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Vigilantes survey the damage in the village of Bakin Kogi, in Kaduna state, northwest Nigeria, that was recently attacked by suspected Fulani herdsmen, on 24 February 2017. STEFAN HEUNIS / AFP
Report 252 / Africa

Herders against Farmers: Nigeria’s Expanding Deadly Conflict

Propelled by desertification, insecurity and the loss of grazing land to expanding settlements, the southward migration of Nigeria’s herders is causing violent competition over land with local farmers. To prevent the crisis from escalating, the government should strengthen security for herders and farmers, implement conflict resolution mechanisms and establish grazing reserves.

Executive Summary

Violent conflicts between nomadic herders from northern Nigeria and sedentary agrarian communities in the central and southern zones have escalated in recent years and are spreading southward, threatening the country’s security and stability. With an estimated death toll of approximately 2,500 people in 2016, these clashes are becoming as potentially dangerous as the Boko Haram insurgency in the north east. Yet to date, response to the crisis at both the federal and state levels has been poor. President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration and affected state governments need to work together, taking immediate steps to shore up security for herders and farmers, strengthening conflict-resolution mechanisms and initiating longer-term efforts to reform livestock management practices, address negative environmental trends and curb cross-border movements of both cattle rustlers and armed herders.

Familiar problems – relating to land and water use, obstruction of traditional migration routes, livestock theft and crop damage – tend to trigger these disputes. But their roots run deeper. Drought and desertification have degraded pastures, dried up many natural water sources across Nigeria’s far-northern Sahelian belt and forced large numbers of herders to migrate south in search of grassland and water for their herds. Insecurity in many northern states (a consequence of the Boko Haram insurgency in the north east and of less-well-reported rural banditry and cattle rustling in the north-west and north-central zones) also prompts increasing numbers of herdsmen to migrate south. The growth of human settlements, expansion of public infrastructure and acquisition of land by large-scale farmers and other private commercial interests, have deprived herders of grazing reserves designated by the post-independence government of the former Northern region (now split into nineteen states).

Herders migrating into the savannah and rain forests of the central and southern states are moving into regions where high population growth over the last four decades has heightened pressure on farmland, increasing the frequency of disputes over crop damage, water pollution and cattle theft. In the absence of mutually accepted mediation mechanisms, these disagreement increasingly turn violent.

The spread of conflict into southern states is aggravating already fragile relations among the country’s major regional, ethnic and religious groups. The south’s majority Christian communities resent the influx of predominantly Muslim herders, portrayed in some narratives as an ‘‘Islamisation force’’. Herders are mostly Fulani, lending an ethnic dimension to strife. Insofar as the Fulani spread across many West and Central African countries, any major confrontation between them and other Nigerian groups could have regional repercussions, drawing in fighters from neighbouring countries.

As these conflicts increase in frequency, intensity and geographical scope, so does their humanitarian and economic toll. The increasing availability of illicit firearms, both locally-produced and smuggled in from outside, worsens the bloodshed. Over the past five years, thousands have been killed; precise tallies are unavailable, but a survey of open source reports suggests fatalities may have reached an annual average of more than 2,000 from 2011 to 2016, for some years exceeding the toll from the Boko Haram insurgency. Tens of thousands have been forcibly displaced, with properties, crops and livestock worth billions of naira destroyed, at great cost to local and state economies.

The reaction from Nigeria’s federal and state authorities, so far, has been wanting. Aside from the recent push against Boko Haram and military operations against cattle rustling, they have done little else to address rural insecurity in the north. Federal security and law enforcement agencies have established neither early-warning nor rapid response mechanisms; they have not arrested and prosecuted perpetrators of violence or offered redress to victims. Until recently, officials have paid little if any attention to improving livestock management practices to minimise friction with agrarian communities. State governments’ responses overall have been short-sighted; most have failed to encourage community-level dialogue. As a result, both herders and farmers are taking matters into their own hands, further aggravating conflicts.

President Buhari’s government, which is increasingly viewed with misgivings by many in central and southern states, should make it a priority to take firm and transparent steps to ensure better protection for both herders and farmers. Affected state governments also should better coordinate with federal authorities to reduce risks of violence. The federal government’s failure to define a clear and coherent political approach to resolving the crisis, or even acknowledge its scope, is putting Nigerian citizens at risk. Federal and state authorities should implement five steps. In the short term, these include:

  • Strengthen security arrangements for herders and farming communities especially in the north-central zone: this will require that governments and security agencies sustain campaigns against cattle rustling and rural banditry; improve early-warning systems; maintain operational readiness of rural-based police and other security units; encourage communication and collaboration with local authorities; and tighten control of production, circulation and possession of illicit firearms and ammunition, especially automatic rifles, including by strengthening cross-border cooperation with neighbouring countries’ security forces;
  • Establish or strengthen conflict mediation, resolution, reconciliation and peacebuilding mechanisms: this should be done at state and local government levels, and also within rural communities particularly in areas that have been most affected by conflict;
  • Establish grazing reserves in consenting states and improve livestock production and management in order to minimise contacts and friction between herders and farmers: this will entail developing grazing reserves in the ten northern states where governments have already earmarked lands for this purpose; formulating and implementing the ten-year National Ranch Development Plan proposed by a stakeholders forum facilitated by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in April 2017; and encouraging livestock producers’ buy-in through easier access to credit from financial institutions.

In the longer term, federal and state governments should consider the following:

  • Address environmental factors that are driving herders’ migration to the south: this will require stepping up implementation of programs under the Great Green Wall Initiative for the Sahara and the Sahel, a trans-African project designed to restore drought-and-desert degraded environments and livelihoods including in Nigeria’s far northern belt; and developing strategies for mitigating climate change impact in the far northern states;
  • Coordinate with neighbours to stem cross-border movement of non-Nigerian armed herders: Nigeria should work with Cameroon, Chad and Niger (the Lake Chad basin countries) to regulate movements across borders, particularly of cattle rustlers, armed herders and others that have been identified as aggravating internal tension and insecurity in Nigeria.

Although some of the proposed steps will not yield immediate results, Nigeria’s federal and state authorities, as well as other relevant actors, need to take remedial actions with a greater sense of urgency. Failure to respond, decisively and effectively, would allow Nigeria to continue sliding into increasingly deadly conflict.

Abuja/Brussels, 19 September 2017

I. Introduction

Although Nigeria chiefly is known for its oil and gas production, agriculture employs about 70 per cent of its labour force.[fn]As petroleum became Nigeria’s major export, agriculture shrank from 60 per cent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in the early 1970s to about 23 per cent; it still accounts for 75 per cent of non-oil exports. Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, The Green Alternative: The Agricultural Promotion Policy 2016-2020, 2016.Hide Footnote Small-holders in the country’s centre and south harvest most of the country’s tuber and vegetable crops while pastoralists in the north raise most of its grains and livestock.[fn]Roger Blench, “Conflict between Pastoralists and Cultivators in Nigeria”, review paper prepared for the British government’s Department for International Development (DFID), Nigeria, 9 August 2010. There are over ten million pastoralists living in 28 of the country’s 36 states. For more see Ismail Iro, From Nomadism to Sedentarism: An Analysis of Development Constraints and Public Policy Issues in the Socio-Economic Transformation of the Pastoral Fulani of Nigeria, PhD dissertation, Howard University, 1994; Mohammed Bello, Sahabo Mahdi and Pastoral Resolve, A Compendium of Studies and Issues in Pastoralism in Nigeria (Yola, Nigeria, 2005).Hide Footnote Over 90 per cent of pastoralists reportedly are Fulani, a large ethnic group straddling several West and Central African countries.[fn]The Fulani, the world’s largest semi-nomadic group, live in fourteen West and Central African countries, from Senegal to Central African Republic. They established the Sokoto caliphate (1804-1903), which played a key role in the revival and spread of Islam in northern Nigeria.Hide Footnote Pastoralists own approximately 90 per cent of the national herd, estimated at 19.5 million cattle, about 975,000 donkeys, 28,000 camels, 72.5 million goats and 41.3 million sheep.[fn]Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, National Agricultural Sample Survey 2011.Hide Footnote Livestock represents between 20 and 30 per cent of total agricultural production and about 6 to 8 per cent of overall Gross Domestic Production (GDP).[fn]“Keynote address delivered by the Honourable Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Chief Audu Ogbeh, OFR, at retreat on livestock and dairy development in Nigeria, held at Musa Yar’Adua Centre, Abuja, on 7-8 June, 2016”, Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, Abuja.Hide Footnote About 30 per cent of live animals slaughtered in Nigeria are brought in by pastoralists from other countries.[fn]FAO Nigeria, FAO Country Programming Framework (CPF) Federal Republic of Nigeria 2013-2017, p. 5.Hide Footnote

Historically, relations between herders and sedentary farming communities have been harmonious. By and large, they lived in a peaceful, symbiotic relationship: herders’ cattle would fertilise the farmers’ land in exchange for grazing rights.

But tensions have grown over the past decade, with increasingly violent flare-ups spreading throughout central and southern states; incidents have occurred in at least 22 of the country’s 36 states.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior Nigeria Police Force officer, Abuja, 2 June 2017.Hide Footnote According to one report, in 2016 over 2,000 people were killed and tens of thousands displaced in Benue and Kaduna states alone.[fn]“Nigeria: Farmer-Fulani Herder Violence in Benue, Kaduna and Plateau States”, Assessment Capacity Project, 21 March 2017.Hide Footnote According to another, incidents involving herders accounted for 44 per cent of all fatalities in the country in 2016.[fn]“A Look at Nigeria’s Security Situation”, SBM Intel, Lagos, 19 January 2017.Hide Footnote These conflicts are, by every measure, complex and multidimensional. Formulating appropriate responses requires a clear diagnosis of their root causes, evolution, impacts and implications.

This report analyses the factors that help cause or aggravate these conflicts, their evolution and spread, and their human toll. It further assesses responses, especially by the federal government and its security agencies, and outlines possible strategies to reduce or prevent violence. The report is based on interviews conducted in September 2016 and July 2017 with a range of actors and stakeholders, including leaders and representatives of pastoralist and farmer organisations, officials of federal and state governments, security officers, leaders of civil society organisations and local vigilante groups, as well as victims of the violence in Adamawa, Benue, Borno, Ekiti, Enugu, Kaduna and Nasarawa states.

II. Drivers of the Violence

For centuries, pastoralists drove their cattle east and west across the Sahel, the semi-arid zone south of the Sahara Desert that includes Nigeria’s far northern belt. In the early 20th century, some herders started shifting their migratory routes farther south, pushed by a series of droughts in the far north, but also attracted by heightened security in central and southern Nigeria and by better control of parasitic diseases (such as trypanomiasis or sleeping sickness) in the central and southern zones.[fn]Blench, R. 1994. The expansion and adaption of Fulbe pastoralism to sub-humid and humid conditions in Nigeria. Cahiers d’études africaines, vol. 34, no. 133, pp. 133-135.Hide Footnote Herders also wanted to evade the much-hated cattle tax (jangali) imposed by the British colonial government in the northern region.[fn]Crisis Group interview, University of Maiduguri lecturer, Maiduguri, 22 October 2016.Hide Footnote As cattle herds migrated southward, so did conflicts between pastoralists and farmers.

Among the principal causes and aggravating factors behind this escalating conflict are climatic changes (frequent droughts and desertification); population growth (loss of northern grazing lands to the expansion of human settlements); technological and economic changes (new livestock and farming practices); crime (rural banditry and cattle rustling); political and ethnic strife (intensified by the spread of illicit firearms); and cultural changes (the collapse of traditional conflict management mechanisms). A dysfunctional legal regime that allows crime to go unpunished has encouraged both farmers and pastoralists to take matters into their own hands.

A. Drought and Desertification

Nigeria’s far north is arid and semi-arid, with a long dry season from October to May and low rainfall (600 to 900 mm) from June to September. In 2008, the National Meteorological Agency reported that over the preceding 30 years the annual rainy season dropped from an average of 150 to 120 days. In the last six decades, over 350,000 sq km of the already arid region turned to desert or desert-like conditions, a phenomenon progressing southward at the rate of 0.6km per year.[fn]Federal Ministry of Environment, National Policy on Desertification and Drought, 2008.Hide Footnote In Bauchi, Borno, Gombe, Jigawa, Kano, Katsina, Kebbi, Sokoto, Yobe and Zamfara states, estimates suggest that 50-75 per cent of the land area is becoming desert.[fn]FAO Country Programming Framework (CPF) Federal Republic of Nigeria 2013-2017, op. cit., p. 6.Hide Footnote These environmental changes have wrecked agriculture and human livelihoods, forcing millions of pastoralists and others to migrate south, in search of productive land.

Migration initially was seasonal, with herders spending December to May in the central zone before returning north. Over the last two decades, however, as available pastures shrank in the far north, herders have been staying in the central zone longer – from December to June or July. More recently, some have chosen to graze their herds there permanently. This has triggered increasing disputes over land and water use with central Nigeria’s growing populations of sedentary crop farmers.

B. Loss of Grazing Reserves

Most of the 415 grazing reserves established by the northern regional government in the 1960s have since been lost. Only 114 were formally documented or demarcated, though the government failed to back these agreements with legislation guaranteeing exclusive usage or take active measures to prevent encroachment.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Miyetti Allah, cattle breeders association of Nigeria official, Abuja, 12 October 2016.Hide Footnote The rest succumbed to pressure from rapid population growth and the associated demand for farmland, were overrun by urban and other infrastructure, or appropriated by private commercial interests.[fn]Growing 2.7 per cent annually, Nigeria’s population increased from about 33 million in 1950 t0 about 187 million in 2016. 47.8 per cent now live in urban areas and that population is growing about 4.7 per cent per annum. “Nigeria”, World Statistics Pocketbook.Hide Footnote With the Northern region’s division into nineteen states, reserves straddling two or more state jurisdictions lost collective management. The cumulative effect has been to significantly reduce the availability of designated grazing reserves, forcing herders to seek pasture elsewhere.

C. Changes in Pastoralism and Farming Practices

Changing practices among both farmers and pastoralists have also strained relations. Over the last three decades, some cattle herders have gradually adopted sedentary lifestyles, leaving cattle herding increasingly to young men or boys, aged nine to 25 years, who often lack the civility and maturity to resolve disputes amicably.[fn]Crisis Group interview, cattle breeders’ association official, Kaduna, 18 September 2016.Hide Footnote

For their part, crop farmers, with federal government help, have expanded into previously uncultivated land. Agricultural Development Projects (ADPs) in the 1970s encouraged the use of water pumps while National Fadama Development Projects (NFDPs) have helped farmers exploit wetlands (river valleys and flood plains) for dry season irrigated agriculture since 1993.[fn]The term fadama can refer to any naturally flooded piece of land but applies particularly to valley bottoms. The NFDP’s main objective was to promote agricultural production by exploiting surface and shallow aquifer water resources for small-holder owned and managed irrigation systems. In its first phase, the core implementing states were Bauchi, Gombe, Kano, Jigawa, Katsina, Kebbi, Sokoto and Zamfara. African Development Fund, Republic of Nigeria, Fadama Development Project, Appraisal Report, September 2003. The second and third phases (Fadama II and Fadama III) established projects in all states of the federation and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), designed to raise the incomes of rural land and water resource users, on a sustainable basis.Hide Footnote More fertile, well-watered land, coupled with improvements in rural-urban transportation and an expanding urban market, has boosted farmers’ incomes and dry-season employment.

But cattle herders lost access to grass-abundant wetlands, which they had previously used with little risk of livestock straying into farms.[fn]Farmers ignored the 1988 National Agricultural Policy provisions that 20 per cent of floodplains be set aside for grazing.Hide Footnote Furthermore, high-value crops promoted by the National Fadama Development Projects, notably tomatoes and onions, produce little residue for livestock feeding, further diminishing available fodder.[fn]Crisis Group interview, cattle breeders’ association official, Kaduna, 18 September 2016.Hide Footnote In this changed environment, relations became more competitive and confrontational, especially in the absence of negotiations between farmers and herders to ensure access to grazing grounds and livestock routes.

D. Rural Banditry and Cattle Rustling

Rural banditry also is driving herders south.[fn]During the 1980s, bandit groups, locally known as kwanta, attacked merchants and other travellers along major highways. Since then criminal groups have proliferated, now engaging in armed robberies, raids on villages, sacking of rural markets, ransom kidnapping and cattle rustling. For more, see Mohammed J. Kuna and Jibrin Ibrahim (eds.), Rural Banditry and Conflicts in Northern Nigeria, Centre for Democracy and Development (Abuja, 2015); and Olaniyan, Azeez and Yahaya, Aliyu, “Cows, Bandits, and Violent Conflicts: Understanding Cattle Rustling in Northern Nigeria’’, Africa Spectrum, vol. 51, no. 3 (2016), pp. 93-105.Hide Footnote Over the last decade, cattle rustling has grown in scale and organisation in several northern states where large bandit groups operate with mounting audacity.[fn]Crisis Group interview, pastoralist organisation representative, Abuja, Kaduna and Lafia, September-October 2016.Hide Footnote While this occurs throughout the north, the main theatres have been the Kamuku forest in Kaduna, Falgore forest in Kano, Dansadau forest in Zamfara and Davin Rugu forest stretching through Kaduna, Katsina and Zamfara states.[fn]Rustlers reportedly operate in ten states, including parts of Kogi, Benue, Plateau, Nasarawa and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT). Crisis Group interviews, military officers, community and civil society leaders, Kaduna, Nasarawa and Benue states, September 2016. Some were previously herders whose stocks were stolen. Crisis Group interview, lecturer, cattle breeders’ association representatives, Kaduna and Abuja, September and October 2016.Hide Footnote Cattle theft reportedly also has been a major source of funding for Boko Haram in the north east.[fn]“Statement by Borno state government banning cattle import to check Boko Haram’s funding”, 4 March 2016.Hide Footnote

The loss is hard to estimate: many thefts, especially those occurring in remote villages or forests with limited state security presence, go unreported. One report estimated that in 2013 more than 64,750 cattle were stolen and at least 2,991 herders killed in states across the north-central zone.[fn]Cited in Samuel Egwu, “The Political Economy of Rural Banditry in Contemporary Nigeria”, Rural Banditry and Conflicts in Northern Nigeria, op. cit.Hide Footnote From 2011 to 2015, bandits, cattle rustlers and other criminals killed 1,135 people in Zamfara state alone, according to the Nigerian Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC).[fn]“1,135 people killed in Zamfara banditry in four years – NSCDC”, Daily Trust, 17 February 2017.Hide Footnote Vigilante groups formed to combat bandits (variously known as Yan Banga, Yan Sa Kai and Kato da Gora) have compounded insecurity in some areas where the arrest and summary execution of rustlers sometimes has invited massive retaliatory violence.[fn]In one reprisal in 2014, bandits killed more than 100 residents in Yar Galadima village in Zamfara state. Crisis Group interview, community leader, Kaduna state, 16 September 2016.Hide Footnote Elsewhere, vigilantes have turned into predators themselves, extorting cash and cattle from herders as “protection levy”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Zamfara state agriculture ministry officer, Abuja, 20 February 2017.Hide Footnote

E. Escalating Conflicts across Northern Nigeria

In recent decades, northern Nigeria’s various conflicts also have displaced herders southward.[fn]For more on conflict in northern Nigeria, see Crisis Group Africa Reports N°168, Northern Nigeria: Background to Conflict, 20 December 2010; N°196, Curbing Violence in Nigeria (I): The Jos Crisis, 17 December 2012; N°216, Curbing Violence in Nigeria (II): The Boko Haram Insurgency, 3 April 2014.Hide Footnote These conflicts – linked to poverty, inequality and religious extremism – have forced large populations to migrate, devastating local economies and livelihoods, including cattle rearing. In Borno state, the north east vice chairman of Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association (MACBAN), Alhaji Mafindin Danburam, claims association members lost over one million cattle to the Boko Haram insurgency.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Yola, Adamawa state, 5 November 2016; “Boko Haram: We lost over 1 million cattle to insurgents – MACBAN”, Daily Post, Abuja, 12 January 2017.Hide Footnote The economic losses and insecurity have compelled many herders to move south.

