Human Rights Dialogue (1994–2005): Series 2 No. 8 (Fall 2002): Public Security and Human Rights: Articles: Responding to Vigilantism

Dec 31, 2002

The transition from military dictatorship to elected civilian government in Nigeria has brought in its wake a surge in crime and disorder that threatens to undercut public support for democracy. Since the inauguration of the Obasanjo government on May 29, 1999, safety and security have become scarce commodities.

In spite of the government’s promises to tackle crime, Nigeria continues to have high rates of armed robbery, political assassinations, ethno-religious killings, and other forms of violent crime. From the Niger Delta, where restive youths fighting environmental despoliation and decades of neglect had perfected the act of abduction and hostage-taking of oil company workers, to the southwest, where ethnic militia from the Odua Peoples Congress swore to defend Obasanjo (whom they did not elect), the common language was violence in its goriest form. In the northern and eastern parts of the country, Sharia violence in Kaduna and its reprisals in Aba and Umuahia have left hundreds, if not thousands, dead. Furthermore, violent robbery and rampant theft have left Nigerians in every community feeling unsafe.

Frustrated by the inability of the police to respond adequately to their safety and security needs, citizens have resorted to self-help measures. The most controversial of these is the formation of militant vigilante groups—some of which have made lynching and torturing criminal suspects their stock in trade.

Public opinion of vigilante groups is divided. A part of the public argues that vigilante activities should be regulated and closely supervised by the national police. Another part calls for outright disbandment of vigilante groups and trial of their operatives, who take delight in judging potential offenders without trial and in administering brutal punishment—and who are undermining our progress toward democracy.

I am sympathetic with this view. Yet it is also a fact that the police alone cannot adequately protect citizens’ safety and security without the involvement of neighborhood watches, community guards (ndi nche), or even vigilante groups. Furthermore, it is doubtful that the Nigeria Police Force and justice system as presently constituted could fully enforce the disbandment of every vigilante group in the thirty-six states of Nigeria and bring their operatives to trial. Even if the police were able to outlaw vigilantism, it would be tantamount to telling inner-city communities and rural areas, often not protected by police patrols, that they have no right to organize and protect themselves against criminal attacks.

Human rights groups and policymakers must find a way to ensure both that due process is protected and that the rights of communities to organize and protect themselves are respected. The first step is to differentiate between vigilante groups that employ “mob justice” in their operations—whose modus operandi cannot be tolerated in a democratic society and which should be disbanded—and those whose activities are amenable to the rule of law and due process and that could work (and do work) under close police supervision. Many groups that promote racial discrimination, religious persecution, and state-sponsored violence operate under the guise of vigilantism. These groups not only offend sensibilities, but also violate every human rights treaty that Nigeria has ratified. One of the most enduring examples of these kinds of groups is the “Bakassi Boys,” active in the three eastern states of Abia, Anambra, and Imo. They began as an initiative of traders in Aba, but were later hijacked by state governments, which added partisan political ends to their objectives and armed them with dangerous weapons (including firearms) without police checks. The Bakassi Boys make routine public spectacles of some of the criminal suspects they capture, often parading them naked through the streets, chopping body parts into pieces, and later burning them to the cheering of crowds. These kinds of groups cannot be tolerated, and human rights groups should advocate forcefully for their disbandment.

The largest share of vigilantism in Nigeria in terms of both numbers and reach is not of this type. It is instead made up of neighborhood vigilante groups, a strong and popular force in community security, with one group on virtually every street corner in lower-income neighborhoods and rural communities throughout the country. These are the groups with which both the government and human rights groups need to engage.

The Centre for Law Enforcement Education (CLEEN) in Lagos has begun to take up the challenge. In 1999, as part of our work to promote respect for human rights and cooperation among civil society and law enforcement agencies, CLEEN began a police-community partnership program. The program, modeled after the South African Community Policing Forums, seeks to incorporate community concerns in the determination of policing priorities in Nigeria through police-community interactive forums set up to discuss common crime and disorder problems and encourage joint problem-solving approaches. The forums involve all community stakeholders, including elected councilors, divisional police and crime officers, religious leaders, district heads, women’s groups, development unions, civic associations, and other relevant interest groups.

Through this consultative process, communities in the localities where the demonstration programs are being executed have come to appreciate better the functions of the police and the limits of the powers of citizen initiatives in crime prevention and control. Before we started the program, neighborhood vigilante groups used to take crime into their own hands, brutalizing and sometimes lynching crime suspects rather than handing them over to the police. Now, with the advent of the community policing forum program, it has become routine for communities to hand suspects over to the police for investigation and prosecution. Some community members are unhappy when the police grant bail to suspects they arrest. The community policing forums can address these concerns by serving as platforms for community education on why suspects of minor offenses are released on police bail prior to arraignment in courts and, more important, by making sure the community understands that granting of bail does not mean that the suspects have been let off the hook. Furthermore, the program appears to have been a factor in the declining crime rates in the nine local government council regions in which it is operating.

To make sure vigilante groups are obeying due process procedures and the rule of law, CLEEN has proposed a process of registering them with both the local police division and the local authorities. In the process of registration, the police would screen their members to prevent criminal elements from infiltrating their ranks and would issue clear regulations to guide their involvement in crime prevention and control. The local authorities should provide those who play by the rules with such items as flashlights and batteries, raincoats, and boots. Human rights groups, for their part, would include them in their training programs.

One organization alone cannot do the job of reconnecting the police with their communities throughout Nigeria. To strengthen the effort, in 2000 CLEEN facilitated the establishment of the Network on Police Reform in Nigeria, a coalition of twenty-two organizations working on issues of police reform and crime prevention. Because of the effort of the network, this past March the new chief of police in Nigeria, Tafa Balogun, included community policing as part of his eight-point strategy of transforming the Nigeria Police Force, which the Nigerian public welcomed.

We are still in the early stages of our work and have no guarantee that there will not be a relapse––as there was in South Africa. Still, the communities that have participated in the program now know that the civil society groups of this network care about their daily confrontation with crime and fear and are working with them to develop lawful ways of channeling community energy against crime—instead of resorting to either mob justice vigilantism or armchair criticism.

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