notably the Borno state-based Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF).[fn]The emergence and impact of the vigilantes in the Lake Chad Basin will be the topic of a forthcoming Crisis Group report.Hide Footnote  This seems to have been a late development, partly related to the fact women were increasingly active in the insurgency. At the onset, there were none, but as time went on, females started joining for various reasons. Some joined out of outrage and bitterness, seeking vengeance after they had seen Boko Haram slaughter their loved ones. Other volunteered to help the CJTF at checkpoints following protests against men touching women’s bodies. Some offered the CTJF information discreetly on Boko Haram members and their activities within Maiduguri but did not join the group.[fn]Crisis Group interview, civil society leader, Maiduguri, 22 October 2016.Hide Footnote

There are presently 122 registered female CJTF members in Borno state, though more may work with the CJTF informally.[fn]Crisis Group, CJTF commander, Maiduguri, October 2016. On female vigilantes, see for instance “Stories of Borno’s fierce, female Civilian JTF personnel”, Daily Trust, 8 October 2016.Hide Footnote  Some have received military training, are armed with shotguns and other weapons and fight alongside men, at times in operations with the military. Female vigilantes also guard IDP camps and help identify Boko Haram suspects, for example by examining women and girls at checkpoints to prevent suicide attacks.

C. Working for peace

Though they may have been obscured by the violent shock between Boko Haram and the state, there has been non-violent female engagement for conflict resolution in the North East. Some women, often from prominent families which valued and could offer daughters an education, have long been active on the place of women in public and private life. They have usually been so from within Islam, rather than via external critique. That has been so for the Federation of Muslim Women’s Associations in Nigeria (FOMWAN), which has combined propagation of Islam with attempts to improve the socio-economic status of women, youths and children through training, education, health and humanitarian services, micro-enterprise and advocacy.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Federation of Muslim Women’s Associations of Nigeria (FOMWAN) representatives, Maiduguri, 13 August 2016.Hide Footnote  Women’s Rights Advancement and Protection Alternative (WRAPA) has been active against domestic abuse, female genital mutilation and child marriage and played a major part in the successful defence of two young women condemned to death under Sharia in the early 2000s. More recently, it has sought to engage imams over preaching on the rights of women.[fn]“Women’s rights: WRAPA ‘khutba’ to the rescue”, Daily Trust, 27 May 2016.Hide Footnote

As the Boko Haram conflict grew, these organisations have been involved in advocacy, notably over the Chibok abductions. They have found powerful allies in other international and nationwide campaigns, such as Bring Back Our Girls, a gathering of female activists (and some men) with particular anchoring in the political and economic capitals, Abuja and Lagos, that has kept the issue alive.

D. Forced to flee

Together, the insurgency and counter-insurgency have forced nearly two million people in the North East, more than half women and girls, to leave their homes.[fn]Some 1.8 million people have been displaced in Adamawa, Borno, Gombe and Yobe states. “Nigeria: Humanitarian Dashboard”, UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), 13 October 2016. “Nigeria Regional Refugee Response Plan January-December 2016”, UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), December 2016. “Stories of Borno’s fierce, female Civilian JTF personnel”, op. cit. 53 per cent of IDPs are reported to be female. Some large IDP camps have more than twice as many adult women as men. Displacement Tracking Matrix, Round XI Report, International Organisation for Migration (IOM), August 2016.Hide Footnote  Widespread killing of civilians, the destruction of towns and villages by Boko Haram and the military, loss of livelihoods and lack of food in an increasingly ruptured economy are the main factors driving this displacement. Initially, people fled to urban centres, where they thought the government would protect them, or to neighbouring states or countries. As the insurgency gained ground, some have been forced to move several times. Maiduguri, repeatedly attacked but never captured by Boko Haram, hosts about a million IDPs. The counter-attack by the army, the vigilantes and Nigeria’s regional allies, which gained steam in 2015, created hundreds of thousands more IDPs, the civilians who had hitherto survived in Boko Haram-controlled areas and then fled for safety or were relocated by the army.[fn]Crisis Group Africa Briefing N°120, Boko Haram on the Back Foot?, 4 May 2016.Hide Footnote