Easy access to small arms, including assault rifles, makes the situation more dangerous. Weapons come from various sources, some local, others from black markets across West and Central Africa, including from Libya’s looted stockpiles.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Nigeria Customs Service officer, Abuja, 9 June 2016; and member, Presidential Committee on Small Arms and Illegal Weapons, Abuja, 10 June 2016. In 2013, Nigerian military officials reported that Boko Haram insurgents had also received arms from Libya, following 2011 fall of Muammar Qadhafi regime. See Crisis Group Report, Curbing Violence in Nigeria (II), op. cit., p. 25.Hide Footnote Herders say they carry weapons to defend themselves and their herds against heavily armed rustlers and other criminal gangs in farming communities.[fn]Crisis Group interview, herders in Birnin Gwari, Kaduna state, 17 September 2016; Lafia, Nasarawa state, 21 September 2016; Kuje, Abuja, 22 April 2017.Hide Footnote Local vigilantes also say they procure weapons for self-defence.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, vigilante leaders, Lafia, Nasarawa state, 22 September 2016.Hide Footnote Whatever the motivations and justification, the increasing prevalence of weapons has amplified the human cost.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior police officer, Abuja, 8 June 2016.Hide Footnote

F. Erosion of Traditional Mechanisms

In earlier decades, herders and community chiefs agreed on stock routes (burti or butali), sometimes under local government auspices. Disputes over wandering stock or damaged crops typically were resolved by village chiefs and herders’ leaders (Ardos).[fn]Crisis Group interview, community leader, Kaduna, Kaduna state, 17 September 2016.Hide Footnote Those that defied the decisions of these community-level mediators were referred to local authorities. This system started crumbling in the 1970s, undermined by the involvement of the police and courts. Pastoralists hated these new institutions: corrupt police at times extracted fines and bribes while alien and protracted court processes immobilised their herds. Furthermore, local political leaders have tended to favour sedentary farmers, whose votes they crave, over itinerant herders, who may not be around at election time. Consequently, herders feel increasingly marginalised and are largely distrustful of local political leaders as conflict mediators.

The absence of effective mediation mechanisms, including sustained community-level dialogues, can encourage violence. In many instances, local governments do not implement recommendations of commissions charged with investigating the conflicts, due to lack of will and widespread governmental lethargy. Over time, both herders and farmers have lost confidence in the ability of authorities to mediate and conciliate. Aggrieved parties have turned to violence to seek redress or revenge.[fn]Crisis Group interview, community leader, Keffi, Nasarawa state, 9 June 2016.Hide Footnote

III. The Toll and Impact

These conflicts have exacted a heavy humanitarian toll with thousands killed and tens of thousands displaced. Some estimates suggest about 2,500 were killed countrywide in 2016 – a toll higher than that caused by the Boko Haram insurgency over the same period.[fn]In March 2017, the humanitarian needs assessment organisation, ACAPS, reported that in 2016 alone, at least 2,069 people died in herder-related violence in just Benue and Kaduna states. Nigeria Farmer-Fulani Herder Violence in Benue, Kaduna and Plateau States, ACAPS, 21 March 2017.Hide Footnote In Benue, one of the hardest-hit states, Governor Samuel Ortom reports more than 1,878 people were killed between 2014 and 2016.[fn]‘‘Over 1,800 killed in herdsmen, farmers clashes in Benue in three years – Governor’’, Premium Times, 5 July 2017.Hide Footnote

Tens of thousands also have been displaced. From January 2015 to February 2017, at least 62,000 people were displaced in Kaduna, Benue and Plateau states; in the absence of Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps, most seek shelter in other poor, rural communities, straining their already scarce resources.[fn]Nigeria Farmer-Fulani Herder Violence, ACAPS, op. cit. Other estimates present lower figures. In February 2017, SBM Intelligence reported 1,425 people killed in attacks involving herders in 2016, as against 1,240 killed by Boko Haram through that year. See A Look at Nigeria’s Security Situation, SB Morgen, 13 February 2017. Also in February 2017, the Council on Foreign Relations’ Nigeria Security Tracker, reported that communal violence, mainly involving herders and farmers in Kaduna state, had killed around 1,300 since January 2016, compared to about 850 killed by Boko Haram over the same period. In June 2017, a tally by the Lagos-based Sun newspaper, based on media-reported incidents, stated that 1,102 people were killed in herder-farmer violence over the twelve months from June 2016 to May 2017, compared to 474 killed by Boko Haram over the same period. ‘‘Herdsmen attacks; Deadlier than Boko Haram’’, Saturday Sun, 3 June 2017. Newspaper editors admit their data is not comprehensive, including only incidents reported by the media.Hide Footnote The fear of conflict alone can drive residents to relatively more secure urban and semi-urban areas.[fn]Crisis Group interview, civil society leader, Kaduna, September 2016. This has led to the emergence of new settlements in places like Kagoro and Manchok among others.Hide Footnote Since both authorities and donors often ignore these conflicts, affected localities receive far less support from the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) and international agencies than those impacted by the Boko Haram insurgency.

For women and girls, the impact is frequently magnified. The relatives of men killed in the violence often evict widows from their farmland. Moreover, post-conflict economic and social disenfranchisement renders women and girls even more vulnerable to sexual and economic predation.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, civil society representatives, Kaduna, Makurdi and Enugu, September 2016; telephone interviews, July 2017.Hide Footnote

[P]ost-conflict economic and social disenfranchisement renders women and girls even more vulnerable to sexual and economic predation.

The economic toll has also been huge. According to a 2015 study, the federal government was losing $13.7 billion in revenue annually because of herder-farmer conflicts in Benue, Kaduna, Nasarawa and Plateau states.[fn]“The Economic Costs of Conflict: Evidence on Violence, Livelihoods and Resilience in Nigeria’s Middle Belt”, Mercy Corps, July 2015.Hide Footnote The study found that on average these four states lost 47 per cent of their internally-generated revenues. In March 2017, Benue state Governor Samuel Ortom asserted that attacks by herders coming from more northerly states, and possibly also from Cameroon and Niger, had cost his state N95 billion (about $634 million at that time) between 2012 and 2014.[fn]“Benue lost N95b in herdsmen attacks”, The Nation, 22 March 2017.Hide Footnote

Communities and households also pay a heavy price. The ethnic Nzor-Tiv Global Association estimated its Agatu communities in Benue state lost N65 billion in property ($204 million) during the early 2016 herder attacks.[fn]This figure was provided by the president general of Nzor-Tiv Global Associates, Edward Ujege, at a public hearing convened by the House of Representatives in Abuja, 25 May 2016.Hide Footnote The loss of large cattle herds, crops (due to population displacements and damage to irrigation facilities), as well as increases in transport and labour costs in post-conflict environments all increase poverty and food insecurity in affected communities – and beyond.[fn]Crisis Group interview, community leaders, Lafia, Nasarawa state, and Makurdi, Benue state, September 2016.Hide Footnote

The conflicts, particularly herder attacks on farming communities, have spawned dangerous political and religious conspiracy theories. One is that the attacks are part of a longer-term Fulani plot to displace indigenous populations and seize their lands.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, several community and civil society representatives, Lafia, Nasarawa state, and Makurdi, Benue state, September 2016.Hide Footnote Among Christian communities, herder attacks are widely seen as a subtle form of jihad.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, civil society leaders, Kaduna, Lafia, Makurdi, Enugu and Ekiti, September 2016.Hide Footnote In March 2016, the prelate of the Methodist Church of Nigeria, Dr Samuel Uche, said: “We are aware there is a game plan to Islamize Nigeria, and they are using the Fulani herdsmen to initiate it”.[fn]“Unease over ‘Islamization’ plot”, The Authority (Abuja), 22 March 2016.Hide Footnote In the south east, Biafra separatist groups describe the attacks as part of a northern plot to overwhelm the peoples of the south and forcefully convert them to Islam.[fn]For background on the resurgence of Biafra separatist agitation, see Crisis Group commentary, “Nigeria’s Biafran Separatist Upsurge”, 4 December 2015; and Nnamdi Obasi, ‘‘Nigeria: How to solve a problem like Biafra’’, African Arguments, 29 May 2017.Hide Footnote Some southerners accuse President Buhari of deliberately failing to stop herder aggression, pointing to his pastoral Fulani background and his position as life patron of the cattle breeders’ association (MACBAN) to buttress their charges.[fn]In September 2016, a human rights group, Civil Liberties Organization (CLO), even charged the president for complicity in the herdsmen’s attacks. No evidence has been provided. “Enugu herdsmen attack: CLO accuses Buhari of sponsoring killings”, Vanguard, 1 September 2016.Hide Footnote  

These charges are not supported by any solid evidence, but they are aggravating inter-faith distrust and, undermining the country’s fragile unity. The Sultan of Sokoto, Mohammed Sa’ad Abubakar III, spiritual head of Nigerian Muslims and a prominent Fulani, has repeatedly stressed that Fulani herders who kill should be prosecuted as criminals and even terrorists, but many remain unconvinced in a country with deep inter-faith suspicions.[fn]‘‘Treat killer herders as terrorists’’, Daily Trust, 13 September 2016.Hide Footnote 

Communities in the middle belt and south have formed self-defence vigilante groups, some of which have threatened organised reprisals. In March 2014, Leonard Karshima Shilgba, an ethnic Tiv academic and thought leader, warned that if the federal government could not stop the attacks, “the Tiv people would also demonstrate that they equally have the right and also the capacity to raise a standing army of thousands from each ward and kindred”.[fn]“New terror”, The Source (Abuja), 31 March 2014. The Tiv are one of the two major ethnic groups in Benue state. They have had a long history of confrontation with, and resistance of, the Fulani, dating back to the Sokoto caliphate in the nineteenth century. They have also suffered some of the greatest losses in herder-farmer violence since 2013.Hide Footnote Following an April 2016 attack on Nimbo, in Enugu state in the south east, the separatist Movement for Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) ordered “Fulani herdsmen to leave Biafra land or … face our wrath”.[fn]MASSOB accused Buhari of protecting the attackers and called on all Igbo youths and pro-Biafra groups to “wake up and let us unite and face our enemies”. “Fulani herdsmen: Attacks threaten Nigeria’s existence”, Vanguard, 27 April 2016.Hide Footnote In May 2016, Ekiti state Governor Ayodele Fayose warned of possible attacks on Fulani herders if their alleged predatory behaviour vis-à-vis locals continued.[fn]“Ekiti killings: Fayose warns Fulani herdsmen, says we’ll protect our people”, Vanguard, 22 May 2016.Hide Footnote And the president of the Christian Association of Nigeria, Reverend Olasupo Ayokunle, warned: “If the government fails to stop the provocation by the Fulani (herdsmen), they should be prepared for war. No ethnic group has a monopoly of violence and no ethnic group should be a monster to others”.[fn]“Herdsmen’s menace could lead to war, CAN warns FG”, The Punch, 9 May 2017.Hide Footnote

The interplay of herders’ attacks on farming communities and inflammatory rhetoric by ethnic and Christian leaders in the south could spark even more violence.

To date, these reprisals against northern herders have not materialised. But signs are ominous. The interplay of herders’ attacks on farming communities and inflammatory rhetoric by ethnic and Christian leaders in the south could spark even more violence. The geographic spread or escalation of the conflicts could put Nigeria’s military and other security forces under greater stress, diverting the resources they need for operations against Boko Haram in the north east, militants in the Niger Delta and other security challenges.[fn]In January 2017, Nigeria’s highest military officer, chief of defence staff, General Abayomi Olonisakin, said the military was contending with at least fourteen security challenges across the country. See ‘‘CDS: Military confronting 14 security threats nationwide’’, Daily Trust, 10 July 2017.Hide Footnote

There may also be wider regional implications. A major confrontation involving Fulani herders could draw in their brethren from beyond Nigeria. A retired Nigerian military officer told Crisis Group that the Fulani could mobilise support, including fighters, from several West and Central African countries, which would worsen the security situation in two already fragile regions.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Kaduna, 17 September 2016.Hide Footnote

IV. Deficient Responses

A. Federal Government

The federal government has, over the years, explored various responses. In April 2014, then President Goodluck Jonathan’s government inaugurated an inter-ministerial technical committee on grazing reserves, tasked with proposing strategies for ending the conflicts.[fn]The committee included representatives from the federal environment, works, science and technology, interior, and water resources ministries.Hide Footnote Concurrently, the government set up a political Committee on Grazing Reserves, chaired by then Benue state Governor Gabriel Suswam. The report issued by Suswam’s committee called for the recovery and improvement of all grazing routes encroached upon by farmers and recommended that the Central Bank of Nigeria release a total of N100 billion ($317 million) to the country’s 36 state governments for ranch construction.

The National Executive Council (NEC) approved these recommendations but Jonathan’s defeat in the March 2015 elections interrupted their implementation. Although the central bank released N100 billion to state governments, they failed to construct any ranches. On 19 January 2017, the House of Representatives set up a committee to investigate accusations that the funds had been looted and report back within four weeks. The committee’s findings remain unpublished to this day.

Soon after assuming office in 2015, President Buhari directed the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (FMARD) to formulate a comprehensive livestock development plan including measures to curb farmer-herder clashes. In August 2015, a FMARD committee recommended short-, medium- and long-term strategies, including development of grazing reserves and stock routes. On 25 January 2016, the government announced it was presenting a plan to the Nigerian Governors Forum to map grazing areas in all states as a temporary solution for cattle owners until they could be persuaded to embrace ranching.[fn]“How I plan to end Fulani herdsmen, farmers’ clashes – Buhari”, Premium Times, 25 January 2016.Hide Footnote

Most central and southern states, however, opposed the plan, which they viewed as favouring Fulani herders. On 3 March 2016, seeking to mollify this opposition, Agriculture Minister Audu Ogbeh announced the government was sending a bill to the National Assembly to prohibit cattle from roaming in cities and villages.[fn]“Agatu massacre: Nigeria deploys troops, to ban cattle from villages, cities”, Premium Times, 3 March 2016.Hide Footnote He added that the government had ordered fast-growing grass from Brazil to produce “massive hectares of grasses”, which would be ready for consumption “within the next three months”.[fn]“Why we are importing grass, by minister of agriculture”, Vanguard, 25 March 2016.Hide Footnote More than a year later, there has been no further word about the cattle banning bill and the promised grass.

B. Security Agencies and Judicial System

The federally-controlled Nigeria Police Force (NPF) and the Nigerian Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC) are thinly deployed in rural areas and often lack early-warning mechanisms. Even when community and civil society groups get involved, both herders and farmers say the response to distress calls is often late. Herders say they sometimes have to seek revenge because security forces take no action against attackers who kill them and steal their cattle. Farmers say the agencies’ failure to respond promptly to distress calls and punish aggressors emboldens the herders.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, herders in Kaduna, 18 September 2016 and Abuja, 20 April 2017; representative of Ukpabi Nimbo community, Enugu state, Abuja, 20 February 2017.Hide Footnote

The more typical response has been to deploy the police, and sometimes the army, after clashes take place. In a few cases, police have arrested and prosecuted both herders and vigilantes bearing firearms.[fn]“Two Fulani herdsmen jailed 20 years for illegal arms”, The Nation, 17 May 2016; “Court sentences 15-year-old killer herdsman to death for murder”, The Punch, 10 May 2017.Hide Footnote More often, the country’s dysfunctional law enforcement and criminal justice system fails to arrest or prosecute any perpetrators. Moreover, authorities have generally treated these crimes as political rather than criminal acts, arguing that sanctioning suspects could spark further violence. Even if commissions of inquiry are established, they typically are used as instruments to temper tensions rather than pursue justice.[fn]“Governments only set up panels to buy time, and when the problem drops from the headlines, they go back to business as usual”. Crisis Group interview, civil society leader, Abuja, 12 February 2017.Hide Footnote These responses, however well meaning, create a climate of impunity.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, civil society representatives, Kaduna, Nasarawa and Benue states, September 2016.Hide Footnote

Under the Buhari administration, the security response has been particularly questionable. In February 2016, following public outcry over attacks by herders that killed scores of people in ten farming villages in the Agatu area of north-central Benue state, Buhari ordered an investigation. Nothing has been heard about it since.[fn]In spite of a public admission by the national secretary of a Fulani group, Gan Allah Fulani Association, Saleh Bayeri, that the attack was a reprisal for the Agatu’s alleged killing of a prominent Fulani man in 2013, no arrests were made, no suspects charged. See: “Exclusive: Why we struck in Agatu — Fulani herdsmen”, Premium Times, 19 March 2016.Hide Footnote On 24 April 2016, Information and Culture Minister Lai Mohammed said the government was working “silently” toward ending the violence, promising: “In few weeks from now, we will begin to see the result of that”.[fn]“Nigerian government working ‘silently’ to resolve herdsmen/farmers clashes – Lai Mohammed”, Premium Times, 24 April 2016.Hide Footnote Again, there was no follow up. In April 2016, after widespread condemnation of an attack on Ukpabi Nimbo in Enugu state, the president ordered the police and military to “take all necessary action to stop the carnage”, pledging that stopping herder attacks had become a priority.[fn]“Buhari breaks silence, orders ‘herdsmen’ brought to justice”, Premium Times, 27 April 2016.Hide Footnote Since then hundreds have died in more clashes. On 15 July 2016, the chief of defence staff, General Gabriel Olonisakin, announced “Operation Accord” to stop the violence.[fn]“Farmers/herders clash: Military to launch Operation Accord”, Daily Trust, 15 July 2016; “DHQ plans special task force on herdsmen’s killings”, The Punch, 31 August 2016.Hide Footnote Nothing more was heard of that campaign. Following clashes in southern Kaduna in late 2016, which killed between 200 to 800 people, the army deployed troops to the area. Still, attacks have continued.[fn]“Nigerian govt says 204 killed in Southern Kaduna crisis”, Premium Times, 13 January 2017; “808 killed in Southern Kaduna, Catholic Church alleges”, The Nation, 30 December 2016.Hide Footnote

C. Federal Legislature

The federal parliament also has failed to respond effectively. In 2011, Niger state Senator Zainab Kure sponsored a bill to create a National Grazing Reserves Commission and establish national grazing reserves and livestock routes, but it was not passed and eventually expired when the Seventh Senate lapsed in May 2015.[fn]“National Grazing Reserves Commission (Establishment and Development) Bill 2011”, No. C 2603.Hide Footnote From 2015 to 2016, three new bills were introduced to create grazing reserves, livestock routes and ranches across the country. After much wrangling, all three were dropped in November 2016 on the grounds that land use was exclusively a state government prerogative.[fn]This was according to the 1979 Land Use Act. “Senate rejects grazing reserve bill, says it’s unconstitutional”, Thisday, 10 November 2016.Hide Footnote

Unable to enact new laws, the federal legislature has limited itself to holding public hearings and passing resolutions. On 9 March 2016, the Senate passed a resolution declaring Boko Haram insurgents were behind attacks on farming communities across Benue, Taraba, Plateau and several other states.[fn]“Agatu killings: Senate blames Boko Haram, not Fulani herdsmen”, Premium Times, 9 March 2016.Hide Footnote Unsupported by any public evidence, that resolution was widely seen as a diversion, particularly as spokespeople for the herders’ association had admitted committing some of the attacks in reprisal for previous wrongs.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Saleh Bayeri, Interim National Secretary of Gan Allah Fulani Association, Abuja, 8 October 2016.Hide Footnote On 10 May 2016, the Senate Committees on Agriculture, Intelligence and National Security held a public hearing on herder-farmer violence.[fn]“Herdsmen/farmers clashes: Nigerian govt proposes ranches, herdsmen insist on grazing routes”, Premium Times, 11 May 2016.Hide Footnote The hearing was not followed by any policy recommendations or action toward ending the violence.

