In northern Nigeria, vigilante groups join fight against jihadis

Civilian militias are springing up to fight the Islamist insurgency of Boko Haram in northern Nigeria. But so far the jihadist group seems undeterred. 

Sunday Alamba/AP
In this photo taken Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2013. members of a civilian vigilante group with cutlasses and clubs mount a check point on the street of Maiduguri, Nigeria. They are part of a group that has arisen here as a backlash against Boko Haram, the Islamic extremist network responsible for 1,700 deaths in Nigeria since 2010.

•A version of this post first appeared on the blog Africa in Transition. The views expressed are the author's own. 

Very little coherent information is currently coming out of the parts of northern Nigeria under a state of emergency. What information is available indicates that activity and violence continue under the cover of the media silence, though it is difficult to judge its degree.

In May, cell phones and satellite phones did not operate in the affected areas. Those services are only slowly being restoredForeign media are almost entirely absent, and domestic media appear to be highly restricted. Foreign diplomats do not travel there. Information seems to move from the Nigerian military and police Joint Task Force (JTF) to the civilian government in Abuja, and from there to the international media.

But there are numerous signs of incoherent churning. Abubakar Shekau, the leader of the group Boko Haram, earlier was reported to have been shot and deposed by his followers because he opposes the government’s offer of amnesty for his organization. However, he has now released a video reasserting his leadership and he claims responsibility for numerous recent attacks in Borno state, including those in the towns of Mallam FatoriKonduga, and Bama, that altogether have killed about 100 people.

In this latest video, Mr. Shekau claims the military is lying in their claims of success against his movement. He has also ramped up the anti-American rhetoric, alluding to Boko Haram’s readiness to move from the "near" enemy to the "far" enemy.

There are plausible suggestions in the media that the latest Boko Haram killings are reprisals against those cooperating with the security forces and the so-called “Civilian JTF" – a vigilante justice group operating against Boko Haram in the country's north – or that they target mosques and imams who have previously been critical of Boko Haram. The "Civilian JTF" is mostly unarmed civilian groups that denounce suspected Boko Haram operatives to the security services. 

While the Civilian JTF groups have the support of the government, they appear to operate as independent vigilantes. Some observers suggest that the Civilian JTF includes young men imprisoned by the security services who are offered release in return for signing up. Others suggest that they are the nucleus of private militias that Nigerian politicians often form before elections, which are due in late 2014.

Others are said to be trying to rid their communities of Boko Haram, thereby deflecting attention from the security services. Still others claim that they lost their jobs and or family and friends because of Boko Haram and fight them to restore normalcy. Of course, the Civilian JTF could include all these motivations, and others besides.

The Nigeria media recently carried an all but incoherent interview with an ex-militant who claimed that there were many groups similar to but separate from Shekau’s Boko Haram, including his own. His particular group’s focus was killing Christians, while Shekau’s victims have usually had links to the government or to critical mosques. But this militant also claims links with Iran. He also describes practices – drinking the blood of his victims to prevent being haunted by their ghosts and consumption of “spiritual water” that engenders visions – that are far from Salafi Islam and are anathema to Shekau’s Boko Haram.

It is important to keep a perspective. The “sharia” states in the north may have seventy million people, while taken altogether “Boko Haram” and similar or associated groups and cults may number only in the hundreds, though those who support or acquiesce to what they do is doubtlessly larger. Nevertheless, it is also worth remembering that the Irish Republican Army and its splinters had probably no more than four hundred active service members at the height of its 1970s and 1980s insurgency against British rule in Northern Ireland. Yet they were able to tie down substantial British military resources, and relative peace was restored only through a political process.

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