In many areas, women and children were the only ones left after Boko Haram either forcibly recruited or killed the men and older boys or the military arrested them.[fn]The lower number of male IDPs than female probably has several causes, but able-bodied men found in areas formerly held by Boko Haram come under strong suspicion by the security forces. Mass disappearances of adult men have been reported. Amnesty International released a video claiming to show the mass killing of prisoners in the North East. “Nigeria: Gruesome footage implicates military in war crimes”, 5 August 2014. Women brought to the Bama IDP camp staged a protest in 2016, asking the authorities to clarify the fate of “their” men, who had been separated from them and taken to an unknown location after the “liberation” of their area. Crisis Group electronic communication, humanitarian expert, October 2016.Hide Footnote  The security forces and state have had difficulty deciding what to do with thousands of survivors. The need to survive in Boko Haram areas and the blurred lines between victims and perpetrators have fed suspicion of IDPs. That suspicion, and the poor performance and abuses of Nigerian officials – and of some of their international partners – who are meant to assist the IDPs have combined to create a humanitarian crisis with serious long-term risks.

People found in areas “liberated” by the military are screened to pick out Boko Haram members. In Borno state, soldiers and the CJTF lead the process locally, often in consultation with community leaders, leaders of wards in towns and village heads. While Boko Haram suspects are transferred to detention centres in military barracks or elsewhere, others caught up in the conflict are sent to official IDP camps, where further screening can take place. Most IDPs then move into host communities or informal camps. Others are transferred to experimental deradicalisation programs. Only one such site caters for women at present, a “safe house” in Maiduguri, discussed below. There is also a rehabilitation centre in Maiduguri which functions as a transit point. In September 2016, 500 women and children held in military detention were sent there for social support, accommodation and food before release to families in November.[fn]Crisis Group communication, Maiduguri-based international official, 24 November 2016.Hide Footnote  The basis for the distinction is unclear.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, security officials and international agencies, Maiduguri, June 2016.Hide Footnote

Screening is difficult, because in areas Boko Haram controls most people are compelled for their safety to have some association with the insurgents. Determining who is an active member is prone to error. The military can, therefore, end up incarcerating vulnerable women who were abducted, captured or prevented from leaving their communities by Boko Haram, along with women who actively supported the insurgency.

Detention of suspected insurgents occurs extra-judicially, with hardly any external scrutiny. Suspects, including some women and children in a separate section, are reportedly still held in Giwa Barracks in Maiduguri.[fn]Crisis Group interview, international official, Maiduguri, June 2016, and communication, November 2016.Hide Footnote  Amnesty International in June 2015 reported extensive allegations of torture, starvation and thousands of deaths at the site between 2011 and 2015. In May 2016, it insisted conditions remained terribly poor, noting a high mortality rate among detainees and the children and babies confined with them.[fn]See “Stars on their shoulders, blood on their hands. War crimes committed by the Nigerian military”, June 2015, and “If you see it, you will cry: Life and death in Giwa barracks”, 10 May 2016, both Amnesty International. The military said in August 2015 that it was pursuing some investigations; it called the 2016 report “baseless”. See “Nigerian military react to Amnesty International report of human rights abuse”, 6 August 2015, “Military debunks Amnesty report”, 12 May 2016, both defenceinfo.mil.ng. President Buhari has said there should be an official government investigation. “Nigeria’s Giwa barracks ‘place of death,’ rights group says”, CNN, 14 May 2016.Hide Footnote  International agency access to and monitoring of conditions has improved slightly since, but each entry is “a new negotiation” with the military.[fn]In 2016, the Nigerian authorities allowed UN personnel to visit women and children detained in Giwa Barracks. Crisis Group interview, Maiduguri, 22 June 2016.Hide Footnote