D. State Governments

In the absence of clear federal guidance, state government responses vary. Several have established state and local peace commissions or committees to promote herder-farmer dialogue and resolve conflicts.[fn]In 1997, the Gombe state government set up a Farmers and Herdsmen Conflict Resolution Committee. Crisis Group interview, former commissioner for agriculture in Gombe state, Abuja, 20 February 2017.Hide Footnote Others, like Ekiti state in the south west and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) of Abuja in the centre, have passed laws regulating grazing activities.[fn]Ekiti state, on 29 August 2016, passed a law banning grazing or movement of cows at night and stipulating that any herder found with weapons would be charged with terrorism. It followed up by establishing the Ekiti Grazing Enforcement Marshals (EGEM), in October 2016. In Benue state, the House of Assembly, on 4 May 2017, passed a bill prohibiting open rearing and grazing of animals and for herders to carry firearms.Hide Footnote In Benue and Taraba states, governments have introduced laws banning all open grazing. In Edo state, the government said it would create fenced grazing areas with watering facilities, requiring herdsmen to feed their cattle there and pay for the service.[fn]The state government said it also planned to create a database check on attacks by suspected herdsmen. “Edo to register northerners – after Ekpoma killing”, The Cable, 23 June 2017.Hide Footnote Herders, who consider these regulations restrictive, often fail to comply. In the Federal Capital Territory, herders still roam their cattle widely; in Taraba state, the cattle breeders’ association has rejected the grazing ban law, vowing a legal challenge.[fn]‘‘Miyetti Allah to challenge Taraba grazing ban in court’’, Daily Trust, 24 July 2017.Hide Footnote

Some local reactions have been more forceful. In Borno, Niger and Plateau states, authorities occasionally have expelled herder groups from specific areas, following local protests.[fn]In April 2009, local authorities expelled 2,000 herders from Wase, Plateau state. In April 2015, the Niger state government evicted a group of 250 herders. “How Niger state tackles Fulani and farmers’ crisis”, Sahel Standard (Abuja), 11 May 2015.Hide Footnote In May 2016, the governor of Abia state, Okezie Ikpeazu, revived a local vigilante outfit popularly known as the Bakassi Boys.[fn]“Herdsmen attack: Abia govt revives Bakassi Boys to guard rural communities”, Vanguard, 7 May 2016.Hide Footnote He directed all community chiefs to nominate ten youths for a two-week intensive training with “reformed” Bakassi vigilantes before deployment to rural communities. Two months later, the Cross River state government announced plans to set up a 3,000-member “Homeland Security Service”. Local officials said the members would not carry firearms, but carry out activities such as providing intelligence on herders’ movements and activities.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior police officer in Cross River state, Abuja, 9 October 2016.Hide Footnote

These measures may have reduced clashes in some area, but elsewhere; they have made the situation worse. The expulsion of herder groups has only deepened their resentment. If community-based vigilante groups attack herders in the south, herders might take revenge against southerners residing in the north, thereby further widening the conflict.

E. Civil Society

Civil society responses have varied. Ethnic and community-based groups defending farmers’ interests typically have organised press conferences and protests, seeking to draw national – and even international – attention to their plight. Some have instituted legal actions; for instance, in May 2016, the Benue-based Movement Against Fulani Occupation (MAFO) filed a suit at the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Court based in Abuja, demanding the federal government pay N500 billion (about $1.6 billion) as compensation for failing to protect its citizens. Others, such as the pan-Yoruba socio-cultural organisation Afenifere, have set up arrangements to monitor both herders and cattle thieves.[fn]“Afenifere sets up panel to monitor herdsmen in S’West”, The Punch, 29 March 2017.Hide Footnote

In turn, livestock producers’ groups and pastoralists’ organisations, strenuously defend herders’ interests and insist media reports of incidents are often politically motivated.[fn]“Allegations of killings by Fulani herdsmen political, says group”, Premium Times, 19 May 2016.Hide Footnote Fulani umbrella groups, such as Miyetti Allah Kautal Hore, also tend to downplay herders’ involvement in the violence. The back and forth between highly partisan positions further complicates the search for common ground.

Non-governmental organisations generally have been more conciliatory and constructive in response to the violence. They have focused on post-conflict reconciliation and peacebuilding, improving early warning and strengthening relations between communities and security agencies.

International partners are encouraging herder-farmer dialogues through various local initiatives. For instance, in June 2016, the British Council-sponsored Nigeria Reconciliation and Stability Project (NRSP) supported the Bayelsa state Peace and Conflict Management Alliance in organising a dialogue between farmers and herders.[fn]“Group begins campaign to end herdsmen, farmers’ clashes in Bayelsa state”, The Punch, 18 June 2016.Hide Footnote Likewise, on 27 April 2017, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) sponsored and hosted a conference on herder-farmer dialogue, involving the All Farmers Association of Nigeria (AFAN), MACBAN, the Interfaith Mediation Centre (IMC) and others.[fn]“USAID helps forge solutions on farmers, herders clashes”, Leadership, 10 May 2017.Hide Footnote

There are some encouraging results. Representatives of herding and farming communities pledged to continue working for peace at a November 2016 mediation forum in Shendam, Plateau state, organised by the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue (CHD) with support from the German embassy.[fn]Crisis Group interview, civil society leader, Abuja, 19 April 2017.Hide Footnote And, in April 2017, a herder-farmer dialogue in the Udege and Agwada Development Areas of Nasarawa state, facilitated by some local politicians and community leaders, produced a peace agreement.[fn]“Farmers, herders agree to end hostilities in Nasarawa”, Daily Trust, 21 April 2017.Hide Footnote But results remain limited and fragile.

V. Five Steps to Help Address the Conflict

Like the Boko Haram and Niger Delta insurgencies, the herder-farmer crisis is a threat to Nigeria’s national security. President Buhari’s government and state government should acknowledge this and work together in five areas to prevent further conflict.

A. Improve Security for Herders and Farmers

An immediate step is to improve security for both herders and farming communities. At a minimum, the federal government and its security agencies should intensify operations against cattle rustlers, improving systems to track livestock movement and trade, arresting individuals who carry illegal firearms and prosecuting suspected assailants.

1. Strengthen police capacity to curb rustling and banditry

In recent years, the federal government and governments of some northern states have initiated several joint efforts against cattle rustlers and bandits. In July 2015, the governors of Niger, Kaduna, Kano, Sokoto, Kebbi, Katsina and Zamfara states jointly funded an anti-rustling operation in the Kamuku/Kuyanbana forests that straddle all six states. The operation involved four organisations: the army, Nigeria Police Force, Nigerian Security and Civil Defence Corps and Directorate of State Security (DSS). In 2016, the army launched two other operations against cattle rustlers and bandits in the north west, parts of the north-east and north-central zones.[fn]These were Operation Shara Daji and Operation Harbin Kunama.Hide Footnote

Some state governments, such as Katsina, Zamfara and Sokoto, also have negotiated peace agreements with the bandits, inviting them to lay down their arms and return stolen cattle in exchange for building roads, hospitals and schools in their communities and grants of cash and land to individuals.[fn]For example, a Zamfara state government-initiated peace dialogue led to an arms-for-development agreement in October 2016. “Govt, rustlers reach truce”, Daily Trust, 4 November 2016. In April 2017, police reported about 1,000 bandits had renounced banditry and surrendered arms. “Police recover 20 rifles, 2,734 cows from rustlers”, Daily Trust, 22 April 2017.Hide Footnote

These efforts have yielded some results, recovering large numbers of stolen cattle.[fn]Crisis Group interview, MACBAN official, Abuja, November 2016. On 27 January 2016, the joint-anti-rustling operation reported recovering over 30,000 stolen cattle. “Kamuku Forest: 6 governors review operations, say 30,000 cattle recovered”, The News, 30 January 2016.Hide Footnote However, cattle rustling and banditry still persist on a significant scale. Armed groups have returned to some parts of Zamfara state where bandits seemingly had agreed to arms-for-development proposals.[fn]“Return of bandits spreads fear in Zamfara”, Daily Trust, 10 September 2017.Hide Footnote That said, gains produced by amnesty programs and cash rewards could prove short-lived; such programs risk entrenching a culture of violent crime and banditry among constituents who seek to leverage such activities to extract state concessions.

In the near term, and together with continued attempts to reach peace deals, governments should sustain ongoing military and other security operations. Further down the road, they should consider shifting their strategy for curbing cattle rustling and other banditry from episodic military operations to steadily deploying more and better-equipped police units in rural and forested areas where bandit groups are based. This would allow police to respond rapidly to incidents and discourage further attacks.

2. Improve livestock tracking

Smarter animal tracking and identification systems can also curb cattle rustling. State ministries of agriculture should oversee cattle branding, certify cattle traders, monitor cattle markets and regulate abattoirs and slaughterhouses. The federal agriculture and transport ministries should renew efforts to establish safer and more efficient arrangements for transporting livestock across the country. Although a long-distance transportation arrangement, utilising the government-run rail system, was inaugurated in 2016, the effort was suspended shortly thereafter amid mutual accusations of bad faith and incompetence.[fn]The major long-distance transport parties were the Nigeria Incentive-Based Risk Sharing System for Agricultural Lending (NIRSAL), a government-owned institution; Connect Rail Services Ltd, bulk freight and logistics service provider; and the Cattle Dealers Association of Nigeria.Hide Footnote Adoption of so-called smart devices could also help. Herders acquiring solar-powered Livestock Tracking Devices and herders’ associations subscribing to and regularly updating the Cattle Rustling Information System (CATRIS), could help generate some of the information security agencies need to track rustlers and recover stolen cattle.[fn]CATRIS is a portal developed by the non-governmental Centre for Information Technology and Development (CITAD), which provides documentation and real-time alerts on cattle rustling incidents, to relevant officials and agencies. It is an off-shoot of a peace project supported by MacArthur Foundation. The LTDs are micro-chips that “can track the location of cattle and send panic or emergency alerts to the authorities in times of trouble”. Crisis Group interviews, corporate services executive of mobile telecommunications company, Abuja, 12 February 2017.Hide Footnote

3. Prevent attacks on farming communities

The federal government should follow through on promises to stop armed attacks on farming communities, especially in badly affected southern Kaduna and Benue states. To that end, federal security agencies – notably the police and Nigerian Security and Civil Defence Corps – will need to focus on preventive measures, including community liaison mechanisms to upgrade intelligence gathering, early warning and rapid response.

A key priority is to curb the influx and possession of illegal firearms, especially automatic rifles. The new federal whistle-blower program on illegal firearms is a promising start; it should be supported by speedily following up on informants’ leads and protecting their identities.[fn]Crisis Group interview, retired police officer, Abuja, 15 April 2017.Hide Footnote Likewise, the steps taken by several state governments to curb illicit weapons should also be sustained.[fn]On 21 January 2016, Nasarawa and Benue states announced plans to disarm militias along their common boundaries. “Nasarawa/Benue meet to disarm militias over border clashes”, The Independent (Lagos), 22 January 2016. Similarly, in October 2016, Plateau state offered amnesty to gun fabricators and dealers who quit their illicit trade. “Lalong offers amnesty to gun fabricators”, Daily Trust, 17 October 2016.Hide Footnote

Better coordination between federal and state law enforcement would be another important step. The former could set up an inter-agency task force, overseen by the federal justice ministry, to help states investigate major cases of herder-farmer violence and bring culpable parties to justice. At a minimum, the Buhari administration could investigate major high-fatality incidents that have occurred under its watch.

Finally, state governments also could provide greater assistance to victims of herder-farmer violence, especially those not directly involved in the violence. Working with local and international organisations, they could, for example, expand humanitarian aid for displaced persons, especially women and children.

B. Support Community-based Conflict Resolution

Local and community-based dispute resolution mechanisms have proved effective in both averting violence and helping communities recover from conflict. Forums that allow various constituencies – farmers, pastoralists, community vigilantes and state security agencies – to monitor, identify, discuss and manage potential threats can be particularly helpful. These also can be used to help farmers and pastoralists explore mutually beneficial ways to coexist.[fn]Civil society groups and non-governmental organisations also have an important role, particularly in promoting dialogue and several organisations are already engaged in this regard. For instance, in June 2016, the Nigeria Reconciliation and Stability Project in collaboration with the Bayelsa State Peace and Conflict Management Alliance, launched a campaign to promote peaceful co-existence between herders and farmers in Bayelsa state. In March 2017, the Lagos-based Strength in Diversity Development Centre (SDDC) started consultations with Fulani leaders in the southwest, toward promoting peaceful coexistence with farming communities.Hide Footnote Wherever possible, state and local governments should support or establish such mechanisms, especially across the worst-affected north-central region.

For their part, local politicians, ethnic, religious and community leaders, as well as representatives of pastoralist and farmer associations need to speak out against violence. The media should try to provide more balanced coverage that avoids inflaming tensions through stereotyping, unfair generalisations and sensational reporting.

C. Establish Grazing Reserves and Encourage Ranching

There is urgent need to reform and improve grazing arrangements. In March 2016, the federal government announced its intent to establish grazing areas across the country, but vehement opposition from farming communities forced it to relent.[fn]‘‘Nigeria to create grazing areas in south to end farmers, herdsmen clashes – Minister’’, Premium Times, 13 January 2016.Hide Footnote It needs a more nuanced approach, which takes into account local sensitivities regarding cattle roaming and open grazing, not only in the south but also in predominantly farming areas of the north-central zone.

As a first step, the federal government, working with state governments, should jointly survey, demarcate and officially document existing grazing reserves that have not been over-run by human settlements and infrastructure. The federal government also should follow through on its plan to establish new grazing reserves in the ten northern states that have already provided 55,000 hectares to that end.[fn]The states listed were Plateau, Kaduna, Kano, Katsina, Gombe, Taraba, Niger, Adamawa, Jigawa and Sokoto. Following local protests, the Plateau state government subsequently claimed it had not consented to establishment of any grazing reserve.Hide Footnote It should help state governments develop these areas following the model provided by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), which is funding three reserves in Sokoto state.[fn]In March 2017, IFAD announced plans to establish three grazing reserves. Each reserve will have a veterinary clinic and a nomadic school. They are being established under its Climate Change Adaptation and Agri-business Support Programme. “IFAD to construct three grazing reserves in Sokoto”, Daily Trust, 25 March 2017. In some states, notably Kaduna, where herder-farmer relations are extremely fraught, there is need to respect local sensitivities in deciding where reserves will be located, particularly to ensure they do not encroach on community farmlands.Hide Footnote

Separately, the federal government should take steps to encourage ranching. The Buhari’s administration’s Agriculture Promotion Policy (APP) 2016-2020 acknowledges “the cattle value chain has become a security problem … as roaming cattle increasingly is a source of friction between land owners and herdsmen”. Accordingly, “a key shift is necessary: retaining cattle in ranches”.[fn]The Green Alternative: The Agricultural Promotion Policy 2016 – 2020, op. cit., p. 27.Hide Footnote Likewise, an April 2017 northern leaders’ summit recommended “a concerted development of ranches” as a key step toward ending clashes.[fn]Communiqué issued after a two-day summit organised by Sir Ahmadu Bello Memorial Foundation (SABMF) on “Rethinking the Security and Development Agenda for Northern Nigeria”, Kaduna, 24-25 April 2017.Hide Footnote

Some initial steps have been taken. In April 2017, a policy dialogue initiated by the federal agriculture ministry and facilitated by UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) recommended that the government formulate and implement a ten-year National Ranch Development Plan. It also called for securing support from traditional livestock producers by helping them establish cooperatives and linking them up with financial institutions such as Bank of Agriculture (BOA) and Nigeria Incentive-Based Risk Sharing system for Agricultural Lending (NIRSAL). Significantly, the foremost livestock producers’ group, Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria (MACBAN), though initially reticent about the ranching option, has endorsed these recommendations.[fn]“MACBAN lauds efforts to tackle farmers/herdsmen clashes”, Leadership, 26 April 2017.Hide Footnote

Federal and state governments also need to work out alternative plans for the large numbers of herders who may lose their livelihoods in the transition from open grazing to ranching.

The federal government’s policy direction and stakeholders’ concurrence signal a growing consensus on the imperative of shifting from open grazing to ranching. Already, some retired military officers, former civil servants and multinational corporations have established a few large ranches. The federal government could advance this process by formulating and implementing the proposed National Ranch Development Plan. The federal ministry of agriculture and rural development, along with various other relevant local and international agencies, should apply the ideas and resolutions generated at the National Conference on Transforming the Nigerian Livestock Industry, held in Abuja in September 2017, in driving the formulation and implementation of the proposed plan.

That said, governments of some states, like Benue and Taraba, that recently introduced new laws prohibiting open grazing, should exercise restraint in enforcing such laws, and encourage a phased transition to ranching. They and other state governments should promote ranches, including by clarifying processes for acquiring land and obtaining credit, devising modalities for ranch management training, and encouraging private-public partnerships. Federal and state governments also need to work out alternative plans for the large numbers of herders who may lose their livelihoods in the transition from open grazing to ranching.

D. Combat Desertification

Some estimates suggest that during the twenty-first century, two thirds of Nigeria’s eleven far northern states could become desert or semi-desert regions.[fn]Bauchi, Borno, Gombe, Jigawa, Kano, Kaduna, Katsina, Kebbi, Sokoto, Yobe and Zamfara. Federal Ministry of Environment, National Policy on Desertification and Drought, 2008.Hide Footnote Besides provoking considerable economic and livelihood losses, this would force many more pastoralists to migrate southward, risking more conflicts with the growing farming communities.

