ABUJA, Nigeria — Armed with machetes and clubs, vigilantes in Nigeria’s northeastern city of Maiduguri are setting up roadblocks and conducting house-to-house searches to aid the army’s fight against Islamist militants.
Although the military welcomes the public’s support in the battle against the Boko Haram Islamist group, human rights activists say vigilantes’ activities may worsen violence and lead to abuses against innocent civilians.
So far, vigilantes have seized more than 100 suspected insurgents in Maiduguri, the Borno state capital that has borne the brunt of Boko Haram’s violent campaign to impose Shariah law on Nigeria, according to Abubakar Malum, a leader in a group that calls itself the Civilian Joint Task Force.
“The activities of the vigilantes is a step in the right direction,” Mohammed Modu, a fish seller in the city of about 1 million, said June 25. “They seem to be more effective in capturing Boko Haram members than the soldiers.”
President Goodluck Jonathan declared emergency rule May 14 in Borno and two other states, saying militants had taken over parts of the area. The government classified Boko Haram and another Islamist group, Ansaru, which has abducted 10 expatriates in northern Nigeria, as terrorist groups and banned them.
“Where vigilantes exist, they aren’t part of the legally established law enforcement order,” Clement Nwankwo, executive director of Abuja-based Policy and Legal Advocacy Center, said June 21. “So the possibility of abuse, of people being targeted and victimized, is real.”
Boko Haram, whose name means “western education is sin (or sacrilege)” in the Hausa language, started its violent campaign to impose Shariah law in Africa’s biggest oil producer following the death in 2009 of its leader, Mohammed Yusuf. Yusuf died in police custody after he was arrested during clashes between militants and security forces. Since then it has killed thousands of people in gun and bomb attacks in the mainly Muslim north and capital, Abuja.
While the military’s air and ground assaults since May forced many militants to flee, large numbers have since regrouped, killing 24 people last month in three attacks on schools in Maiduguri and Damaturu, the Yobe state capital, about 81 miles southwest of Maiduguri.
The military’s offensive has also hit civilians.
Nigeria’s National Human Rights Commission said it received allegations that security forces have been involved in abuses, including rape, in their fight against Boko Haram.
The government’s human-rights agency cited “several credibly attested allegations” in a June 29 report that the military has carried out “summary executions, torture, arbitrary detention amounting to internment.”
Defense Headquarters spokesman Chris Olukolade in Abuja declined to comment on the report when contacted Monday by phone.
As many as 185 people were killed and more than 2,000 houses were burned down in Baga, near Lake Chad, after security forces responded to a militant attack on April 16, according to local officials and residents. The army said 30 insurgents, six civilians and a soldier were killed, and 30 houses were burned down, because of incendiaries caused by Boko Haram’s weapons.
It’s still not known exactly how many vigilante groups have formed in Maiduguri, according to Usman Majidadi, spokesman for Borno state Governor Kassim Shettima.
“As much as the youth are doing great work in fishing out the terrorists,” Majidadi said in an interview in Maiduguri, the security forces “must act fast before other youth abuse the good work currently going on.”
The combined military-police Joint Task Force in the area said in a June 30 statement that it was “monitoring, guiding and regulating the activities of the vigilant youths with a view to making them operate within the ambit of the law.”
Boko Haram has acknowledged that some residents are turning against them and has vowed to retaliate.
“We have established that youths in Borno and Yobe states are now against our cause,” a Boko Haram spokesman, who gave his name as Abu Zinnira, said in a statement e-mailed to reporters on June 18. “They have connived with security operatives and are actively supporting the government of Nigeria in its war against us. We have also resolved to fight back.”
A committee set up by Jonathan in April to draft a plan to grant amnesty to Boko Haram should exclude serious crimes committed by its fighters, Human Rights Watch said today in an e-mailed statement. At the same time, the government’s security personnel who have committed abuses in their fight against the militants must also be held responsible, the New York-based group said.
“Justice for the gravest abuses, whether by Boko Haram or security forces, is essential for victims and building long-term peace in Nigeria,” said Daniel Bekele, the rights group’s Africa director.
While Defense Ministry spokesman Olukolade said in an e- mailed statement on June 17 that suspects were being investigated properly, Shehu Sani, president of Kaduna-based rights group, Civil Rights Congress, said there was potential for abuses of those detained.
“People are being detained in police stations, in military barracks in horrible conditions,” he said. “There have been lots of cases of disappearances whereby families don’t even know where their loved ones are kept.”