For those who make it through screening, conditions as an IDP depend on the security situation and type of settlement. More than 80 per cent are in host communities, the rest in government-run and informal camps throughout Borno state and in neighbouring states and countries. The camp in Bama, a deserted city surrounded by Boko Haram to the south east of Maiduguri, looks almost like an open-air jail, while IDPs in Monguno, north east of Maiduguri, are free to move around and have brought the market back to life. IDPs are generally guarded by the military, often in collaboration with police and CJTF. Movement in and out of the camps is monitored in locations like Bama, Banki or Maiduguri. Mobility restrictions are ostensibly for security reasons, to prevent attacks on IDPs outside the camps and stop Boko Haram infiltration.[fn]

In parts of central Borno, some women have been returned to their LGAs from camps in Maiduguri and elsewhere, but they are usually held in camps because their houses have been destroyed, and there is still a high security risk in more remote areas. Elsewhere, as in much of southern Borno, Yobe and northern Adamawa, the rural areas are becoming more accessible, and IDPs are beginning to return to their villages.

The humanitarian situation for IDPs is harsh, though varied by area. Massive food shortages and serious health issues have been reported. A blame game is being played by state agencies, federal government agencies, donors and international NGOs (INGOs).[fn]Compare for instance “IDPs protest caused by break down of agreement with NEMA – Borno govt”, Vanguard, 27 August 2016; “IDPs’ protest: NEMA denies breach of MoU with Borno Govt”, TG News, 28 August 2016; and “NSCDC alerts public on syndicates sponsoring protests in Borno IDPs camps”, Daily Post, 28 August 2016.Hide Footnote  Some government officials hold Boko Haram responsible, and certainly violence has ravaged agricultural production and health structures. But counter-insurgency has also deliberately stifled economic activity to deprive Boko Haram of supplies, trade and protection rackets. Other officials play down the humanitarian situation or accuse international organisations and IDPs of exaggeration. Corruption and diversion of food aid and relief funds by officials, as well as a shortfall in assistance, have certainly been part of the problem. IDPs have denounced mismanagement and corruption a number of times.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, humanitarian workers involved in assistance in Borno state, Dakar, June 2016. “Humanitarian groups using Boko Haram crisis to make money, says Borno govt”, The News, 16 October 2016. “Borno IDPs protest inadequate food supply”, Vanguard, 26 July 2016; “Borno IDPs Protest Poor Feeding”, The New Telegraph, 26 August 2016; “Again, Borno IDPs protest poor method of feeding in camps”, Vanguard, 30 August 2016.Hide Footnote

IDPs outside government-run camps have generally received even less food and medical help, but several government-run camps have very high rates of mortality and children’s malnutrition and low rates of vaccination. This is true not only of camps close to remaining Boko Haram areas, where understandable movement restrictions constrain economic activity and access to health services, but also of those supposedly safe from Boko Haram, around Maiduguri city.[fn]Crisis Group Commentary, “North-eastern Nigeria and Conflict’s Humanitarian Fallout”, 4 August 2016. Crisis Group electronic communication, humanitarian officials, October 2016.Hide Footnote

Women and girls in the camps face specific problems. Locked up in compounds where most guards and much of the staff are men, many have experienced sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) or resorted to “survival sex” with camp officials and security personnel in exchange for food, money or permission to leave the camp. In several sites, sexual exploitation was said to be so frequent that parents preferred to marry their daughters at an early age.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, protection officers from international agencies and local NGOs, Maiduguri, August 2016. “Nigeria: Officials Abusing Displaced Women. Girls Displaced by Boko Haram and Victims Twice Over”, Human Rights Watch, 31 October 2016; “Rapid Protection Assessment Report, Borno State, Nigeria”, protection sector working group, May 2016.Hide Footnote