Over the longer term, therefore, federal and state governments should intensify implementation of the Great Green Wall Initiative for the Sahara and the Sahel. The project initially called for planting a 15km wide belt of trees, running 7,775km across nine African countries from Senegal to Djibouti. It was later broadened to include building water-retention ponds and other basic infrastructure, establishing agricultural production systems, and promoting other income-generating activities.[fn]The Great Green Wall was originally conceived by then Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo. In 2007, the African Union (AU) Commission adopted it as the Great Green Wall for the Sahara and Sahel Initiative (GGWSSI). It involves over 30 partners, including African countries, the European Union, French government, World Bank, African Development Bank (AfDB), Global Environment Facility (GEF), UN Commission to Combat Desertification and FAO.Hide Footnote Nigeria’s National Agency for the Great Green Wall aims to rehabilitate 22,500 sq km of degraded land by 2020. Thus far, the agency’s impact is scarcely felt: there is no evidence of increased tree cover, significant new infrastructure or environmental restoration across the eleven impacted states.[fn]Crisis Group interview, former National Agency for the Great Green Wall staff, Abuja, February 2017.Hide Footnote The agency needs to be reorganised, better resourced and more goal-oriented to deliver results within the 2020 timeline.[fn]At the UN Climate Change Conference in December 2015, donor countries and multilateral agencies pledged $4 billion over five years to support GGWSSI’s implementation. It is not clear how much of these pledges have been honoured.Hide Footnote

In the same spirit, the federal government should develop strategies for mitigating the impact of climate change, managing environmentally-induced migration, preventing conflicts over use of land and other natural resources – and implement them. In November 2011, the government drafted a National Adaptation Strategy and Plan of Action on Climate Change (NASPA); in November 2012, it adopted a National Policy on Climate Change. The country’s official development policy, called Vision 20:2020, also contains climate considerations. These policies and plans, until now largely only on paper, should be implemented.

E. Strengthen Regional Cooperation

Some dimensions of the herder-farmer conflict can only be fully addressed within a regional framework. This will require Abuja to work in close coordination with neighbouring countries both to manage human and cattle movements across borders and to fight illicit arms trafficking.

Following revelations that foreign herders were involved in attacks on farming communities, Agriculture Minister Ogbeh said the government would present proposals at the African Union “to compel member countries to take steps to prevent their herdsmen from grazing into neighbouring countries”, warning there could be “a major international crisis if we do not stop it now”.[fn]“Agatu massacre: Nigeria deploys troops; to ban cattle from villages, cities”, Premium Times, 3 March 2016.Hide Footnote To that end, the government should engage the governments of Cameroon, Chad and Niger, as well as the ECOWAS commission, to reach agreement on how to collectively monitor and regulate international transhumance pastoralism, in accordance with relevant international instruments including ECOWAS Protocols.[fn]These include the Transhumance Protocol of 1998; the Regulations of Transhumance between ECOWAS Member-States 2003; and the ECOWAS Strategic Plan for the Development and Transformation of the Livestock Sector.Hide Footnote It should also strengthen regional cooperation in combating desertification and mitigating the impact of climate change.

VI. Conclusion

Escalating conflicts between herders and farmers are among Nigeria’s most pressing security challenges. This could potentially generate bloodshed on an even wider scale unless President Buhari’s government makes ending this violence a national priority. State governments also need to formulate and implement steps to address the needs and grievances of all sides transparently and equitably. Strengthening law enforcement, supporting local conflict prevention and resolution mechanisms, establishing and protecting grazing reserves would all make a significant and immediate difference. In the longer term, the greater challenge will be curbing the arms influx and, crucially, addressing the environmental trends that are forcing herders south. Failure would spell greater danger for a country already battling other severe security challenges and, potentially, for the wider West and Central African region.

Abuja/Brussels, 19 September 2017

Appendix A: Map of Nigeria’s Agricultural Belts

Appendix A: Map of Nigeria’s Agricultural Belts Mike Shand/International Crisis Group, 2017.

Appendix B: Map of Conflict and Insecurity in Northern Nigeria

Appendix B: Map of Conflict and Insecurity in Northern Nigeria Mike Shand/International Crisis Group, 2017.

Appendix C: Map of Nigerian States with High Incidence of Herder-farmer Casualties

Appendix C: Map of Nigerian States with High Incidence of Herder-farmer Casualties Mike Shand/International Crisis Group, 2017.

Appendix D: Summary of Government Responses: Feeble, Failed or Forgotten

Nigeria’s federal and state governments have launched numerous initiatives to curb herder-farmer conflicts in recent years. Most have been feebly implemented, truncated by political developments or forgotten.

  1. Federal Policy and Administrative Initiatives

The most notable policy and administrative initiatives since 2014 have been the following:

  • In April 2014, then federal agriculture minister, Akin Adesina, inaugurated an inter-ministerial technical committee to recommend steps for mapping, restoring and managing 415 grazing reserves and stock routes designated across the country. Later that year, the government created a Committee on Grazing Reserves, chaired by then Benue state Governor Gabriel Suswam. Both committees’ recommendations were approved at appropriate levels, but implementation was truncated with the end of the Goodluck Jonathan administration in May 2015.
  • Soon after assuming office in May 2015, President Muhammadu Buhari directed the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (FMARD) to formulate a comprehensive livestock development plan, including measures to curb farmer-herder clashes. In August 2015, an FMARD committee submitted a report with several recommendations, including development of grazing reserves and stock routes.
  • In January 2016, the government announced a plan to appropriate land for grazing areas across the country. That plan was widely opposed in southern and north-central states, where it was viewed as benefiting one ethnic (Fulani) and occupational (herders) group at the expense of others. The government shelved the plan, opting to establish reserves only in states that provided land.
  • In March 2016, Agriculture Minister Audu Ogbeh announced that, to reduce cattle roaming in search of pasture, the government had ordered fast-growing grass from Brazil, to produce “massive hectares of grasses” that would be ready for consumption within “three months”. The order has not been delivered.
  • In November 2016, the government inaugurated a railway-based arrangement for transporting cattle from the far north to the south. It suspended the program within weeks as partners accused each other of incompetence and bad faith.
  1. Federal Security and Judicial Responses

Deficient security measures: The federal government has initiated several security responses that continually fall short on results.

  • The government typically deploys the federally-controlled police, and sometimes the army, to areas reporting attacks or clashes. These forces, poorly deployed in rural areas, often lack logistics for rapid response, especially across difficult terrain.
  • In February 2016, following public outcry over scores killed in Agatu area, Benue state, President Buhari ordered a probe, pledging that “once the investigations are concluded, we will act immediately to address the root of the problem”. There has been no public report of that investigation or follow-up action.
  • In April 2016, President Buhari said he had ordered security forces to “take all necessary action to stop the carnage”, pledging that stopping the violence had become a priority of his administration. Since then there have been many incidents and hundreds killed.
  • In July 2016, chief of defence staff, General Abayomi Olonisakin, said the military was launching a campaign, Operation Accord, to stop herder-farmer violence. There has been no update. In late 2016, the army deployed a new operation to southern Kaduna, which had suffered numerous attacks. The operation has curbed, but not ended, the violence.

Feeble judicial action: Police occasionally arrest and prosecute both herders and vigilantes bearing firearms, but relatively few perpetrators of violence face justice. Impunity has encouraged actors to take matters into their own hands.

  1. Federal Legislative Responses

Failed legislative initiatives: In 2011, Senator Zainab Kure (Niger state) sponsored a bill at the National Assembly (federal parliament), to establish a National Grazing Reserves Commission, national grazing reserves and livestock routes. The bill was never passed and expired in the seventh senate in May 2015. From 2015 to 2016, three legislators sponsored similar bills. All were dropped in November 2016 on grounds that the Land Use Act 1979 made such decisions the exclusive prerogative of state governments. In March 2016, Agriculture Minister Audu Ogbeh announced the government was preparing a bill to prohibit cattle roaming in cities and villages. Nothing more has been heard of that bill.

Ineffective public hearings: On 10 May 2016, the Senate Committees on Agriculture, Intelligence and National Security held a public hearing on herder-farmer violence. The report of that hearing was never made public, nor were any resultant policy prescriptions announced.

  1. State Government Responses

Establishing investigation committees: Some state governments have, at various times, set up committees to investigate herder-farmer conflicts and recommend remedies; but recommendations are seldom implemented conscientiously.

Establishing dialogue and peace committees: Some state governments have established herder-farmer dialogue and peace committees. Probably the most prominent, involving Fulani herders and ethnic Tiv farmers, was established at the instance of then Benue state Governor Suswam in 2008 and chaired by the sultan of Sokoto, Muhammadu Sa’ad Abubakar III. Few of its recommendations have been implemented.

Introducing new laws regulating grazing activities: Some state governments and the Federal Capital Territory administration have passed laws or regulations guiding grazing activities, mostly limiting grazing hours and areas. Benue and Taraba governments have introduced new laws to prohibit open grazing entirely and encourage the transition to ranching. Herders resent existing regulations and view attempts to ban open grazing as ill-intentioned.

Establishing or encouraging community-based vigilantes: Some state governments, have encouraged formation of community-based vigilantes to prevent or resist herders’ attacks. For instance, in May 2016, the Abia state government ordered the immediate resuscitation of a defunct vigilante outfit, Bakassi Boys, to help communities ward off attacks by herders and others.

Expelling herders: In Borno, Niger and Plateau states, authorities have at various times expelled herder groups from specific communities, following local protests.

Local hunters known as Vigilantes armed with locally made guns are seen on a pickup truck in Yola city of Adamawa State in Nigeria, on 6 December 2014. Mohammed Elshamy/ANADOLU AGENCY
Report 251 / Africa

Double-edged Sword: Vigilantes in African Counter-insurgencies

Vigilante groups have been successful in providing local security. But subcontracting security functions to vigilante groups for counter-insurgency purposes is a dangerous option for fragile African states. African leaders should set clear objectives and mandates when enlisting vigilantes and invest in disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration programs.

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Executive Summary

As weak African states face growing insurgencies, they do what weak states tend to do: subcontract certain security functions to non-state actors or vigilante groups, many of which had taken up arms to protect their communities. This approach at times is viewed as a necessity, but is often dangerous, particularly in politically fluid and fractious states. The more fragile the state, the more it is dependent on vigilantes, but also the less able it is to police them or prevent abuse of power. The more successful the vigilante group against insurgents, the harder it is to demobilise, and the more likely it will become entrenched. As a result of ethnic rivalries and allegiances, community defence groups can morph into predatory, quasi-criminal organisations or enemies of the central state. Yet even when risks outweigh benefits, African leaders may not have the luxury of choice. At a minimum, African governments and their international backers should learn from the past, try to prevent abuses, guard against vigilantes’ mission creep and plan how to manage them once the conflict dies down.

By their very nature, vigilante groups carry inherent risk. Typically recruited from local communities, their members likely share the same ethnic or political identity, collective interests and threat perceptions, raising the odds that they will act as local militias – potentially more powerful than state authorities – and pursue narrow ethnic agendas; a short-term necessary evil that could pave the way for longer-term conflict. A solution for states in dire need of backing, vigilantes too often take advantage of their newfound capacity – and compensate for inadequate support and resources – by seeking to maximise their power and wealth through extortion, kidnapping, and other violent abuses.

But there are positive lessons to be learned too. Vigilante groups can be far more effective than state actors in providing local security. They generally enjoy greater legitimacy by virtue of community roots, and can be more efficient in identifying, tracking and combating insurgents thanks to their familiarity with local languages, geography and culture. Successfully managed by state authorities – and international actors – they can enable national leaders to forge lasting political pacts with provincial elites and bolster state legitimacy among local communities. In short, and while African and international policymakers rightfully may be concerned that empowering non-state forces will undermine the state, vigilantes also can serve as valuable intermediaries between local communities and central authorities.

Drawing on four illustrative cases – Sierra Leone, Uganda’s Teso region, South Sudan’s former Western Equatoria State and Nigeria’s north east – this report seeks to shed light on factors that determine vigilantes’ evolution and impact on security and stability with the objective of helping governments and their international partners navigate this dilemma.

Investing in sufficiently generous demobilisation and reintegration programs is key to offering vigilante members viable alternative livelihoods and due recognition.

Among these factors: regime neglect of, or hostility toward such groups (as in South Sudan) can give rise to new rebels, while unbridled state support (as in Sierra Leone) can empower armed groups controlled by strongmen and motivated in part by narrow self-interest. The clearer vigilantes’ objectives and mandate are set in advance, and the greater the oversight by national and local leaders, the state military and local communities, the more effective the group can be and the less likely it will veer away from community defence and counter-insurgency goals. This is more likely to occur in instances where the political interests of the central state and local leaders are roughly aligned (as in Uganda). By contrast, a less defined mandate – one that allows vigilantes to step into local governance roles – can be a recipe for trouble, prolonging the existence of vigilante groups and enlarging their scope, enabling them to consolidate their power and creating greater economic incentives for them to hold on to it. In the longer term, investing in sufficiently generous demobilisation and reintegration programs is key to offering vigilante members viable alternative livelihoods and due recognition. Transitioning selected members to community policing units also could help prevent their reactivation in more hostile guises.

Several broad lessons, each to be applied with due care for local conditions, emerge from the case studies. In particular, African leaders that enlist vigilante groups for counter-insurgency purposes should:

  • Engage local leaders with influence over vigilantes with the aim of settling on finite, mutually acceptable objectives within an overarching counter-insurgency strategy, and ensuring they provide political oversight over rank-and-file members;
  • Be clear upfront with vigilante leaders and foot soldiers as to what they should expect as reward for their efforts and compensation for any losses;
  • Provide vigilantes with adequate political and material support, including weapons when necessary, with the goal of ensuring they are able to pursue their objectives, thereby reducing the risk of extortion of resources from civilians;
  • Where possible, provide military oversight of, and ensure accountability for vigilantes’ abusive actions;
  • Put in place upfront a gender-sensitive plan to demobilise vigilantes once the insurgent threat has receded and to help them find work in locally-relevant sectors.

International donors and partners face a similar conundrum. They too should benefit from relatively strong state authorities enjoying a monopoly over the use of violence. But when the state is too weak to confront an insurgency alone, or when the insurgent group doubles up as a terrorist organisation threatening outside interests, the temptation will be great for international actors to support a militia or vigilante group – with or at times without the state’s consent. Those international actors’ interests would be best served by working in concert with state authorities, helping them manage relations with vigilante groups, cautioning against the pitfalls of unfettered support or counterproductive repression. To the extent international players interact with vigilante groups, they should avoid providing direct support, lest they weaken national authorities’ bargaining position. Instead, they should be willing to assist states with resources to better control vigilantes and more effectively demobilise and reintegrate them.

Reliance on vigilante groups often is a faute de mieux solution for states facing a threat they cannot address alone. But as the cases in this report illustrate, there are better and worse ways of doing so, and of ensuring that a short-term expedient not turn into a long-term headache.

Nairobi/Dakar/Brussels, 7 September 2017


I. Introduction

African states confronting insurgent groups face a dilemma when civilians mobilise and take up arms to protect their local communities. These forces can play a major role in fending off attacks and provide regular armed forces with critical local knowledge, thereby bolstering the effectiveness of counter-insurgency campaigns. But vigilante groups also can undermine central authority, widen conflict by targeting ethnic or political rivals or threaten longer-term stability by continuing as an autonomous armed force after the original conflict has subsided. To use them is to wield a double-edged sword.

This report examines four cases in sub-Saharan Africa: the Kamajors, who fought in Sierra Leone’s civil war (1991-2002); the Arrow Boys of Teso, who confronted the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in eastern Uganda (2003-2007); the Zande Arrow Boys, who battled the LRA and later rebelled against South Sudan’s Dinka-led regime (2005-present); and the Civilian Joint Task Force, which has worked closely with the armed forces and police to counter Boko Haram in north-eastern Nigeria (2013-present).

Although primarily based on field research conducted in 2016 and early 2017 in Sierra Leone, Uganda, South Sudan and Nigeria, the report also incorporates analysis from Crisis Group’s past work, putting into wider geographic and historical perspective more than fifteen years of analysis regarding the conflict in Sierra Leone, the LRA in Uganda and subsequently the broader region, and Boko Haram in the Lake Chad basin.[fn]See Crisis Group Africa Report N°244, Watchmen of Lake Chad: Vigilante Groups Fighting Boko Haram, 23 February 2017.Hide Footnote This research also draws on Crisis Group’s wider research into curbing violent religious radicalism.[fn]See Crisis Group Special Report N°1, Exploiting Disorder: al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, 14 March 2016.Hide Footnote

Crisis Group uses the term vigilantes to refer to members of civilian self-defence groups, community defence forces and civil militias, which are formed to protect their communities from non-state or state actors or to combat insurgents. This term, widely used in the African context, is not meant to imply that their activities are illegal, even though they initially might have lacked state authorisation.

II. A Recurrent Policy Dilemma

Vigilante groups have formed and continue to exist in weak African states where governments are unable or unwilling to protect civilians from security threats ranging from large-scale insurgency, to political or ethnic violence, to low-level banditry.[fn]In Nigeria, the Bakassi Boys and O’odua People’s Congress are two notable examples of vigilante groups that have taken on policing-type roles and committed serious abuses. See “The Bakassi Boys: The Legitimization of Murder and Torture”, Human Rights Watch, May 2002, and “The O’odua People’s Congress: Fighting Violence with Violence”, Human Rights Watch, February 2003. In west-central Tanzania, the Sungusungu mobilised at village level in the face of increasingly violent cattle theft. See Michael L. Fleisher, “Sungusungu: State-Sponsored Village Vigilante Groups among the Kuria of Tanzania”, Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, vol. 70, no. 2 (2000), pp. 209-228. In Burkina Faso, where state authorities have proved unable to curb crime, Koglweogo groups have sought to uphold their own kind of justice and their growing influence has provoked heated debate on how the government should respond. See “Au Burkina Faso, les milices d’autodéfense échappent peu à peu au contrôle des autorités”, Le Monde, 29 May 2017, and “Burkina: Koglweogo, les justiciers de la brousse”, Jeune Afrique, 6 April 2016.Hide Footnote The nature of the threat shapes the kinds of activities that vigilantes undertake, whether counter-insurgency roles typically played by the military or more policing-type duties. Yet, regardless of circumstance, the phenomenon of vigilantes faces an essential problem: states too weak to provide security on their own are most prone to enlist non-state armed actors and delegate some local security functions to them, but also most likely to lack resources and capacity to control vigilantes and prevent them from abusing power for their own individual or group interest.

This report examines cases of vigilante groups formed in response to insurgent threats as opposed to general lawlessness, since vigilantism in non-conflict settings presents a related but different set of challenges and policy implications. The four cases – historical and current cases from West and East Africa – were selected to assess what factors ultimately determine the outcomes – positive or negative – of reliance on vigilantes. While Crisis Group does not claim that these form a representative sample of vigilantism in African conflicts, they cover a range of experiences, from the relatively positive (Arrow Boys in Teso, Uganda) to decisively harmful in terms of human suffering and political instability (Kamajors in Sierra Leone and Arrow Boys in South Sudan). Case selection also was informed by Crisis Group’s institutional expertise and fresh field research.

