Beyond Vigilantism: Towards Lasting Security Solutions
Beyond Vigilantism: Towards Lasting Security Solutions
Op-Ed / Africa 3 minutes

Beyond Vigilantism: Towards Lasting Security Solutions

From rising crime and herder-farmer violence to ethno-religious conflicts and an Islamist insurgency, Nigeria’s security challenges are increasingly dire. And with the federal police and other security agencies seemingly overwhelmed, communities, as well as local and state governments, have turned to vigilante groups for protection from criminal gangs and diverse armed groups.

Yet, relying on vigilantism raises several concerns and dangers.

Vigilantism is no new phenomenon in Nigeria. In pre-colonial times, communities and ethnic groups across the country had groups that defended the land, prevented crime and maintained order. Under British rule, this changed when the colonial state established the Nigeria Police Force in 1930, which mostly took over the role of policing. After independence in 1960, the federal and then regional (later state) governments maintained the colonial setup.

Since the late 1980s, however, but particularly over the last decade, rising crime and armed violence, coupled with the failure of federal security agencies to protect communities and citizens, have prompted a surge in the number of vigilante groups. These groups range from neighbourhood watches to country-wide organizations.

Given their important role in filling policing and other security gaps, which has earned them endorsement and even popularity in some parts of the country, there is little doubt that vigilante groups will remain on the scene, at least in the near future. But there are dangers to viewing them as a long-term solution to insecurity.

Despite its popularity, the reliance on vigilantes by communities and state authorities has raised some constitutional questions, with federal and state authorities disagreeing about the legal status of some of the groups.

For instance, on the establishment of the South West states’ regional security network Amotekun in 2020, the federal Attorney General and Justice Minister, Abubakar Malami declared it “unconstitutional and illegal”, arguing that states are not permitted to establish organisations parallel to the Nigeria Police Force. State governors countered that citizens have a constitutional right to self-defence and that Amotekun was perfectly legal as laws had been passed by state Houses of Assembly to create it. A year later, when the governors of the five South East states established a similar security network, Ebubeagu, the federal government kept silent. Disagreements over these groups’ legal status and operational scope are sometimes a source of friction between federal security agencies and the groups, hindering the synergy crucial to curbing insecurity.

Concerns have been raised about vigilantes’ effectiveness as a security force.

Concerns have also been raised about vigilantes’ effectiveness as a security force, as the groups are often poorly trained and equipped and lack proper supervision. Most vigilantes carry weapons that are a poor defence against insurgents and deadly criminal gangs that are armed with military-grade weapons. Some state governors have called on the federal government to lift restrictions on the use of firearms, but this is a risk in itself. Better-armed they would be, vigilantes could pose a serious danger even to their own communities. This is particularly worrying in light of the human rights violations already perpetrated by many of the groups, such as arbitrary arrests, illegal detention, torture and extrajudicial killings. These abuses result from the poor training of vigilantes, coupled with often weak or non-existent arrangements for their oversight and accountability. In addition, the emergence of ethnically exclusive groups risks eroding social ties and undermining inter-ethnic relations in some parts of the country.

Lastly, but no less important, ahead of the 2023 general elections – and even beyond – some vigilante groups could wind up captured by politicians looking for muscle with which to intimidate voters or perpetrate fraud.

With the danger vigilante groups present, state and federal governments must not view them as a long term solution to the country’s security problems. In the short term, the federal government should work hard to rebuild trust in its commitment to protecting all communities and ethnic groups countrywide and in the capacity of federal security agencies to do so, effectively. This requires, among other things, boosting the manning, funding and equipment of these agencies, but also improving both financial and human rights accountability within them.

Addressing the current deficits of vigilante groups is critical to ensuring that these groups do not aggravate the insecurity they are supposed to curb. In this regard, federal authorities should work with state governments to create a national framework that would help to improve their regulation, supervision and accountability.

Such a framework should include, at a minimum, provisions compelling all vigilante groups to register with local, state or federal governments (depending on the scope of their operations); oversight requirements; basic training standards for new recruits; a code of conduct for group members together with disciplinary mechanisms; modalities for funding and equipment; and protocols for relations between vigilantes and the police.

Beyond these immediate measures, the federal government should focus on the long-term goal of fixing the underlying issue of the shortcomings of the Nigeria Police Force. These will not be easy tasks. But by taking steps now, the federal government can shift the country away from the volatility of vigilantism toward security solutions that are not only safer but will stand the test of time.

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