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In the Fall 2002 issue of Human Rights Dialogue, “Public Security and Human Rights,” Innocent Chukwuma is right to argue that a distinction needs to be made in our responses to different vigilante groups in Nigeria: “neighborhood watch” groups and ethnic or political vigilante groups. By working closely with the police and local communities on ways to reduce crime, Chukwuma’s organization, CLEEN, has made significant inroads. However, senior federal government and police officials are continuing to condone initiatives such as “Operation Fire-for-Fire.” This operation was launched in 2002 to deter criminals, but its main result appears to have been the extrajudicial executions of scores of alleged criminals by the police. So long as the national police force continues to resort to violent and extrajudicial means of combating crime, there is little incentive for popular self-defense groups to do otherwise.
A fundamental shift in attitude toward maintaining law and order is an essential first step in achieving a long-term solution to the security issues that plague Nigeria. The choice should not be between a situation where armed robbers kill innocent citizens and a situation where armed robbers themselves are killed unlawfully.
However, reform of the police alone will not be sufficient. Even if the police were more efficient in their attempts to catch criminals, the failings of the justice system as a whole mean that many of those arrested will either be able to bribe their way out of prison or will remain in detention for many months, even years, without trial. A disillusionment with the justice system, combined with a lack of confidence in the police, has encouraged people to take the law into their own hands.
In addition, the Nigerian government, along with other governments in the region, must urgently take steps to prevent the proliferation of weapons. There has been discussion of tightening regulations, but Nigeria—and West Africa as a whole—remains awash with small arms. Until this deadly trade is stopped, and the various armed groups are disarmed, resorting to violence is likely to remain a common way of “resolving” disputes.
CLEEN and Human Rights Watch have worked together to research this issue and have carried out joint media and advocacy work. This collaboration is an example of how national and international human rights organizations can complement each other’s efforts to draw attention to and ultimately prevent serious human rights abuses. While the local expertise, knowledge, and experience to intervene at the grassroots level lie in Nigerian organizations, international organizations can support these efforts by constantly reminding the Nigerian authorities of their domestic and international legal obligations. We also maintain a dialogue with foreign governments who have close links with Nigeria. We ensure that they have up-to-date information on the human rights situation and we encourage them to make sure that any assistance they provide, to the justice sector in particular, includes the delivery of practical human rights training to those involved in the day-to-day administration of law enforcement and justice.
In August and September of 2002, the federal government finally made moves to dismantle the Bakassi Boys’ operations in Abia and Anambra states. There is still a long way to go, but if the concerned public, both nationally and internationally, maintains pressure on the Nigerian government to address some of the broader issues outlined above, Nigerians may soon be able to live in genuine security once again.
Researcher, Africa Division
Human Rights Watch