A. Kamajors in Sierra Leone

Over eleven years (1991-2002), one of Africa’s most brutal civil wars unfolded in Sierra Leone, killing tens of thousands and displacing up to a quarter of the population.[fn]“The Armed Conflict in Sierra Leone”, Human Rights Watch, 11 April 2012.Hide Footnote Among the most powerful fighting groups were the Kamajors, who evolved from bands of young men defending their villages to the core of a state-armed national militia fighting alongside both the regular army and foreign forces. The Kamajors (whose name means hunter in Mende, the predominant language and tribe in the Southern and Eastern provinces) became a highly divisive entity. Many Sierra Leoneans still revere them for their bravery in defending first their home areas and later a democratically-elected government.[fn]See Ned Dalby, “In Search of the Kamajors, Sierra Leone’s Civilian Counter-insurgents”, Crisis Group Commentary, 7 March 2017.Hide Footnote But they also are reviled as a brutal tribal militia, which looted and killed suspected rebel collaborators and further destabilised the country. Such diverse, but not necessarily incompatible, views reflect ethnic and political prejudice and how people’s experiences of the Kamajors differed over time and in different places.

The Kamajors’ trajectory over the course of the long war demonstrates how vigilante groups can be effective community protectors and, at times, military auxiliaries, principally by virtue of their superior local knowledge. It also illustrates the dangers of helping vigilantes become militarily powerful forces operating outside their communities, without adequate state monitoring or control, particularly in countries riven by ethno-political tensions.

1. From community protectors to unwieldy paramilitary force

Sierra Leone’s civil war began in the early 1990s as a battle between government forces and the Revolutionary United Front (RUF).[fn]The RUF was led by former army Corporal Foday Sankoh and operated out of Liberia, with the support of Charles Taylor, then a rebel leader and later Liberian president. For Crisis Group reporting during the conflict see Crisis Group Africa Reports N°28, Sierra Leone: Time for a New Military and Political Strategy, 11 April 2001; N°35, Sierra Leone: Managing Uncertainty, 24 October 2001; and Africa Briefing N°6, Sierra Leone: Ripe for Elections?, 19 December 2001. See also, Lansana Gberie, A Dirty War in West Africa: The RUF and the Destruction of Sierra Leone (Bloomington, 2005); and Paul Richards, Fighting for the Rain Forrest: War, Youth and Resources in Sierra Leone (Oxford, 1996).Hide Footnote Originally based in Liberia, the RUF launched attacks on both military and civilian targets, principally in the Eastern and Southern provinces. In response, local leaders started mobilising young men, including Kamajor hunters, to defend their home areas.[fn]See map of Sierra Leone in Appendix A. Doctor Alpha Lavalie, a professor, and Doctor Joe Demby, a medical doctor who would later become vice president, mobilised a group in Kenema in the Eastern province, while Allieu Kondewa, a medicinal healer, formed a vigilante group in Bonthe, Southern province. Crisis Group interviews, former adviser of Kamajor leader Sam Hinga Norman, Bo, 12 January 2017; former Vice President Joe Demby, Bo, 12 January 2017.Hide Footnote A former army captain and local chief, Sam Hinga Norman, organised youth around Bo, the country’s second largest city.[fn]Norman was the Jiama-Bongor chiefdom regent chief. The government had appointed him after the former chief died and until a new one could be elected. Crisis Group interview, Norman’s former adviser, Bo, 12 January 2017.Hide Footnote Thanks to his military experience and strength of character, Norman soon became the Kamajors’ national leader and figurehead. As fighting spread, other tribes formed defence groups in their areas, but the Kamajors in the south and east remained by far the largest and earned a reputation as the fiercest.[fn]The Donso community defence force formed among the Kono tribe in Kono district, Eastern province. The Gbethi and Kapra groups emerged in the Temne-dominated areas in the centre and west. The Tamaboro of the Kuranko, Limba and Yalunka tribes formed in Koinadugu district in the far north. Crisis Group interviews, Freetown and Bo, January 2017. See also Sierra Leone Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report, Volume 3A, Chapter 4: Nature of the Conflict, p. 542.Hide Footnote

The beleaguered government, recognising the local forces’ effectiveness and the usefulness of their local knowledge, allowed them to act as army auxiliaries, serving principally as guides and informants. But distrust between Kamajors and soldiers soon undermined cooperation. To counter the insurgency, the government rapidly expanded the army, quadrupling its numbers from about 3,000 before the war to approximately 13,000 by 1992.[fn]The exact figure is uncertain, given the number of “ghost” soldiers who collected pay or rations without serving. See Crisis Group Report, Sierra Leone: Time for a New Military and Political Strategy, op. cit., p. 6.Hide Footnote Rapid expansion, coupled with deficient leadership, training and equipment, saw some front-line troops become so-called sobels (soldier/rebels) who preyed on civilians, sometimes in collaboration with insurgents.[fn]Crisis Group Report, Sierra Leone: Time for a New Military and Political Strategy, op. cit., p. 6. Also, Crisis Group interviews, former Kamajors, Bo and Gerihun, January 2017.Hide Footnote In response, the Kamajors defended their communities against both rebels and soldiers.

To compensate for its military weakness, the government hired a private South African military company – Executive Outcomes – which fought rebels from 1995 to early 1997. They relied heavily on the Kamajors’ local expertise. Their joint operations ushered in a period of sufficient stability to allow elections to be held in February 1996; these brought the Mende-dominated Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) to power. Norman, the Kamajors’ best-known leader, became deputy defence minister, and the state ramped up its support to the local defence forces. In 1996, to reassure those who believed the Kamajors were becoming the ruling party’s army, the government established a national umbrella organisation for all vigilante groups, known as the Civil Defence Forces (CDF). A central coordinating committee, including representatives from diverse tribal defence groups, used government funds to buy arms, ammunition, food and medical supplies, which it distributed to field units.[fn]Crisis Group interview, former National Security Adviser, Freetown, 11 January 2017.Hide Footnote

Despite this façade of national unity, the Civil Defence Forces’ ethnically distinct units operated largely independently of each other.[fn]Sierra Leone Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report, Volume 3A, Chapter 4: Nature of the Conflict, pp. 541-542.Hide Footnote The Kamajors remained numerically dominant, partly because Mendeland saw the most insurgent activity, and received the lion’s share of government resources. Jealousy and fear of these irregular, largely Mende, forces helped fuel further army discontent, prompting a May 1997 coup by junior soldiers who established the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) and invited the rebel RUF to join their government. “The SLPP tribal hunter militia, the Kamajors, received logistics and supplies far beyond their immediate needs”, wrote a coup leader, arguing that the ruling party was favouring a “private army over our armed forces”.[fn]Statement by Johnny Paul Koroma in August 1997 cited in Crisis Group Report, Sierra Leone: Time for a New Military and Political Strategy, op. cit., p. 7.Hide Footnote Only a small portion of the military remained loyal to the toppled government, now exiled in Conakry, Guinea. That government appealed to the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) for help and regional troops deployed under the banner of the ECOWAS Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) pushed the rebels and Armed Forces Revolutionary Council out of Freetown in February 1998. While this made possible the government’s return, the war nonetheless dragged on for another four years.

According to a former British high commissioner, the Kamajor-dominated Civil Defence Forces were crucial to restoring state control.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, Peter Penfold, 16 January 2017.Hide Footnote It fought on behalf of the elected government, both independently and in coordination with ECOMOG troops. The Kamajors were a significant battlefield force in part due to their size and spread. The number of enrolees mushroomed to some 37,000 members, most of them rural, uneducated youth.[fn]The total number of CDF members at its height is hard to pin down given the group’s fluidity and informal recruitment, but at the end of the conflict over 37,000 individuals identifying themselves as CDF passed through the disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) process, compared to 24,000 RUF. Of the 37,189 CDF, all but several thousand were Mende Kamajors; 34,890 were men, 1,996 were boys (younger than eighteen), 296 were women and seven were girls according to the National Commission for DDR. Christiana Solomon and Jeremy Ginifer, “Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration in Sierra Leone”, Centre for International Cooperation and Security, University of Bradford, July 2008, p. 15.Hide Footnote Some joined to access weapons and other resources; others to settle scores. In joint operations with ECOMOG troops, they typically served as guides for troops unfamiliar with the territory or people. They also frequently were in the vanguard during attacks on rebel positions, with troops from the ECOMOG firing heavy artillery from behind. In advance of the rebel attack on Freetown in January 1999, ECOMOG airlifted Kamajors to help defend the capital.[fn]Crisis Group interview, former CDF commander, Freetown, 16 January 2017.Hide Footnote

The Kamajors’ reputed fearlessness [...] was matched by their brutality, especially when operating outside their home areas.

Neither national leaders nor ECOMOG (itself accused of complicity in Civil Defence Forces abuses) were willing or able to control such a large, decentralised, undisciplined and mostly untrained force.[fn]See for instance “Getting Away with Murder, Mutilation and Rape: New Testimony from Sierra Leone”, Human Rights Watch, July 1999.Hide Footnote The Kamajors’ reputed fearlessness – reinforced by initiation rites that were supposed to render fighters immune to bullets – was matched by their brutality, especially when operating outside their home areas.[fn]Sierra Leone Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report, Volume 3A, Chapter 4: Nature of the Conflict, pp. 541-542.Hide Footnote In larger cities such as Freetown and Bo, they robbed and harassed civilians, killing those suspected of collaborating with the enemy; in rural areas they were accused of committing massacres in supposedly pro-rebel villages.[fn]See Dalby, “In Search of the Kamajors”, op. cit. Also, “Sierra Leone: Most Serious Attacks in Months”, Human Rights Watch, 24 July 2001.Hide Footnote There lies in this a cautionary tale: the state’s willingness to empower civilians to fight on its behalf can trigger mass, unregulated recruitment, swelling a vigilante force beyond the state’s ability to oversee, let alone control, it.

2. A bitter legacy

At the end of the war, the government and international partners faced multiple imperatives: to disarm and demobilise the Kamajors alongside other combatants; recognise and reward their efforts; uphold justice and hold accountable those who committed abuses; and reconcile former enemies. Although the government took steps on all fronts, former Kamajors saw its limited support for reintegration as a sign of ingratitude and assumed the prosecution of their leaders was politically motivated.

The July 1999 Lomé peace accord soon was broken and fighting only died down after Britain dispatched 800 troops in May 2000 to stop a rebel advance on Freetown.[fn]In 1999, as domestic pressure grew on Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo to withdraw his troops from the ECOMOG mission – the major bulwark against the rebels’ advance – the international community pressed the Sierra Leonean government and the RUF to negotiate a peace agreement. The Lomé deal included a cessation of hostilities, disarmament and demobilisation programs, positions for the RUF in government, and amnesty and reintegration support for all fighters. Mohamed Gibril Sesay and Mohamed Suma, “Transitional Justice and DDR: The Case of Sierra Leone”, International Centre for Transitional Justice, June 2009, p. 10.Hide Footnote A year later, a disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration process got underway for more than 72,000 former combatants, including the Civil Defence Forces (CDF).[fn]DDR genuinely began in May 2001 after two previous unsuccessful attempts. Christiana Solomon and Jeremy Ginifer, “Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration in Sierra Leone”, Centre for International Cooperation and Security, July 2008, pp. 8-11.Hide Footnote Most, incentivised by the promise of reintegration support, quit willingly. In January 2002, the government formally disbanded the CDF and banned all tribal militias. An estimated 20 per cent of CDF fighters were integrated into the security services. Others chose to continue their education. Most returned to their rural home areas or moved to provincial cities and tried to find work.[fn]Some high-ranking CDF members felt they were too senior to join the army as privates and so preferred to return to civilian life. Crisis Group interview, former CDF commander who became an officer in the Sierra Leone armed forces, Freetown, 11 January 2017.Hide Footnote

Many Kamajors [...] remain aggrieved, even bitter, that they did not receive the support to which they were entitled.

Government and donors paid less attention to reintegrating former fighters than to the disarmament and demobilisation phases; administrators acknowledge that vocational training courses were too short and did not fit economic needs. Many Kamajors, both leaders and foot soldiers, remain aggrieved, even bitter, that they did not receive the support to which they were entitled.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, former Kamajors, Freetown, Bo and Gerihun; former DDR administrator, Freetown, January 2017. The government and donors invested more in disarmament and demobilisation than reintegration partly because progress in the former was more measurable. Mohamed Gibril Sesay and Mohamed Suma, “Transitional Justice and DDR”, op. cit., p. 15.Hide Footnote

From 2002 to 2004, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission sought to heal the societal wounds caused by atrocities on all sides. Former Kamajors were among those who admitted their crimes, apologised to victims and asked the families of those killed for forgiveness. In 2002, the government and UN set up the Special Court for Sierra Leone to try those “bearing the greatest responsibility” for crimes against civilians and UN peacekeepers. Its prosecutor indicted thirteen people: nine Revolutionary United Front and Armed Forces Revolutionary Council rebel leaders plus then-Liberian president Charles Taylor (who backed their insurgency) and three CDF militia leaders, including Norman, who died in custody after undergoing medical treatment.[fn]In addition to Norman, the Special Court convicted two other CDF commanders, who served lengthy prison terms. In May 2008, an appeals chamber of the Special Court increased the original sentences of CDF leaders Allieu Kondewa and Moinina Fofana’s to twenty and fifteen years respectively. Special Court for Sierra Leone, Appeal Judgement, SCSL-04-14-A-829, 28 May 2008, p. 191.Hide Footnote Many Kamajors believe Norman’s indictment was designed to stop him from competing for the presidency and that his death at a military hospital in Senegal was no accident.[fn]“Special Report: Samuel Hinga Norman Dies”, Sierra Leone Trial Monitoring Program, UC Berkeley War Crimes Studies Center, 22 February 2007.Hide Footnote

Such suspicions reinforce the conviction among former Kamajors that the government failed to appreciate their sacrifices and ultimately betrayed them. Their leaders, especially Norman himself, had promised them recognition, including medals, and the transformation of the CDF into a reserve force, although these proposals never received cabinet approval. There remains little public recognition of the group’s contributions. A small monument next to the central roundabout in downtown Freetown bears a plaque reading: “To commemorate the work of the Civil Defence Force (CDF) in pursuit of peace and democracy in Sierra Leone, 1997-2002”.

Today, former Kamajors, especially in rural areas, still bear these grievances; the power shift to a northerner-dominated government since 2007 has compounded feelings of marginalisation in Mendeland. Still, the absence of a collective Kamajor voice and emergence of new political leaders and rivalries, including within the Mende-dominated Sierra Leone People’s Party, over time diluted the political significance of this perceived betrayal of the Kamajors.[fn]That said, the vice president’s successful attempts to bring Norman’s son onto his team suggest there may still be political currency in playing the Kamajor card in the 2018 elections.Hide Footnote

B. Arrow Boys of Teso in Uganda

The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), led by self-styled spirit-medium Joseph Kony, emerged in the late 1980s among disaffected ethnic Acholis in northern Uganda. It sparked an extraordinarily violent rebellion that would kill, mutilate and kidnap thousands of civilians in four countries over nearly three decades.[fn]On the LRA, see Crisis Group Africa Reports N°157, LRA: A Regional Strategy beyond Killing Kony, 28 April 2010; N°182, The Lord’s Resistance Army: End Game?, 17 November 2011.Hide Footnote The Ugandan army fought back, but could not or would not protect civilians from the LRA’s brutal attacks, prompting some to form vigilante or self-defence groups.[fn]The Amuka Boys were established in Lango sub-region, the Frontier Guards in Kitgum district, and the Arrow Boys of Teso sub-region (formerly a district) in the east. See map of Uganda in Appendix B.Hide Footnote Among the most effective were the Arrow Boys of Teso, a sub-region of eastern Uganda.[fn]See map in Appendix B.Hide Footnote With military backing and leadership (though minimal resources), local recruits – often led by ex-rebels who had once fought the central government – took up arms against the LRA in June 2003, driving it out of Teso by the end of that year.

Their success testified to their fighting ability and community support as well as their local leaders’ ability to secure national-level backing. Operating among their home communities under close political oversight by national and local leaders and a degree of military oversight by the national army, few Arrow Boys abused their power. However, because of a flawed demobilisation process, many Arrow Boys returned home without pay or lasting state support and grew resentful of the central government.

1. The “little army within the army”

The Teso Arrow Boys emerged in June 2003 in response to LRA attacks. Unlike other groups, they did not evolve from traditional tribal networks, such as the hunter societies that would become Sierra Leone’s vigilantes. They earned their name, according to a former commander, not because they shot arrows but “because they were like an arrow, which flies silently – like it knows where it is going”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Musa Ecweru, former Arrow Boys Operational Commander, now a Member of Parliament and Minister of State for Relief, Disaster Preparedness and Refugees, Kampala, 23 January 2017.Hide Footnote Many of their leaders were former insurgents, who had honed their skills during the Uganda People’s Army (UPA) 1986-1992 uprising, as well as earlier rebellions.[fn]The Teso region had lent support to former President Milton Obote in the Bush War (1980-1986) against the National Resistance Army’s (NRA) rebellion led by Yoweri Museveni. After assuming power, Museveni remained suspicious of Teso’s political commitment to the new regime. The new army, seeking to entrench its dominance, tried to disarm militias in the area, originally formed to protect against cattle raiding from the neighbouring Karamoja region. This heavy-handed security approach and disbanding of militias – to which local communities turned for security when not offered by the government – motivated former militia members to form the Uganda People’s Army and recruit within the Teso region. Crisis Group interviews, former UPA members, Soroti and Kampala, January 2017. See also Ben Jones, “Remembering the Teso insurgency”, The Guardian, 24 February 2009.Hide Footnote “We had so many revolutions [in Uganda] that there were many ex-combatants in the villages”, said one former Arrow Boy field commander.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Aditu Abibu, Arrow Boys’ field commander, Soroti, 27 January 2017. Abibu also fought with the Uganda National Liberation Front against former President Idi Amin.Hide Footnote

After the Uganda People’s Army’s so-called Teso War ended, some ex-combatants were integrated into Anti-Stock Theft Units (ASTU) or Local Defence Units (LDU) to provide security against cattle raiders who repeatedly made sorties into Teso from the Karamoja region to the north east. Others simply returned to their villages.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote Thus the area had a pre-existing, albeit rudimentary, community defence structure. Local leaders initially reacted warily to the LRA’s arrival. Some preferred to let the group “pass through Teso unhindered”, fearing that confronting it would “endanger the lives of their people”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Robert Adiama, former Arrow Boy counter-intelligence chief, Kampala, 24 January 2017.Hide Footnote Given the brutality of the government’s counter-insurgency operations just a decade earlier and the desire to avoid further conflict in Teso, initially there was limited enthusiasm for joining hostilities on either side.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Paul Omer, former mayor of Soroti, via phone from Kampala, 30 January 2017; former Arrow Boys commanders, Soroti, January 2017.Hide Footnote

That changed when the LRA unleashed its violent campaign of child abduction in Teso; its methods convinced the community to mobilise. “We reacted as a tribe”, said the mayor of Soroti, Teso’s capital. “It was an issue of survival”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Paul Omer, former mayor of Soroti, via phone from Kampala, 30 January 2017.Hide Footnote The emerging Arrow Boy leadership argued that the community itself must take the lead in opposing the rebels as army presence in the Eastern region was thin; troops were based in urban centres, unable to respond quickly to the LRA’s guerrilla tactics.[fn]Crisis Group interview, John Eresu, Kampala, 24 January 2017. Eresu, a former Arrow Boy commander and former army officer, was MP for a Teso constituency in 2003.Hide Footnote “A snake had entered our house”, said a local official and Arrow Boy officer. “You do not wait”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Michael Bwalatum, Soroti, 29 January 2017. Bwalatum was the Arrow Boys’ administrative officer for welfare and Deputy Resident District Commissioner in Teso.Hide Footnote

Senior Teso political leaders – who notably included Musa Ecweru, a regional district commissioner, and Captain Mike Mukula, a former pilot who was then minister for health – held a meeting in early June 2003 to mobilise the community.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Musa Ecweru, Kampala, 23 January 2017. Ecweru, who left his post as a regional administrator to organise the Arrow Boys, served as the group’s operations coordinator. He previously represented the UPA in peace negotiations with the government. Since 2006, he has served as an MP for Teso and state minister for relief, disaster preparedness and refugees. Mike Mukula became the Arrow Boys’ chairman while serving as minister for health (2001-2006). He is now a successful businessman who runs, among other ventures, a private security company that employs former members of the force.Hide Footnote Radio stations called for recruits and local church networks relayed the message. The Anglican bishop of Soroti raised donations to pay volunteers. Using a few dozen arms supplied by the internal security agency, the Arrow Boys launched their first attack on 22 June, routing LRA rebels taken by surprise.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Musa Ecweru, Kampala, 23 January 2017.Hide Footnote

To survive future attacks and reprisals, Teso leaders needed to convince President Museveni to provide significant support. The decision involved risks for both sides. For the president, it implied giving weapons to former insurgents in a historically anti-government region.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Dr. Chris Dolan, Kampala, 23 January 2017. Dr. Dolan, an expert on the LRA, directs the Refugee Law Project at Makerere University.Hide Footnote For Teso politicians, it meant persuading local combatants to put aside their distrust of the army and accept its oversight.