Crisis Group interview, INGO worker returning from Borno, Dakar, July 2016. On 30 January 2016, Boko Haram killed more than 80 in Dalori village, close to Dalori IDP camp, one of the largest in Maiduguri. Bombs were planted at Malkohi camp in Yola, Adamawa state, killing seven IDPs on 11 September 2015, and at Dikwa camp, Borno state, killing 60 on 10 February 2016.Hide Footnote

IV. Stigmatisation and the Dilemmas of Reintegration

The blurred lines between Boko Haram member, abductee, slave, wife, supporter, victim and sympathiser have left many women and girls with the stigma of association. That stigma – heightened if they have children born to Boko Haram fathers, even if the pregnancy was against their will – is a major obstacle to reintegration into community life. Children born to women who were raped or married (by force or choice) to Boko Haram fighters are seen in IDP camps and host communities in Maiduguri and elsewhere in the North East as having “bad blood” from their fathers and potential future security risks. President Buhari publicly sought to counter this attitude by holding a Boko Haram child in his arms. The consequences of exclusion from mainstream society are significant for both the individual’s social, political and economic prospects and north-eastern society’s cohesion and stability. Isolation and alienation risk generating new frustration and resistance of the kind that gave rise to Boko Haram. Children of stigmatised females may in time reject state institutions.

There is no evidence to confirm the suspicion of some observers that the harsh camp conditions are a deliberate attempt by some authorities to punish women and their children recently retrieved from Boko Haram areas.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, humanitarian workers involved in assistance in Borno state, Dakar, June 2016.Hide Footnote  Yet, even women captured, abused or forced into “marriage” by the sect bear the stigma of association. Fear of “contagion” and, more concretely, suicide attacks, is part of the problem. As a result, there are restrictions in some areas on new influxes of IDPs into Maiduguri. In Bama camp, only children needing sustained medical support are allowed to go, sometimes without their caretakers. However understandable, this fear must be balanced against its cost. Restricting movement encourages official neglect, offers opportunities for abuse and extortion and can feed resentment.

Stigmatisation can also inhibit reintegration into normal community life. In Maiduguri’s IDP camps even women who were abducted and raped or enslaved are often socially isolated, labelled “Boko Haram wives” and “Sambisa women”. Given the prevailing norms, with sex outside marriage socially unacceptable, they may be rejected by their family, and their lot is likely to be worse if they have had children outside marriage, as they have no way to hide the situation. One should, however, beware of generalisation: social judgments can take into account the degree of support the individual gave Boko Haram. Those perceived to have been coerced are not necessarily seen in the same way as women believed to have stayed more willingly.

An ex-captive recounted how soldiers welcomed her at their outpost after she escaped Boko Haram. Muslim and Christian women interviewed for this study in host communities and IDP camps who had escaped after being held for months or even years by Boko Haram, or who had been liberated by the military, were socially integrated with other IDPs and recounted their experiences as victims of the insurgency. It helped that many had been through similar experiences and sometimes were freed or escaped together. Thus while many cases of stigmatisation have been recorded, some women are traumatised, not stigmatised. The problem of stigmatisation and trauma varies between families, individuals and communities.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Abuja, 3 June 2016; Fufore, 8-9 June 2016; Jalingo, 12-14 June 2016; “‘Bad Blood’: Perceptions of children born of conflict-related sexual violence and women and girls associated with Boko Haram in northeast Nigeria”, UNICEF and International Alert, February 2016.Hide Footnote

A few of the wives and children of Boko Haram members have been placed in a centre for “deradicalisation”, a “safe house” established in Maiduguri for that purpose by Borno state authorities in May 2016. From the outset, it accommodated 62 women and adolescents from two villages in Bama and Dikwa LGAs, Borno state, most of whom, as wives of insurgents, are regarded as security risks, and their 26 children. They are under the responsibility of female social workers and are prohibited from leaving the premises, which are under armed guard.

