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Civilians Join Fight Against Nigeria's Boko Haram

  • Anne Look

Nigerian soldiers ride on an armored personnel carrier in an area of Nigeria where an Islamic insurgency is raging, in Maiduguri, Nigeria, Aug. 8, 2013.

Nigerian soldiers ride on an armored personnel carrier in an area of Nigeria where an Islamic insurgency is raging, in Maiduguri, Nigeria, Aug. 8, 2013.

In Nigeria's northeastern Borno state, the birthplace of Boko Haram, hundreds of young men have formed units of a civilian vigilante group that now is actively working to hunt down militants alongside the military. In doing so, the vigilantes have themselves become targets.

At least 55 members of a civilian vigilante group in Borno State have been slaughtered by presumed Boko Haram militants in a series of reprisal attacks over the last month.

The most recent attack took place Friday outside the town of Monguno. Suspected Boko Haram militants dressed in army uniforms ambushed and killed at least 24 of the civilian vigilantes, who were heading out on a mission.

The vigilante group is called the Civilian JTF. It is a machete- and stick-wielding freelance version of the military JTF - or Joint Task Force - that has struggled to put down the radical Islamist insurgency that has been raging in northern Nigeria since 2009.

Baba Garba Chajo helped form the Civilian JTF this June. He said their job is help the military, and that includes "hunting down and arresting" militants.

"In the past we were at the receiving end of the Boko Haram, but now we are the ones sending them on the run. We no longer fear Boko Haram because we have conquered our fears. And we have all sworn by the holy Quran to justly pursue our duties without recourse to worldly gains," said Chajo.

That's not to say there haven't been problems. He said they had to "get soldiers to shoot dead" several members of the vigilante group who were looting and attacking people in one village, something that he said is "worse than Boko Haram."

The 35-year-old is a mechanic by trade, but he now spends his day and evenings driving the streets of Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State, searching for Boko Haram. He pays for the gas himself and said he is ready for "sacrifice."

"We are not scared of death, because you only die once," he said. "If we just fold our arms and stand by and watch in fear, the Boko Haram would eventually come out to kill us anyways. So why do we have to entertain fear?"

Many locals are fed up with the insurgency and applaud the efforts of the Civilian JTF. But analysts say the vigilantes mark a worrying devolution of the crisis.

The military encourages the Civilian JTF and provides them with protection details for their missions, but it has stopped short of giving them guns. The thinking is that locals know the communities and are better able to spot and track down militants.

Military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Sagir Musa said the Civilian JTF has been key to the ongoing three-month-long offensive that he said is helping to turn the tide against Boko Haram, despite continued militant attacks against civilians.

"We are being supported by vigilante groups so the whole thing is becoming too tight for terrorists. They are not happy. They don't even have liberty to move freely as they used to do," said Musa.

Others aren't so sure, though. The military has restricted access to the frontline and cell phone communications have been cut in much of the northeast. It's hard to independently measure progress on the ground.

In addition, there are concerns that backing the youth vigilante group will just open another Pandora's box.

Shehu Sani, head of the Kaduna-based Civil Rights Congress of Nigeria, said the military is "abdicating its responsibility" to these untrained and outgunned youth groups. "It is also clear that these vigilante groups are engaged in gross human rights violations by raiding, attacking and arresting people on suspicion of being members of the Boko Haram group. These people, they will someday grow to be another monster that the Nigerian state has to confront."

Sani said backing these youth militias only escalates the conflict, which already has killed more than 3,000 people, and has sown fear across northeast Nigeria.

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