Nigeria’s major cities were becoming a haven for criminals. State governors were blaming the high level of crime on the inefficiency of the police force – which is under the control of the federal government. But today, vigilante groups are credited with cutting crime in places like the commercial capital of Anambra state – Onitsha – in southeastern Nigeria, where residents used to retreat indoors after 6 pm for their own safety. In the southwest, authorities now depend on vigilantes linked to the militant Oodua Peoples’ Congress, or OPC. The group says it stands for greater sovereignty for the Yoruba people of southwestern Nigeria. The OPC was banned by the federal government for its role in ethnic clashes that left hundreds dead. Some local officials tolerate the group’s support in helping curb crime. But that help comes at a price: OPC members are accused of extra-judicial killings.
In eastern Nigeria, vigilantes called the Bakassi boys cooperate with authorities, who provide them with funding, vehicles and weapons. They are supposed to help authorities make arrests, but like the OPC, they sometimes kill suspects – drawing condemnation from the police and human rights groups. This month, Amnesty International condemned the behavior of the Bakassi boys – saying they’d carried out more than one thousand summary executions over the past two years. They nevertheless remain popular with the public – who appreciate the relative calm they’ve brought to city streets.
In the mostly Muslim and Hausa-speaking north of Nigeria, a group known as hisba is used to maintain law and order. Besides monitoring the streets for common criminals, hisba volunteers also help arrest those who disobey Islamic – or Sharia - laws – like drinking alcohol and or dressing immodestly. The group is accused of arresting and even whipping suspects before turning them over to the police.
Some human rights activists compare hisba to the Bakassi boys and O-P-C vigilantes. They say all are extra-legal, and should be dismantled. But the attorney-general of one northern state -- Aliyu Abubakar Sanyinna of Sokoto--- defends the involvement of hisba in fighting crime. He says they do not harass innocent civilians -- they only help by reporting criminals to the federal police.
He also rejects comparisons between Islamic law in the north and vigilantism in the east and southwest. Attorney-General Sanyinna says Sharia law and Islamic courts are sanctioned under the country’s constitution – though some of its corporal penalties have come under criticism by the federal government. By contrast, he says the constitution makes no provision for vigilante groups like the Bakassi Boys and Oodua People’s Congress: " There are no vigilante groups that impose Sharia. It is enforced in all the states in the north by law enforcement agencies, the police and not by the vigilantes or other groups. [Hisba] are only assisting in reporting criminal cases wherever they see an offense being committed -- they report to the police who are recognized by our federal law. Then the police take action by arresting and investigating. If it is a proper case where the suspect should be taken to court, the suspect is taken to court. " Some say it would be better to re-build the police force than to depend on vigilante groups.
Kunle Olajide is a politician and the assistant secretary general of the Yoruba Council of Elders. He blames past military rulers for neglecting the police: " It's part of the hangover of the military dictatorship. The military was not prepared to equip the police because of the fear the police could stand up and challenge them. So they deliberately starved police of funds and reduced them to mere security agents not security officers. But that is being corrected gradually. It will take us some time before we could get there. "
Another Nigerian says security means more than having a well-equipped police force or deploying soldiers to the streets.
Yemi Farounbi is a politician as well as the chairman of the Daily Times newspaper. He says the rise in crime is the result of the poor economy. Mr. Farounbi says it’s a dangerous situation – where tens of thousands of university graduates are mass-produced every year without employment opportunities: "If we put all the soldiers in the streets it will still not provide security, it will still not stop a dire man who has not eaten or touched one thousand naira for so many years but who’s been offered a million to kill. The temptation is there and is overwhelming."
Mr. Farounbi calls on Nigerian leaders to focus on improving the well-being of the citizens and not just on improving law enforcement: "How do we resolve the socio -economic, political problems of Nigeria? How do we fashion out a common vision of moving Nigeria forward? How do we fashion out a common goal, a common dream for building a greater and better society for Nigeria? If we are able to do this and there’s something all of us can look forward to that if we get there it will be some kind of heaven or paradise on earth. Then there will be an inclination to work harder to get at it but we don’t have that yet. It’s part of our problem."
In the meantime, as the 2003 general poll approaches, pro-democracy activists are calling on the police to curb the activities of the vigilantes. Amnesty International warns they could be manipulated by unscrupulous politicians who would use them – and their history of extra-judicial killings and intimidation to win – at all costs. In response the government has proposed legislation to ban all vigilante groups.