This pilot project exemplifies the dilemmas of reintegration and deradicalisation. The challenge lies in defining what aspect of “radicalism” the programs seek to counter: use of violence, certain violence, the ideology or an aspect of an ideology? Only some Boko Haram women handled guns and fought. Most seem to have had a more domestic role and were not necessarily involved in or exposed to mass violence. They were indoctrinated to differing degrees, with some still holding to the creed, while others had discarded it. It seems some could be more easily reintegrated into society than others, but there could be resistance from local populations. They still showed some reluctance to acknowledge atrocities, which they often saw as part of a two-sided conflict. Some “deradicalisation” work in the safe house is meant to educate on the effects of violence, notably suicide attacks.[fn]A female staffer explained that a Maiduguri NGO plays videos to expose the women and girls to the reality that, unlike what Boko Haram told some, suicide bombers and others are killed in the explosion. Some women were reportedly shocked because they knew the bombers and had not realised what attacks actually involved. Crisis Group interview, Maiduguri, 10 August 2016.Hide Footnote  Islamic preachers visit to teach counter-narratives to sect doctrine, and female social workers interact with them daily. Some expressed a wish to go to school to supplement their Islamic education; and some were attending classes in the safe house.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Maiduguri, 15-17 June 2016. “Nigeria: The Women Who Love and Loved Boko Haram”, Al Jazeera, 22 September 2016.Hide Footnote

V. Taking Women into Account: A Policy Agenda

Given the situation of women in the North East, the state and its international partners should quickly address the full spectrum of challenges. Action is needed to tackle the immediate protection and humanitarian issues, as well as the longer-term subject of reintegration. All this is required in the context of a larger drive to improve the condition of all women in the North East. Like many wars, that against Boko Haram has worsened the economic situation. Disruption of established patterns gives some women opportunity to find more fulfilling roles, but the effect for most is more disempowerment. Violence has scattered families. Many women are isolated in camps or urban centres, without news of husbands, parents or children. Their homes are too dangerous for return, and in most areas their property has been destroyed or looted by Boko Haram or the army. Single female-headed households are a majority in some IDP camps.[fn]IOM recorded 1,200 single-female households in the General Hospital IDP camp, Bama, meaning female heads-of-household are 12.8 per cent of its population. Displacement Tracking Matrix, op. cit.Hide Footnote  The tragedy of war and challenges of recovery and reconstruction are strong arguments for efforts to meet women’s immediate needs, but also to empower them as agents of change.

A. Upgrade Screening

In a war in which one side has relied massively on forced recruitment, the distinction between victim and perpetrator is not easy. The authorities should ensure that the army does not systematically detain all women found in areas newly recovered from Boko Haram. The ambiguous tactics some women have had to adopt to survive should not be held against them indiscriminately. Necessary security screening should also make use of protection officers of both genders who are provided by national civil society organisations and trained by UNHCR. Those in charge should be sensitive to the difficult situation many women faced.

B. Provide Appropriate Care and Protection for Female Victims

Camps may seem an appropriate solution for people found in areas newly seized from Boko Haram, if only to protect them from retaliation and community suspicion until reintegration is worked out. It is essential, however, to give appropriate assistance to these new IDPs, as well as to the ones long settled in safer areas, and their host communities. There should be greater accountability in distribution of food and aid and to facilitate the access of local and international humanitarian organisations. The National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA), which runs the official camps, should ensure IDP protection, notably from SGBV. The management of access to the camps, currently controlled by the military, should be transferred to civilian organisations as soon as possible.

Addressing the particular vulnerability of the predominantly female IDP population requires special attention to sexual and gender-based violence and ensuring access to sexual and reproductive health information and services. The authorities should activate referral mechanisms for women and girls in IDP camps and host communities. Allegations of abuses committed by security forces and/or CJTF should be properly investigated, with attention to ensuring proper judicial procedures and publicising appropriate cases.