In effect, [the Arrow Boys] formed “a little army within the army”.

Given the magnitude and immediacy of the LRA threat, however, neither side had much choice. The Uganda People’s Defence Force (the regular army) or UPDF was overstretched, lacking local intelligence, and reluctant to conduct anti-guerrilla operations in difficult terrain.[fn]On the importance of local collaboration in anti-LRA operations, see Crisis Group Africa Report N°157, LRA: A Regional Strategy Beyond Killing Kony, 28 April 2010, p. 6.Hide Footnote The Arrow Boys could not effectively protect their communities without the logistical support – especially weapons – only the army could supply. Museveni accepted the gamble, but to oversee the counter-insurgency campaign and make sure the Arrow Boys did not get out of hand he travelled regularly between Kampala and Teso.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Mike Mukula, Kampala, 20 January 2017.Hide Footnote For their part, local politicians set aside ethnic or regional resentments, assuring the government that the Arrow Boys would “assist” army troops rather than act independently. In effect, they formed “a little army within the army”.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Musa Ecweru, Kampala, 23 January 2017; civil society representative, Kampala, 19 January 2017.Hide Footnote

The government distributed roughly 7,000 rifles to the Arrow Boys, who were organised as an auxiliary force divided into twelve battalions, each under the command of an army major. The estimated total size of the force was 9,000 including some unarmed members who focused on scouting or logistics roles, among them women.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, former Arrow Boy commanders, Soroti and Kampala, January 2017.Hide Footnote Relations with the army at times were fraught. The Teso combatants chafed under the army’s “formal way of doing things” and resisted demands they speak Kiswahili, the language used by soldiers, but the collaboration was militarily effective.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Michael Bwalatum, former Arrow Boys administrative officer, Soroti, 29 January 2017.Hide Footnote The Arrow Boys proved to be a highly motivated, mobile force that took the fight to the guerrillas, pursuing them on foot into the swamps of the Lake Kyoga basin. They harried the rebels relentlessly, a former army officer said, denying them the chance to rest and resupply.[fn]Crisis Group interview, John Eresu, Kampala, 24 January 2017.Hide Footnote Because they enjoyed the trust of local communities, the Arrow Boys provided the army with up-to-date intelligence, including through a network of village churches.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Bishop (retired) Bernard Obaikal, Soroti, 30 January 2017.Hide Footnote

Within the region, the force enjoyed overwhelming support for stopping rebel killings and kidnappings. There is little evidence that members abused civilians or engaged in criminal activity. “Crimes by the Arrow Boys against the community were very rare”, a former field commander said, though he admitted that “some of the boys were a bit lawless”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Moxon Ekurit, Arrow Boy commander, Soroti, 28 January 2017.Hide Footnote Veterans of the force say discipline was closely monitored with infractions punished by their own commanders or by army courts-martial.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Moxon Ekurit and Michael Bwalatum, Soroti, 28-29 January 2017.Hide Footnote

2. Flawed demobilisation

By the end of 2003 – only six months after local leaders met to plan community defence – the Arrow Boys had forced most LRA guerrillas out of Teso.[fn]The LRA attempted to return in 2005 when the army killed a well-known commander, initially reported to be Dominic Ongwen, now on trial before the International Criminal Court. See “LRA brigadier killed in Teso”, New Vision, 5 October 2005; “Ex-child soldier Dominic Ongwen denies war crimes at ICC trial”, The Guardian, 6 December 2016.Hide Footnote The force was then gradually demobilised and the last three battalions were disbanded in 2007. Some members simply “deserted”, returning to their villages as the LRA threat declined (though a former commander said they were quickly found and returned their weapons). The majority went through a formal process, which meant relinquishing their rifles and uniforms theoretically in return for payment. A small number joined the army, police or the Local Defence Units created mainly to repel Karamojong cattle raiders. Some former Arrow Boys eventually joined the large Ugandan army contingent in the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), a highly desirable posting given its salary and demobilisation payment.[fn]“UPDF recalls 2,000 reservists for Somalia duty”, Daily Monitor, 26 November 2012.Hide Footnote But despite their military success against the LRA, few met the educational requirements (a secondary education certificate) required to join the armed forces.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Michael Bwalatum, former Arrow Boys administrative officer, Soroti, 29 January 2017.Hide Footnote

Army officers beat some of those who requested compensation and sent them back to their villages empty handed.

Although each demobilised Arrow Boy was supposed to receive 840,000 Ugandan shillings (worth almost $500 in 2007 when the demobilisation process ended), former commanders say army officers stole much of the funding earmarked for this purpose. Nor did families of those killed in action receive promised “burial support”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Robert Adiama, Kampala, 24 January 2017. Adiama wrote a report on the army’s alleged theft of demobilisation funds.Hide Footnote Instead, army officers beat some of those who requested compensation and sent them back to their villages empty handed.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Paul Omer, Mayor of Soroti, via phone from Kampala, 30 January 2017.Hide Footnote Local religious and political leaders have complained publicly about the government’s failure to offer the Arrow Boys adequate material or symbolic recognition for their service.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Bishop (retired) Bernard Obaikal, Soroti, 30 January 2017.Hide Footnote “I blame the government I serve for not rewarding [the Arrow Boys] with medals”, wrote the force’s ex-chairman, “and yet I see the government giving out medals to different groups across the country”.[fn]“Capt Mukula attacks government over Arrow Boys”, Daily Monitor, 5 January 2017.Hide Footnote

The absence of an effective demobilisation program and the government’s failure to properly acknowledge Arrow Boys’ services fuelled a strong sense of disillusionment with Museveni’s regime.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, former Arrow Boys, Kampala and Soroti, January 2017.Hide Footnote So far at least, however, this has not had a visible impact on political stability in the Teso region which has remained largely peaceful since the LRA left. (Karamojong cattle raiding also has declined due to a government disarmament operation in the region). There appears to be a broad sense that security in the region substantially improved – a point Museveni regularly stresses – and opposition political support does not appear to have coalesced around the Arrow Boys.

Although most of the rank-and-file Arrow Boys did not benefit significantly from their service, its leadership – particularly Musa Ecweru and Mike Mukula – were politically rewarded. Ecweru was promoted from regional district commissioner for Kasese in western Uganda to MP for Amuria (a Teso constituency), and also has served as state minister for disaster preparedness and refugees since 2006. Mukula was MP for Soroti municipality until 2016 and now serves as national vice chairman for the National Resistance Movement (NRM) Eastern Uganda. Ecweru reportedly also enjoys good relations with President Museveni, and campaigned on the same platform during the 2016 general election.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Aditu Abibu, Arrow Boys’ field commander, Soroti, 27 January 2017.Hide Footnote He reportedly provides money for former Arrow Boys – in particular to pay for funeral costs – even though such occasional patronage cannot compensate for the government’s failure to properly implement a demobilisation, disarmament and reintegration (DDR) program.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Aditu Abibu and Michael Bwalatum, Soroti, 27 and 29 January 2017.Hide Footnote Although the 2016 election evidenced growing anti-Museveni sentiment in the region, Arrow Boys do not appear to be a major factor in in this.[fn]Electoral Commission of Uganda, Presidential Elections 2016: District Summary Report.Hide Footnote Electoral Commission of Uganda, Presidential Elections 2016: District Summary Report (

C. Zande Arrow Boys in South Sudan

By the mid-2000s, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) largely had been pushed out of Uganda into neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Central African Republic (CAR) and what in 2011 would become South Sudan. Pursued by the Ugandan army, which worked with its neighbours’ national forces, small groups of LRA fighters attacked unprotected villages to seize supplies, kidnap new recruits and then disappear back into the jungle. In South Sudan’s Equatorias region, some ethnic Zande communities (referred to collectively as the Azande) had in 2005 formed defence forces to repel ethnic Dinka pastoralists who drove cattle onto land they considered their own.[fn]The southern third of South Sudan, bordering Uganda, DRC and CAR, is known as the Equatorias. It comprises the former states of Western, Central and Eastern Equatoria. President Salva Kiir dissolved South Sudan’s ten states in 2015, replacing them with 28 new states. Western Equatoria was divided into Gbudwe, Maridi and Amadi. See map in Appendix C.Hide Footnote They took on the name previously used in Uganda: Arrow Boys. From 2008, the threat of LRA attack spurred the growth of Arrow Boy units.

These civilian forces proved most useful for reconnaissance and early warning. Mutual distrust between the Azande and the armed forces, rooted in longstanding ethnic and political tensions, hampered their effectiveness, however. It also ultimately drew the Zande Arrow Boys into the civil war that roiled South Sudan from 2013.[fn]See Crisis Group Africa Report N°236, South Sudan’s South: Conflict in the Equatorias, 25 May 2016.Hide Footnote As the LRA threat declined, the central government’s approach to the Arrow Boys – a mix of neglect and hostility toward a group that demanded to be armed, mobilised and paid, but not subject to central government control – helped fuel their transformation from self-defence groups into rebels.

1. Filling a security vacuum

Zande areas in the far south west of the country saw some of the lowest levels of fighting during Sudan’s Second Civil War (1983-2005) and thus became a natural refuge for millions of displaced persons. Many were Bor Dinka who fled with their cattle into the Equatorias following a 1991 massacre of more than 1,000. In the 1990s, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A), the political and military group then leading the rebellion against the central government in Khartoum, captured Yambio and settled many displaced Dinka and wounded veterans in this relatively quiet backwater.

Until this period few Azande had joined the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), the rebel force, in part because they saw it as a Dinka force. Their experience after being “liberated” by the SPLA further confirmed this belief: SPLM/A members, many of whom were Dinka, overruled local leaders, preferentially allocated land to Dinka civilians and Dinka’s cattle roamed over Zande farmers’ crops.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Zande political leaders, civil society members and civilians, Juba, Addis Ababa, 2014-2016.Hide Footnote The Dinka saw themselves as civilians fleeing a brutal war that the Azande were lucky to have avoided,[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Dinka SPLM members whose families fled to the Equatorias, Juba, 2014.Hide Footnote but the Azande saw them as invaders, backed by SPLA guns. Differences in perception regarding who had fought for independence, suffered or sacrificed the most, and regarding who was entitled to what, continue to shape views of Azande, Dinka settlers and the Juba government.[fn]On the Equatorias during South Sudan’s struggle for independence, see Crisis Group Report, South Sudan’s South, op. cit., pp. 3-6.Hide Footnote

The Arrow Boys or Aparanga Aguanza[fn]Aparanga Aguanza means Arrow Boys. They are also sometimes known as the Home Guard. Other ethnic groups in the Equatorias also formed Arrow Boys, but the Azande were the most numerous. Crisis Group Report, South Sudan’s South, op. cit., p. 31.Hide Footnote first emerged as local defence forces in 2005 after the SPLM/A signed the Comprehensive Peace Accord (CPA) with the Sudanese government, creating a pathway to South Sudan’s full independence in 2011.[fn]The CPA created a semi-autonomous government based in Juba and provided for the referendum that allowed South Sudan to become fully independent in 2011. For more on divisions in South Sudan and the first Arrow Boys, see Crisis Group Report, South Sudan’s South, op. cit., pp. 9-10, 31.Hide Footnote With the war ending, the Azande – some of whom had fled to Congo or Uganda – mobilised to kick the Dinka and especially their cattle off land they regarded theirs.[fn]Adam Branch and Zachariah Cherian Mampilly, “Winning the War, but Losing the Peace? The Dilemma of SPLM/A Civil Administration and the Tasks Ahead”, The Journal of Modern African Studies, vol. 43, no. 1 (March 2005), pp. 1-20; Hélène Caux, “The Dinka head home with up to 1.5 million cattle in epic trek across South Sudan”, UNHCR, 8 December 2005.Hide Footnote

The LRA resorted to extreme violence, kidnapped civilians and forced them to fight members of their own community.

By the end of 2008, however, the Azande faced a more lethal enemy, the LRA. Following collapsed peace talks, the Ugandan army, with U.S. support, launched “Operation Lightening Thunder”, attacking LRA camps in DRC. Many LRA guerrillas escaped across the border into Western Equatoria.[fn]On Operation Lightening Thunder, see Crisis Group Africa Report N°157, LRA: A Regional Strategy Beyond Killing Kony, 28 April 2010, pp. 1-4, 12-13.Hide Footnote The LRA resorted to extreme violence, kidnapped civilians and forced them to fight members of their own community. Those who escaped often had to go through painful reconciliation processes to be welcomed back into their communities.

South Sudan’s army – still known as the SPLA – initially paid little attention to LRA guerrillas, whom they regarded as Uganda’s problem. Juba was preoccupied with asserting territorial control across the south and believed that another war with Khartoum was imminent. Although the legislature appropriated the equivalent of approximately $2 million to support the Arrow Boys, the latter say they never received it.[fn]“Conflict in Western Equatoria”, Human Security Baseline Assessment for Sudan and South Sudan, Small Arms Survey, 17 July 2016, p. 5.Hide Footnote This official neglect combined with the largely Dinka-led army’s apparent reluctance to protect their brethren deepened Zande distrust of the new SPLM-led government.[fn]Crisis Group Reports, The Lord’s Resistance Army, op. cit., p. 6; and South Sudan’s South, op. cit., p. 8.Hide Footnote

If the Zande Arrow Boys lacked significant national government support, they received help from church leaders, businessmen and Western Equatoria state officials. Two governors who were former SPLA officers – Colonel Patrick Zamoi (2005-2006) and Col. Joseph Bakosoro (2010-2015) – became important patrons of the Arrow Boys, mobilising them to defend their villages and to back Bakosoro’s gubernatorial campaign.[fn]Bakosoro, having failed to win the SPLM nomination, ran for governor in 2010 as an independent. See Crisis Group Report, South Sudan’s South, op. cit., p. 32; Crisis Group interviews, Zande politicians, Juba, 2016; Arrow Boy members, by telephone, 2015.Hide Footnote This support heightened tensions with national authorities. Relations became especially contentious between the leadership in Juba and Bakosoro, a popular Zande politician who sometimes referred to the Arrow Boys as “my” army.[fn]Crisis Group Report, South Sudan’s South, op. cit., p. 15; Crisis Group interviews, Zande intellectuals, Juba, January, February 2016; Equatorian expert, via Skype, February 2016.Hide Footnote

At the height of LRA attacks between 2008 and 2011, the government had reason to be satisfied with the Arrow Boys’ performance as a local defence force.

Still, at the height of LRA attacks between 2008 and 2011, the government had reason to be satisfied with the Arrow Boys’ performance as a local defence force. Most were only lightly armed – with hunting rifles, machetes, and sometimes bows and arrows – and thus presented no threat to central authority. But they had the advantage of mobility and surprise over their guerrilla opponents. Like local groups in Sierra Leone and Uganda, they knew the terrain, which allowed them to predict the LRA’s likely routes and to conduct night-time patrols, at times ambushing, capturing or killing LRA guerrillas. They were a trusted source of information for remote communities, both about the LRA’s whereabouts and its tactics, such as pretending to surrender to enter villages unchallenged.[fn]Crisis Group Report, LRA: A Regional Strategy, op. cit., p. 13. See also, John Norris, “Field Dispatch: The Arrow Boys of Southern Sudan”, Huffington Post, 12 May 2010. Norris was executive director of Enough, the anti-genocide project at the Center for American Progress.Hide Footnote They also provided valuable intelligence that helped security forces, particularly Uganda’s army, undertake targeted operations.

