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Nigeria Plan To Legalize Vigilante Groups Stirs Debate

Controversy has erupted over plans to legalize neighborhood vigilante groups in Midwestern Edo state. The state government says it's taking the step to help with crime control.

But some worry that the groups may take the law into their own hands, as they have in the southeast, where suspected criminals have been killed without trial. The Nigerian constitution provides for a federal police force to maintain law, order and security across the country. The force has branches or commands in each of 36 states.

The national police chief or Inspector General of Police, I.G. is appointed by the president. The I.G. in turn oversees the appointment of state police commissioners. Recently, some state governors have blamed the rising crime wave across the country on the lack of state police forces. They say federal police do not take orders from them. In Edo state, several communities and neighborhoods have had vigilante services for decades, independent of the government.

A resident of the Edo state capital, Benin City, Justin Imoudu supports the idea. "In my community we have all adults come out once in a week to watch the community. We come out with drums, cudgels- and stay out awake from 10 P.M. to 5 am. We try to ward off criminals from the environment". Officials of the Justice Ministry in Benin City say a new law under consideration will legalize the groups there. Ferd Orbih is a lawyer in Benin City. He says the plan could lead to abuse by authorities. Well if you look carefully at the bill, the [groups have too much power], if they are merely to maintain law and order. They have powers of arrest; they have powers to patrol the streets and villages at anytime and also at night. They say can set up security barricades and can enter and search any compound if a questionable person enters when being pursued". Chief Orbih says the vigilante groups have not been trained. And he says even if they receive training, their very existence is illegal. According to him, States can not set up police forces under the law. "I must say that this is not in consonance with rule of law and is not in consonance with the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. And all well meaning democrats must condemn what is about to be visited on the people of Edo state".

Parchal Ugbomeh is a member of the Edo state legislature, which is debating the vigilante groups bill. He says there is no cause for alarm because the legislation will pass only if it's in the interest of Edo people. "One thing about this is that a bill will come, but it can not go out the way it came in," he said. "This is why you have honorable members in the House [of assembly]. Our job is to look at the bill critically and fine tune it."

The governor of Edo state, Lucky Nosakhare Igbinedion, says the bill to legalize existing vigilante services is not an attempt to set up a state police force. He says it's meant to encourage more citizens to set up vigilante groups in Edo and to give police information to help them reduce crime. Chief Igbinedion says the vigilante services will be under police supervision at all times. He says it is all part of his effort to reduce crime in the state in order to attract foreign investors. Edo State is not alone in its effort to set up vigilante services. Other states are doing so as well. In the southeast, they are known as the Bakassi Boys. They often raid homes and public places, arresting and killing suspected criminals without trial. The Bakassi boys have also killed politicians opposed to the ruling party. In Lagos, the state government recently decided to employ the services of a vigilante group, an ethnic militia called Oodua Peoples Congress. The OPC has been assigned to inform police about criminal activity in the former federal capital.