The predominantly male composition of organisations involved in protecting and managing mostly female IDP camps is a weak point.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, humanitarian workers involved in assistance in Borno state, Dakar, June 2016.Hide Footnote  Federal and state governments and international partners should cooperate urgently to develop programs to increase women’s recruitment in local police forces and other bodies involved in operating IDP camps.[fn]It was recently announced that 100 female police officers would be deployed to IDP camps following allegations of sexual abuse. “Northern Nigeria Internal Security Sitrep Week Ending 12 November 2016”, peccaviconsulting.wordpress.com, 15 November 2016.Hide Footnote  International experts should also provide gender-sensitive civilian-protection training to soldiers, police and NEMA officials and the Borno state Emergency Management Agency (SEMA) deployed to the camps.

C. Treat Suspected Female Perpetrators of Violence Fairly

While not ignoring accountability for suspected female perpetrators, the government should ensure a fair and transparent process in handling all Boko Haram cases; distinguishing Boko Haram ideologues from those who joined from other motives will be vital. Detention of those who, after screening, are held before they appear in court should be civilian, not military, and in acceptable conditions, with access to humanitarian agencies. Children should be granted adequate care. Given the scope of the violence, involvement in abuses by both the insurgents and security force elements and judicial system weaknesses, a proper adjudication procedure must be devised for all suspects, who cannot be left in legal limbo indefinitely. That procedure should include participation of women, particularly from the North East.

D. Reintegrate Female Victims into Community Life

The reunification of families, the only safety net for many, should be a priority. A federal database should be established to facilitate the search for missing persons and more resources made available to reunite families. Likewise, an effort is needed to combat stigmatisation. To help with reintegration and rehabilitation of women and girls released from Boko Haram, a community-based reconciliation process with significant female participation should be encouraged, notably by inviting women’s groups from different parts of Borno to participate in dialogue.

All development and reconstruction plans, public and private, should be based on gender-sensitive analysis of the insurgency and counter-insurgency. Programming should acknowledge that in the North East religion can facilitate assistance and be a driving force for promoting positive change for women generally. Muslims and Christians should be involved together, to help bridge the divisions that have increased with the insurgency. Programs are needed to ease women’s access to credit and land. Single female-headed households require particular support to restart productive activities, for example in crafts, trade or agriculture.

Widows should receive special attention, because isolated women are more susceptible to manipulation by jihadists. As in Rwanda, plans should be made to provide a monthly allocation to war widows for a number of years, and local NGOs should be supported to give free legal assistance for inheritance and property matters.[fn]Under Sharia, widows can inherit a husband’s assets if they have supporting witnesses or records from village or district heads, but that may prove more difficult for some.Hide Footnote  That the families of soldiers killed in the conflict often receive little support has the potential to damage military morale. The widows of soldiers should receive a stipend from the federal government, eventually covering accommodation if they are made to leave the barracks.

Children fathered by Boko Haram members and their mothers must not be allowed to become outcasts. Community-based approaches and sensitivity training are needed, as is a significant increase in educational investment overall and prioritisation of the integrated education of these children with other children in the region.

E. Step Up Efforts to Empower Women in the North East

With a view to more structural changes in gender imbalances, effort is needed in three main directions. Attention should be paid to programs to strengthen women’s participation in politics and local governance, including consideration of an affirmative action policy with quotas, as in many other West African countries. Increasing girls’ access to primary and secondary schools should be a priority, but given the interest in and legitimacy of Quranic education in the North East, it should also be upgraded by introducing a dual curriculum (as in Kano state) and paying teachers’ salaries so pupils do not need to beg for upkeep. Strict provisions should apply to the intake of supported schools in order to encourage gender balance.

Mainstream Islamic groups should empower female members to do their part to help alleviate the humanitarian crisis. They could also play an important role in countering violent religious ideologies and building support for women’s education and civic participation. Lastly, the state should take steps to combat gender discrimination and stereotypes rooted in law and practice, to ensure women and girls have more control over their lives.