Mistrust still hampered relations with government forces, however. Reluctant to work with the SPLA, some Arrow Boys cooperated instead with the Ugandan army.[fn]Crisis Group Report, LRA: A Regional Strategy, op. cit., p. 8.Hide Footnote South Sudan’s army, in turn, was unwilling to coordinate with the Arrow Boys, though it allowed the vigilante forces to patrol in remote forested areas they could not reach due to lack of transport and communications equipment. International advisers to the U.S.-backed multinational counter-LRA forces helped bridge this divide between SPLA soldiers and Arrow Boys, providing equipment to the former and teaching them how to use information provided by the latter.[fn]Crisis Group interview, SPLA officer leading counter-LRA efforts during the period, Juba, 2015.Hide Footnote

Being an Arrow Boy was not full-time work, so most continued to farm and support their families. But they could mobilise quickly when necessary, communicating via mobile phones and, in the most remote areas, with drums.[fn]Crisis Group Report, LRA: A Regional Strategy, op. cit., p. 13, 17.Hide Footnote Much of the local population actively helped the Arrow Boys, either by donating supplies or by becoming active members: a 2013 survey in Ezo and Tambura counties found that four out of five respondents had provided them with food and half said either they or another household member had served with them.[fn]“JSRP Survey in Western Equatoria”, Justice and Security Research Programme, March 2014, pp. 34-38.Hide Footnote Because they were volunteers, deployed as needed, their numbers are hard to estimate, but according to a UN official, in 2008 each of Western Equatoria’s ten counties officially maintained approximately 2,000 Arrow Boys.[fn]UN official in Yambio, cited in “Conflict in Western Equatoria”, Small Arms Survey, op. cit., p. 6.Hide Footnote

After 2011, as the LRA threat receded, many Arrow Boys returned to full-time farming. Nonetheless, the Azande repeatedly demanded that the government formally recognise these local forces by arming, equipping and paying them. The Arrow Boys insisted on operating without national level control, however, and refused to join the army to avoid deployment outside their home region.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Western Equatoria officials, 2014-2016.Hide Footnote Although Juba rejected their demands, some Arrow Boys remained active, implementing in several areas a parallel justice system for small disputes.[fn]“JSRP survey”, op. cit., pp. 34-38.Hide Footnote The above-mentioned 2013 survey found that nearly 85 per cent of respondents trusted Arrow Boys for dispute resolution, more than those who trusted local chiefs, elders, the church or the SPLA. In 2010, the Arrow Boys once more got involved in an ethnic conflict, joining a state government-led campaign to forcibly expel nomadic Mbororo cattle herders, a violent effort that reportedly involved violations of both international and national human rights law.[fn]“Western Equatoria governor tells Ambororo pastoralists to leave Zande land”, Sudan Tribune, 8 October 2010.Hide Footnote

2. Entangled in civil war

In 2013, two years after South Sudan’s independence, civil war broke out again, this time between forces aligned with President Salva Kiir (a Dinka) and those associated with then-Vice President Riek Machar (a Nuer). The Azande initially did not get involved in the dispute, but the conflict revived old resentments. Violence in predominantly Dinka areas once more displaced cattle herders into Western Equatoria. As tensions grew and tit-for-tat violence escalated, the Azande perceived the government as supporting the Dinka. Juba, meanwhile, interpreted the Azande’s lacklustre response to its appeal for SPLA recruits as disloyalty. It also distrusted the region’s popular governor, Bakosoro, the Arrow Boy patron, who continued to use the Arrow Boys to further his own political goals. The situation came to a head in September 2015 when Kiir removed Bakosoro from office and the Arrow Boys entered into open rebellion.

Despite being motivated by essentially local grievances, the Arrow Boys inexorably were drawn into the civil war: like the Kamajors in Sierra Leone, they went on the offensive, only in this case against government troops. Most either joined the insurgent Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army-In Opposition or formed their own rebel groups, while the remainder persisted essentially as local forces dedicated to protecting their communities. A series of battlefield losses led many Arrow Boys to disperse; their large-scale rebellion effectively collapsed. The Arrow Boys’ local support also eroded, both because the SPLA retaliated by abusing Zande civilians and because groups calling themselves Arrow Boys began to operate as criminal gangs, robbing, attacking and raping civilians.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Western Equatoria church leaders, Juba, 2015-2017.Hide Footnote

In mid-2017, some Arrow Boys still were at war and ambushed government vehicles or blocked roads in forested areas. Yet most of Zandeland was in a “negative peace”: there was little fighting but the conflict remained unresolved. One large Arrow Boy group signed a peace agreement with Juba but it remained unimplemented. Many Arrow Boys are returning to their communities where they encounter a lukewarm welcome. Such is the extent of their loss of status that churches in some communities are organising reconciliation processes for returned Arrow Boys akin to those used for LRA escapees.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Western Equatoria church leaders, Juba, 2016-2017.Hide Footnote

D. Nigeria’s Civilian Joint Task Force

The radical Islamist movement known as Boko Haram launched its insurgency in 2009 from the city of Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state in north-eastern Nigeria. From there it spread to the border areas of Chad, Niger and Cameroon. Unemployed urban youths made up most of the original movement, led by a charismatic young preacher named Mohammed Yusuf, who rejected secular authority and sought to establish a caliphate.[fn]Crisis Group Africa Report N°168, Northern Nigeria: Background to Conflict, p. 18.Hide Footnote A brutal 2009 crackdown by Nigeria’s security forces in Maiduguri – including Yusuf’s death while in police custody – drove the movement underground, fuelling an insurgency that in time would spread throughout the Lake Chad basin.[fn]Crisis Group Africa Report N°216, Curbing Violence in Nigeria (II): The Boko Haram Insurgency, 3 April 2014, pp. 7-14.Hide Footnote The group’s tactics have varied over time and place; it has terrorised the region with both suicide bombings in larger cities – sometimes well beyond the north east and up to the federal capital, Abuja – and guerrilla attacks on rural towns and villages, and has conducted mass abductions of youths and women, including schoolgirls.[fn]Crisis Group Africa Report N°242, Nigeria: Women and the Boko Haram Insurgency, 5 December 2016, p. 7. “‘Our Job is to Shoot, Slaughter and Kill’: Boko Haram’s Reign of Terror in North East Nigeria”, Amnesty International, 14 April 2015.Hide Footnote In response, citizens organised vigilante groups to protect themselves both from Boko Haram and the government’s often brutal counter-insurgency campaigns. While these groups have helped the police and military launch more targeted, effective operations, they also at times abused their authority.

1. From vigilantes to civilian task force

After 2009, Boko Haram attacked security forces as well as a wide range of civilian targets, including clerics, local politicians, neighbourhood chiefs and students attending secular, state-run schools.[fn]On the escalation and spread of Boko Haram attacks in north-eastern Nigeria see Crisis Group Report, Curbing Violence, op. cit., pp. 14-18.Hide Footnote In early 2013, according to local accounts, several residents decided that citizens of Maiduguri should organise to defend themselves.[fn]See, for example, “Nigeria: Civilian JTF – Unsung Heroes of the Boko Haram War”, This Day, 4 October 2015.Hide Footnote They started by seeking out, attacking and killing Boko Haram members. By June of that year, roughly 500 vigilantes were manning checkpoints, armed only with sticks and machetes, to spot and eliminate Boko Haram members moving about in, or trying to escape from, Maiduguri. They called themselves the Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF), a name chosen to suggest they were a counterpart to the government’s Joint Task Force (JTF) of army, air force, police and other security units assigned to fight Boko Haram in Borno state.[fn]The JTF was replaced in August 2013 by the army’s newly created 7th infantry division.Hide Footnote

The vigilantes were protecting themselves from a dual threat: both from Boko Haram and from government security forces.

The vigilantes were protecting themselves from a dual threat: both from Boko Haram and from government security forces, which were inflicting collective punishment on communities suspected of harbouring militants, sometimes setting fire to houses and shops or randomly arresting – and in some instances, executing – passers-by.[fn]“Spiralling Violence: Boko Haram Attacks and Security Force Abuses in Nigeria”, Human Rights Watch, 2012, p. 59.Hide Footnote Citizens of Maiduguri also may have hoped to ease the state of emergency imposed in May 2013, which included suspension of phone services, a measure that largely crippled commerce and communication across the region.[fn]Crisis Group Africa Report N°244, Watchmen of Lake Chad: Vigilante Groups Fighting Boko Haram, 23 February 2017, pp. 4-5.Hide Footnote

Soon after its emergence, security services and civilian authorities became closely involved in the Civilian Joint Task Force’s organisation, management and operations. The army-led Joint Task Force quickly recognised the vigilantes’ potential. With the help of local and traditional authorities, it organised them according to its own command structure, establishing a CJTF unit for each of Maiduguri’s ten security sectors. Joint Task Force officers helped select vigilante leaders and Borno state officials became involved in management roles. Beginning in September 2013, the state government formally incorporated the CJTF under the Borno Youths Empowerment Scheme (BOYES) and selected around 1,850 young men – a small portion of total CJTF membership – for basic combat training.[fn]The government announced plans to train up to 6,000 young men but then scaled back, apparently concerned about training so many potentially uncontrollable people. Crisis Group interviews, CJTF leaders and BOYES members, Maiduguri, 18 October 2016, January 2017.Hide Footnote The state gave them uniforms, cars, identification documents and a stipend; the army subsequently provided standard military training to some 200 additional members to create a “CJTF Special Force” for front-line operations. Those selected for military training went through a vetting process, including background checks and medical screening.[fn]For more on BOYES, see Crisis Group Africa Report, Watchmen, op. cit., pp. 9-10.Hide Footnote Usually only sector commanders carried modern weapons, although the army provided members with assault rifles for specific operations.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, CJTF leader, Adamawa, 31 October 2016; CJTF, Maiduguri, January 2017.Hide Footnote

In mid-2013, CJTF members from Maiduguri began accompanying the army outside the city, working with them to form units in locations that had been under attack or recovered from Boko Haram. Most rural units had only traditional weapons, such as spears, bows and arrows or locally manufactured shotguns. The force also spread to other north-eastern states. In Adamawa state, the Kanuri minority, mostly traders in the state capital, Yola, formed its own 300-man CJTF in March 2013.[fn]Because many Boko Haram leaders are Kanuri, a large ethnic group living throughout the Lake Chad basin, this community frequently is suspected of supporting the insurgents.Hide Footnote When in late 2014 Boko Haram threatened Yola, hunter brotherhoods from various communities and ethnicities mobilised in response and were strongly supported by state authorities and local elites.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, state government officials and hunters’ association leader, Yola, November 2016.Hide Footnote

Like other civilian defence groups, these units carried out intelligence and surveillance missions, patrolled roads and manned checkpoints. Their local knowledge allowed them to identify and vet newcomers spotted in public spaces vulnerable to attack, such as mosques and markets.[fn]Crisis Group Report, Watchmen, op. cit., pp. 9-10.Hide Footnote They monitored and provided security for communities displaced by the conflict, including the almost two million people in IDP camps in north-eastern Nigeria.[fn]1.9 million people remained internally displaced in northern Nigeria in June 2017 and over 200,000 had been forced to flee to Cameroon, Chad and Niger. UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (www.unocha.org/nigeria/about-ocha-nigeria/about-crisis).Hide Footnote Women have participated in patrols and, occasionally, combat. They also are used to search other women, a job that is especially important given cultural sensitivities about men searching women and Boko Haram’s use of women both as fighters and suicide bombers.[fn]On women in the insurgency and the CJTF, see Crisis Group Africa Report N°242, Nigeria: Women and the Boko Haram Insurgency, 5 December 2016.Hide Footnote

But members of the CJTF have gone further. They have acted as police auxiliaries, arresting suspects and participating in interrogations. The military at times deployed them in long-distance operations, mixing vigilantes familiar with local conditions and outsiders. CJTF members can remain in liberated towns to support local civilian forces. Authorities occasionally used the CJTF for autonomous operations, such as patrolling corridors used by Boko Haram to attack villages in Chibok.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, CJTF, Maiduguri, January 2017.Hide Footnote

2. Mixed record

Benefits of these citizens’ task forces are manifold. Their knowledge of local languages and terrain, both physical and social, helps security forces better target their operations. Because local civilians have a “better sense of the normal and the abnormal”, they can detect threats, such as potential suicide bombers.[fn]Crisis Group interview, security expert, Maiduguri, 15 January 2017.Hide Footnote They can serve as trusted links between security forces and locals. Affiliation with the CJTF can also protect its members from the army and police.

But dangers exist for both task force members and their communities. In Borno state, where the large majority of CJTF casualties have been recorded, 680 CJTF members were killed between 2014 and mid-2017.[fn]‘‘Boko Haram kills 680 Civilian JTF members in three years’’, Premium Times, 9 July 2017.Hide Footnote Cities and towns that formed citizen security groups also paid a price, as Boko Haram targeted traditional chiefs and other CJTF supporters. In June 2013, the group declared “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. Boko Haram for a while set up roadblocks where it executed any male traveller from Maiduguri, to punish the city. Crisis Group interview, Maiduguri, January 2017.Hide Footnote Casualties peaked in 2013-2014, due largely to such retribution.[fn]For examples of such reprisals, see “Boko Haram weekend killing spree leaves at least 40 dead in Borno villages”, Information Nigeria, 29 July 2013; “Au Nigeria, ‘Boko Haram élimine des villages entiers suspectés d’avoir collaborate avec le pouvoir’”, Le Monde, 18 March 2014; “Boko Haram suicide bomber attack home of Civilian JTF commander”, Sahara Reporters, 25 January 2017.Hide Footnote

There are reports of vigilantes exploiting their privileged status and relative impunity for criminal purposes.

Some task force members also have exploited their positions for revenge and profit. Few CJTF members receive a stipend; most depend on haphazard support from local authorities, politicians or business people. Others reportedly share with security forces the spoils captured from Boko Haram or receive a portion of the aid provided to IDP camps.[fn]Crisis Group Report, Watchmen, op. cit., p. 12.Hide Footnote There are reports of vigilantes exploiting their privileged status and relative impunity for criminal purposes, including small-scale drug trafficking and resale of stolen goods. Other activities are akin to protection rackets, such as when vigilantes request “donations” at checkpoints or impose a form of taxation on local communities.

Even more troubling are reports of CJTF atrocities. Particularly during their early years and in the heat of the fight to expel Boko Haram from Maiduguri, vigilantes engaged in summary executions, often in collusion with the military. The CJTF reportedly burned alive several Boko Haram suspects in 2013. In one of the most notorious cases, task force members and soldiers rounded up hundreds of prisoners who had escaped from a military detention centre in Maiduguri before killing them. Vigilantes in a town in southern Borno reportedly paraded with the heads of 40 alleged Boko Haram militants on pikes.[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

Over the long run, as the threat from Boko Haram declines, the political risk posed by the CJTF could well increase. Some of its leaders make clear they expect to be rewarded with jobs or other compensation. As a federal government response, about 250 CJTF members were absorbed into the army in 2016.[fn]‘‘250 former Civilian-JTF members join Nigerian Army’’, Premium Times, 22 July 2016.Hide Footnote Another 120 were recruited by the domestic intelligence agency, Department of State Services, while 40 were enlisted by the air force.[fn]Figures provided by CJTF’s legal adviser, Jibril Gunda, at Summit on Security and Governance in the North-East, organised by CLEEN Foundation, Nigeria Stabilisation and Reconciliation Program (NSRP) and Ford Foundation, Gombe, Gombe state, 29 June 2015.Hide Footnote More recently, in May 2017, Labour Minister Chris Ngige said the federal government plans to train CJTF members in various vocational skills at the North-East Zone Skills Upgrading Training Centre in Bauchi, as reward for fighting Boko Haram.[fn]‘‘FG to compensate Civilian JTF for role in fighting insurgency’’, PM News, 23 May 2017.Hide Footnote

As the threat from Boko Haram declines, the political risk posed by the CJTF could well increase.

The Borno Youths Empowerment Scheme program offers professional training to the CJTF, but it benefits only a fraction of the whole group, estimated to number between 15,000 and 20,000 in Borno state alone.[fn]Estimating the size of the CJTF’s membership is difficult due to irregular recruitment and demobilisation. In mid-2014, CJTF leaders claimed to have recruited 45,000 members. In late 2016, they said between 22,000 and 26,000 members remained and, in January 2017, 15,000. Crisis Group interviews, CJTF leaders, Maiduguri, October 2016 and January 2017; “Nigeria – the community turns against Boko Haram”, IRIN, 11 August 2014.Hide Footnote The Borno State Vigilante and Youth Empowerment Agency Law approved in May 2015 is supposed to facilitate job creation for youth, particularly targeting CJTF members. And the governor of Borno has promised to provide about 20,000 jobs to former task force members.[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 So far, these programs and promises have not had much success. Should they not materialise, Nigeria may be left with another angry armed group in the troubled north east. Some CJTF members allegedly now work for state politicians, who are known to employ thugs to attack opponents. Others may move further into extortion, drug trafficking and other organised criminal activity.

III. Lessons from the Past

Vigilante groups in violent conflict pose a dilemma: they can protect civilians and help regular forces overcome deadly insurgent groups but also risk attacking rival communities or preying on towns and villages they are supposed to protect. In the worst cases – the Kamajors of Sierra Leone or the Arrow Boys of South Sudan – local vigilante groups can end up as powerful ethnic militias or outright insurgents that help drag the country further into civil war.

This risk is inherent to the circumstances in which vigilantes are most likely to emerge – where weak states cannot on their own confront armed groups. Insofar as vigilante groups tend to form within local communities, members typically share the same ethnic or political identity, collective interests and threat perceptions. As a result, they are prone to have agendas that diverge from that of the central state or even bring them into confrontation with it. States too weak to protect communities from insurgents more often than not will be too weak to prevent vigilantes from using their power to pursue those agendas or abusing civilians.

This outcome is not preordained. As the case studies suggest, certain factors and behaviour by central governments can make such an evolution more or less likely.

A. Guarding against Mission Creep

Whether vigilante groups adhere to their original community protection and counter-insurgency roles or morph into ethnic militias and insurgent groups hinges in large part on local leaders’ agendas and relative autonomy from – or alignment with – national governments. To ward against vigilantes veering dangerously away from their original purpose, national governments would do well to engage local leaders with influence over vigilantes as they emerge, including traditional and religious authorities and business elite, with the aim of settling on finite, mutually acceptable objectives within an overarching national counter-insurgency strategy. Central states need to persuade vigilante leaders that adhering to these goals will benefit them and their communities, both through immediate security gains and further down the line in the post-conflict political settlement.

The contrasting approaches of governments in Uganda and South Sudan and their outcomes illustrate the need for this close political engagement. The Teso Arrow Boys of Uganda stand out by and large for having remained focused on their initial objective: protecting communities from the LRA and expelling insurgents from their area. They only diverged from this mission in fending off cattle raids by neighbouring Karamojong. This outcome stemmed largely from the willingness of both Museveni’s government and Teso leaders to agree on the Arrow Boys’ role within the broader counter-LRA campaign and how they would work with the national army. Museveni’s government and army were keen to restrict Arrow Boys’ mandate and operations and Teso politicians and other local leaders saw no advantage in turning the Arrow Boys into a new rebel group, despite lingering anti-Museveni sentiment in the area. Instead they sought political gain for themselves and their constituencies by nurturing relationships with Museveni and securing influential positions within his regime.

The [Teso Arrow Boys of Uganda] achieved their narrowly circumscribed objectives in short order and demobilised in the following few years.

With the army and other vigilante groups confronting the LRA elsewhere, the Teso Arrow Boys were not deployed beyond their region. Within Teso, governance systems were well established, so the Arrow Boys did not have the opportunity to expand their mandate into policing or dispute resolution roles. Thus, under strong local and national political oversight, with sufficient but cautious military support and significant local legitimacy, the Arrow Boys achieved their narrowly circumscribed objectives in short order and demobilised in the following few years.

In South Sudan, in contrast, ethno-political rivalry between the Dinka and the Azande meant the government treated the Arrow Boys with neglect and, eventually, hostility. Feeling abandoned by the central state and responding to community demands, the local forces diversified and expanded their security and governance roles, entrenching their positions of authority in local communities, and later siding with rebel factions against perceived Dinka aggression.