VI. Conclusion

Women in the North East suffer from appalling violence and abuse that add to the burdens of stifling patriarchy. Boko Haram’s exploitation of them, including sexual and gender-based violence, markedly deviates from modern mainstream Islamic social norms and is closer to nineteenth century and earlier patterns of enslavement and raiding. Nevertheless, the view of women as Boko Haram’s passive victims that became widely accepted after the Chibok girls’ abduction is misleading and needs substantial revision. Violence against women should not obscure the fact that many are also actors in the conflict and at times perpetrators. Many have been exploited, abused and displaced, while others have played active roles in the insurgency and the counter-insurgency.

Conversely, Nigeria’s recovery of Boko Haram-controlled territory does not necessarily alleviate women’s suffering. In a deeply divided, traumatised society, it also fuels new forms of violence, exclusion and coercion against those suspected of complicity with the insurgents. Recognising the military’s improved efforts to tackle Boko Haram under President Buhari should not mean turning a blind eye to official abuses that could sow the seeds for renewed rebellion.

The multiple ways women experience and engage with the conflict need to be fully understood and directly inform policies for alleviating their suffering and paving the way for reconciliation and rebuilding society. Women need help from the authorities and their international partners, but careful thought and planning is required to ensure its effective delivery. All should take into consideration the historical context of gender discrimination rooted in law and cultural practice, and how the insurgency has further affected women in various ways, from sexual abuse to lost economic opportunities, and diversify programs accordingly. They should also make sure that development and reconstruction plans are based on a gendered analysis of the conflict. Finally, women need support not only to gain more control over their lives, but also to become actors and decision-makers in reconstructing the North East. Federal authorities and their partners should recognise that although the state has a central role to play, religion too can be a resource for facilitating this process and for promoting positive change for women more generally.

Abuja/Dakar/Brussels, 5 December 2016

Appendix A: Map of Nigeria

Map of Nigeria. CRISIS GROUP

Appendix B: Borno State: Estimated Number of IDPs Per LGA

Borno State: Estimated Number of IDPs Per LGA. IOM based on data from OCHA, NEMA and other partners.

Appendix C: Glossary of Terms

amir: Arabic for chief, village head in the Boko Haram hierarchy.

CAN: Christian Association of Nigeria, Nigeria's largest Christian ecumenical body.

CJTF: Civilian Joint Task Force, a vigilante force which developed in Borno state in 2013 to fight Boko Haram.

CRA: Child Rights Act, a federal law designed to improve the protection of children’s rights.

DHS: Demographic and Health Survey, a global program to provide accurate data on demography and health.

FOMWAN: Federation of Muslim Women’s Associations in Nigeria.

Haram: Arabic epithet to designate all things impure and forbidden according to the Quran.

IDP: Internally Displaced Person.

INGO: International Non-Governmental Organisation.

IOM: International Organisation for Migration, the UN migration agency, involved notably in assisting IDPs and refugees.

Izala: Arabic for “removal”, short designation for the Society for the Removal of Innovation and the Re-establishment of the Sunna, a Salafi Islamic movement born in northern Nigeria.

LGA: Local Government Agency, the intermediary administrative level between the village and the state in Nigeria.

NEMA: National Emergency Management Agency.

NGO: Non-Governmental Organisation.

Naqib: Arabic for controller, a local official in Boko Haram’s hierarchy.

Niqab: Full veil covering all the body but the eyes typical of Salafi Islam.

Purdah: A form of seclusion of women practiced in certain Islamic cultures.

SEMA: State Emergency Management Agency.

SGBV: Sexual and Gender-Based Violence.

UNHCR: UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the UN refugee agency.

WRAPA: Women’s Rights Advancement and Protection Alternative, Nigerian advocacy organisation involved in the promotion of the rights of women and girls.

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