The government, which considered the LRA threat essentially Uganda’s problem, never fully backed the Arrow Boys, politically or militarily. This frustrated the Zande community and politicians, who unsuccessfully lobbied the government to arm and equip them, much like regular soldiers, even as they insisted on remaining independent. Largely free from national political oversight and endorsed by local traditional and religious leaders, the Arrow Boys expanded their roles and became increasingly autonomous of central state authority. They mobilised against Mbororo cattle herders and resolved local disputes, thus further establishing themselves as providers of security and governance. When a new influx of Dinka herders threatened Zande livelihoods with the backing of government forces, the Azande saw the soldiers as invaders and aligned themselves with pre-existing rebel groups.

Central governments keen to avoid the South Sudan scenario should strive to set vigilantes’ operations within a broader political bargain with local leaders that offers incentives for both sides to restrict vigilantes’ mandate. Through early and persistent engagement with vigilante representatives and influential community leaders such as religious figures and businesspeople, central states should aim to persuade vigilante leaders that they can best serve their individual and community interests by aligning vigilantes’ objectives with the state’s overall counter-insurgency strategy. Close oversight by national and local political leaders throughout the vigilantes’ mobilisation is critical to ensure they remain committed to mutually acceptable objectives. This also will make it possible to reassess the scope and intensity of vigilantes’ activities as the insurgency evolves.

In this context, international donors and partners would be best served by working with state authorities, helping them manage relations with vigilante groups, cautioning against the pitfalls of neglect, counterproductive repression and unfettered support. Likewise, they should avoid providing direct support to vigilantes, lest they weaken national authorities’ bargaining position.

B. Curbing Abuses

As the cases suggest, vigilante groups more often than not are guilty of committing egregious abuses, preying on civilians and becoming involved in illicit activities.[fn]This trend is not exclusive to sub-Saharan Africa. In Libya, Crisis Group found that the internationally-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) has relied on local non-state armed groups in Tripoli for its own security, including the Rada Force, Tripoli Revolutionaries Brigade and Ghnewa Brigade. It also has sought to co-opt local armed groups into the coast guard and border guards. The GNA is struggling to control such groups, which benefit from its resources and legal cover. GNA recognition has emboldened them and encouraged their involvement in abuses, including kidnappings, arbitrary detentions and summary executions as well as illicit economic activity. In August 2017, the Tripoli Revolutionaries Brigade arrested and detained a former prime minister. See “Final report of the Panel of Experts on Libya established pursuant to resolution 1973 (2011)”, S/2017/466, 1 June 2017, pp. 2, 9, 41-42. “Libya’s coast guard abuses migrants despite E.U. funding and training”, Washington Post, 11 July 2017. In Algeria, to counter Islamist insurgents in the country’s civil war (1991-2002) the government from 1995 on backed local civilian forces, known as gardes communales or patriotes, but did not prevent them from committing deliberate and arbitrary killings. See “Algeria – Fear and Silence: A Hidden Human Rights Crisis”, Amnesty International, November 1996, pp. 17-19. In Colombia, between 1997 and 2006 the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia, a national umbrella organisation for multiple local defence groups, while claiming to protect civilians from guerrillas, took territorial control and in places stepped into governance roles. Groups were responsible for major human rights violations and fuelled the cocaine trade. Crisis Group Latin America Reports N°11, War and Drugs in Colombia, 27 January 2005, pp. 13-16; and N°20, Colombia’s New Armed Groups, 10 May 2007, pp. 3-5.Hide Footnote Contrasting dynamics in Uganda and Sierra Leone offer insights into what factors and policies enable or reduce such tendencies. The Arrow Boys in Teso region committed limited abuses, deterred by the threat of internal discipline, military court-martial and shaming by their home communities. In contrast, the central government in Sierra Leone lent the vigilante group unguarded support, exerting insufficient oversight to stop tens of thousands of fighters from wreaking havoc among civilian communities.

Kamajors treated suspected rebel sympathisers and other civilians who resisted them brutally. This sense of being above the law stemmed largely from the Kamajors’ self-identification as defenders not just of Mendes in the south and east, but also of the central state which was then ruled by the Mende-dominated Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP). The government fostered this sense of national responsibility as it used the Kamajors to defend against the rebels and, with Mende figures sympathetic to the Kamajors at the heart of state structures (the deputy defence minister and vice president were early instigators), it maintained the flow of resources. In short, the Kamajors came to view themselves – and to be treated as – a substitute for the mostly defunct national army.

With the state administration in tatters, the embattled government exerted scant political or military oversight and enjoyed little control. The Kamajors’ military-type hierarchy was more honorific than functional and ranks were often self-assigned. Operational authority, therefore, fell mostly in the hands of battlefield commanders who, in the name of defending the elected government, accumulated weapons, often directed their forces for personal gain and failed to prevent the rank and file from committing atrocities. Operating under the Civil Defence Forces’ national mandate, Kamajor units left their home areas to fight in other regions where they could commit abuses with less fear of being identified.

While the Kamajors remained loyal to the regime out of ethnic solidarity, local commanders and foot soldiers used extreme violence in pursuit of self-serving agendas.

National leaders also struggled to control the Kamajors because of their large numbers. The Teso Arrow Boys peaked at about 9,000 members, mobilised for only four years. In contrast, the Kamajors, which began to organise in the early 1990s, mushroomed with state encouragement to over 30,000 members by war’s end in 2002. Economic incentives and social pressures fuelled largely unregulated recruitment. Members gained access to state resources and weapons, while some made a business of administering initiation rites. The Kamajors’ social status as community defenders also made it unacceptable in some places for men not to join. An international NGO worker who spent time with the Kamajors during the war said membership was “a job opportunity” in an organisation akin to “a social movement”.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, international NGO worker, 5 January 2017.Hide Footnote Government supplies, though significant, were still not enough for such a large number of combatants, who looted and extorted money from civilians. Thus, while the Kamajors remained loyal to the regime out of ethnic solidarity, local commanders and foot soldiers used extreme violence in pursuit of self-serving agendas.

To avoid this turn of events, central governments, with international support, can take several mitigating measures. Building on a political foundation of shared counter-insurgency goals, national leaders should encourage vigilante leaders and local community representatives to vet recruits more carefully. The larger the number of such recruits, the harder they are to control; recruitment thus could be capped at levels commensurate with state and local leaders’ capacity to oversee their activities.

Central governments could go so far as to insist that vigilantes operate only in their home areas – or, if displaced, among their own communities –, thereby reducing their contact with other ethnic groups and deterring abuses. Offenders will be more easily identified and shamed among their own people, facing potentially long-lasting consequences. As a further preventive measure, state authorities should, where possible, supply and equip vigilantes, reducing the risk that they might feel justified taking provisions and equipment by force from civilians or international aid organisations.

To hold offenders to account, central governments should advise vigilante and local leaders to establish their own codes of conduct and publicise them widely, including via radio. They also should establish their own disciplinary bodies to enforce rules of behaviour. In general, internal disciplinary processes are preferable to punishment by the national army, which risks opening rifts between vigilantes and regular soldiers. Central states and international partners also should encourage civil society and non-governmental organisations to conduct independent reporting on abuses and publicise their findings.

C. Balancing Security and Preservation of Central State Authority

Even if governments and donors take steps to ward against mission creep and abuses, empowering vigilantes has the potential of undermining central authority and tipping the power balance toward non-state armed actors. This is all the more likely when outside parties work in tandem with such actors, thereby affording them international legitimacy. In such cases, particularly if those outside parties act without the state’s consent, they risk prioritising short-term expediency over long-term state-building goals.[fn]In the Middle East in particular, Western powers have backed non-state armed groups fighting jihadist groups, at times undermining state unity and planting the seeds of new rifts. This was the case in Iraq, as illustrated below. See also Crisis Group Middle East Report N°74, Iraq after the Surge I: The New Sunni Landscape, 30 April 2008, p. ii. Likewise, U.S. support for the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces against the Islamic State (ISIS) in northern Syria presents its own sets of risks due to tensions with local Arab communities and with Turkey; in this instance, the Kurdish faction’s agenda – which goes beyond defeating ISIS – puts them at odds with domestic and foreign constituencies. It also could put them at odds with the regime. See Crisis Group Middle East Briefing N°53, Fighting ISIS: The Road to and beyond Raqqa, 28 April 2017; “The U.S. joins the Turkey-PKK fight in northern Syria”, Crisis Group op-ed, Middle East Eye, 12 May 2017.Hide Footnote For that reason, traditional counter-insurgency models often cast supporting vigilantes as a policy of last resort because it runs counter to the state’s monopoly over the legitimate use of violence.[fn]Critics of U.S. support for Sunni tribal armed groups in Iraq argued the strategy fomented “tribalism, warlordism, and sectarianism” and put short-term security gains above the country’s long-term stability and unity. See Steven Simon, “The Price of the Surge”, Foreign Affairs, May/June 2008. Counter-insurgency theorists have warned against entering short-term alliances with local forces “especially if [the latter] are likely to behave badly, change sides, or continue to call in coalition support” after the end of direct cooperation. See John Mackinlay and Alison Al-Baddawy, “Rethinking Counterinsurgency”, RAND Corporation, 2008, p. 59.Hide Footnote

Yet the proliferation of non-state armed actors in the context of deficient state security forces has forced a re-evaluation. As academic experts have noted, the notion of a state monopoly over the use of force often is divorced from reality; the truth is closer to an oligopoly.[fn]See Ariel Ahram, “Learning to live with militias: Toward a critical policy on state frailty”, Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding, vol. 5, no. 2, June 2011.Hide Footnote The challenge is how to manage such an arrangement when the state faces hostile insurgent groups and cannot provide security without relying on allied militias or where outside parties feel threatened by a terrorist-qua-insurgent group and therefore subcontract security duties to an allied militia group. In such instances, the urgent need to address the security menace can take precedence over the longer-term goal of state-building. A political order undergirded by a network of non-state actors and local strongmen hardly is optimal for building effective national institutions. But in fragile states facing civil conflict, such an imperfect order can be the lesser of two evils.

Governments should view partnering with vigilantes [...] as an opportunity to pursue the long-term objective of bolstering state legitimacy at the local level.

There are ways for the state to limit long-term damage, both while cooperating with vigilantes and after the insurgent threat subsides. Where possible, governments should view partnering with vigilantes not as a stop-gap or temporary alliance of convenience, but as an opportunity to pursue the long-term objective of bolstering state legitimacy at the local level. As the case studies illustrate, the state should cooperate closely with vigilante leaders and local elites in this regard, ensuring that all work together to oversee the actions of the vigilante groups, effectively manage vigilantes’ expectations and recognise their efforts.

In Uganda, Museveni turned the Teso Arrow Boys’ success to his advantage by elevating local Teso politicians into influential positions in his regime. After the LRA’s rout, they continued to represent their community’s interests so that a once hostile, potentially rebellious area had a stake in maintaining the status quo. Applying such a long-term strategic lens, governments and their partners should plan well in advance how they will manage vigilante groups after the insurgency recedes.

D. Planning for the Day After

Without a workable plan for managing vigilantes after the insurgency ends, governments face yet another risk: that vigilantes and their communities feel they have been used and abandoned. That threatens to alienate unemployed youth vulnerable to recruitment into anti-state factions, criminal gangs or radical groups. For example, because South Sudan failed to disband or formalise the Zande Arrow Boys after the LRA threat declined, they were able to join rebel ranks years later when they felt their community was threatened. As the Boko Haram threat wanes, Nigeria likewise is faced with the challenge of preventing members of the increasingly redundant Civilian Joint Task Force from turning to crime.[fn]See “Nigeria wakes up to its growing vigilante problem”, IRIN, 9 May 2017.Hide Footnote

As with other armed groups, disbanding vigilantes is likely to require a comprehensive disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) process. In Sierra Leone and Teso, DDR processes were intended to offer vigilantes incentives to return to civilian life and turn over their weapons, reducing the number of arms in circulation. But both processes fell short, leaving vigilantes and their communities bitter and mistrustful of the state. Many Kamajors felt reintegration packages hardly compensated for their sacrifices and government administrators recognised that vocational training should have been better tailored to local market needs. In Uganda, soldiers’ theft of Arrow Boys’ demobilisation money undermined whatever legitimacy gains the army had earned through relatively successful cooperation against the LRA.

To be most effective disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) initiatives should be gender-sensitive, taking into account the particular obstacles faced by female and male vigilantes.

After conflict, societies need to balance domestic and international calls for justice (by holding to account perpetrators of violence, including vigilantes) on the one hand, and calls for reconciliation to help communities confront the past and move on with their lives on the other.[fn]African countries emerging from conflict have sought, with varying degrees of success, to strike this balance. In Uganda, for instance, the 2007 Juba agreement, aimed at ending the Lord’s Resistance Army conflict, sought to prevent impunity for serious crimes and promote reconciliation by laying the groundwork for a mixture of formal and informal measures including a special division of the High Court to try atrocity crimes, local traditional justice mechanisms and amnesty provisions. Delays in implementing formal national justice and reconciliation schemes have led local communities and civil society to promote reconciliation at the local level. See Crisis Group Africa Report N°146, Northern Uganda: The Road to Peace, with or without Kony, 10 December 2008, pp. 8-11; and “Victims Fighting Impunity: Transitional Justice in the Great Lakes Region”, International Center for Transitional Justice, March 2017.Hide Footnote Key to striking a balance that reflects the priorities of affected communities is to ensure that victims have a role in designing national and local processes.[fn]Victims likely will have different opinions on justice and reconciliation that may change over time. Still, taking these opinions into account is critical to ensure legitimate and effective responses. See “Victims Fighting Impunity”, op. cit., pp. 9-17.Hide Footnote If widespread abuses have been committed on all sides, and if some combatants, including vigilantes, have been compelled to fight, affected communities might prioritise reconciliation over formal justice mechanisms. Justice and reconciliation initiatives optimally should be community-led and take account of cultural specificities.[fn]In South Sudan, communities held reconciliation ceremonies for Arrow Boys who had committed abuses in the same way as they did for former LRA members. Emilie Medeiros, “Back but not Home: Supporting the Reintegration of Former LRA Abductees into Civilian Life in Congo and South Sudan”, Conciliation Resources, August 2014, p. 5.Hide Footnote Former Kamajors who committed abuse struggled to gain social acceptance in their home areas; in the years that followed, community-level reconciliation became an essential part of their reintegration into civilian life.[fn]For many years after the war, local non-governmental organisations such as Fambul Tok (“Family Talk”) continued to help communities and former combatants reconcile perpetrators and victims (www.fambultok.org). The degree of abuse by former combatants was found to be the single greatest determinant of their acceptance or rejection by family and community members. See Jeremy Weinstein and Macartan Humphries, “Disentangling the Determinants of Successful Demobilization”, Center for Global Development, Working Paper No. 69, 2005, p. 23.Hide Footnote Donors can play a key role in providing international expertise and financial resources to help partner governments plan and implement sufficiently generous, locally-tailored disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration programs. To be most effective DDR initiatives should be gender-sensitive, taking into account the particular obstacles faced by female and male vigilantes, whether they have fought or played supporting roles, and the social stigma they may encounter as they assume family responsibilities or seek employment. Donors also could support civil society groups’ efforts to bring victims’ voices to the fore.

Governments should set realistic expectations to help mitigate the risk of alienating large numbers of unemployed former combatants.

Post-conflict management of groups that have fought on the government’s side is more challenging when they hope for rewards in the form of jobs in the security forces (as in northern Nigeria) or formalisation as an independent state-funded, entity (as in South Sudan). Governments should set realistic expectations to help mitigate the risk of alienating large numbers of unemployed former combatants.

Recruiting a significant proportion of former vigilantes into state security forces may be difficult because of their typically low education levels and large numbers.[fn]In Sierra Leone and Uganda, the armies’ educational requirements prevented many former vigilantes from joining. Crisis Group interviews, former Kamajor who joined the army, Freetown, 11 January 2017; Teso Arrow Boys’ administrative officer, Soroti, 29 January 2017.Hide Footnote But there are other roles they can play. Governments and their international backers should consider alternatives to deal with demobilised vigilante groups in a manner that minimises their discontent and, at the same time, makes the most of their local roots and, where applicable, legitimacy. For instance, former vigilantes might be retrained as unarmed community police units with the authority to gather information or even apprehend suspects. In either scenario, they would need adequate training, resources and oversight to take on these responsibilities.[fn]The viability of such initiatives depends greatly on local conditions. In Afghanistan, too little oversight and training meant that the Afghan Local Police – an experiment in semi-formal community policing supported by the U.S. – worsened security in many places. Crisis Group has argued for integrating the few effective units into the Afghan National Police and disbanding the rest. See Crisis Group Asia Report N°268, The Future of the Afghan Local Police, 4 June 2015.Hide Footnote

In most of Nigeria’s 36 states, where the largely federally-controlled security structures often fail to monitor or respond to grassroots insecurity, state governments have set up supplementary community police organisations or empowered community-based vigilantes.[fn]For instance, the Lagos Neighbourhood Safety Corps was launched in March 2017 with an initial 5,700 members; and the Niger state government legalised vigilante groups to assist the police, including by allowing them to arrest suspects even as it banned them from carrying weapons. The federal parliament is considering a bill to formally recognise the Vigilante Group of Nigeria (VGN), while the presidential adviser on the Niger Delta recently indicated plans to recruit 10,000 youths to guard petroleum pipelines. See, for example, “Ambode recruits 5,700 neighbourhood corps officials, deploys 4,554 vehicles”, Vanguard, 28 March 2017; “Niger govt okays vigilante groups for LGs”, Vanguard, 9 July 2013.Hide Footnote In the north east, civilians have a history of mistrust toward security forces, which they view as ignorant of local ways, arrogant, abusive and professionally incompetent. But CJTF members, by participating in efforts to counter Boko Haram, acted as a bridge between civilians and security forces, helping the state regain a measure of local legitimacy while protecting the local community. Giving former CJTF members a sense of purpose and responsibility in community policing roles in a close working relationship with state institutions could help prevent them from becoming a long-term security headache, and build on the positive outcomes of state-civilian security cooperation during the Boko Haram insurgency.[fn]See Crisis Group Report, Watchmen, op. cit., p. 21.Hide Footnote

IV. Conclusion

Relying on non-state armed actors to counter insurgencies might well be a necessary evil – but it ought to be a limited and finite one. The gravest dangers are posed when vigilantes pursue their own political-ethnic agenda; lack strong command and control structures, enabling battlefield commanders to promote their own interests; are largely unsupervised by either local or national authorities; or are ignored, unrecognised and cast aside once their military utility has expired. Support by an outside power against the wishes of the central state also increases the risk that vigilantes will fuel greater insecurity.

To limit the odds that vigilantes will turn from community protectors into insurgent forces, national leaders need to cooperate closely with local leaders and patrons to agree on a narrowly circumscribed mandate, geographic focus, and effective demobilisation, disarmament and reintegration. Under the best of circumstances, such an approach can do more than achieve short-term security gains. It also can help the central state forge closer ties to local communities, earning it the legitimacy needed to build longer-term peace.

Nairobi/Dakar/Brussels, 7 September 2017

Appendix A: Map of Sierra Leone

Appendix B: Map of Uganda

Appendix C: Map of South Sudan

Appendix D: Map of the Lake Chad Basin

Appendix E: Overview of the Four Cases of Vigilante Groups