Niger Delta authorities say civilian armed groups with no formal training are working with Nigerian security forces to quell a spate of violent crimes and kidnappings. Some locals say these groups can be as dangerous as the criminals they hunt.
The Niger Delta region has all of Nigeria’s oil, which comprises the vast majority of the country’s budget. With all that oil there is also a lot of money. But in this land of riches, most people live off of less than $1 a day.
The result is high crime - especially kidnappings for ransom, armed robbery and oil theft. And while security forces try to bring down the crime levels, civilian armed groups are now authorized by the government to do the job.
In Delta State, Monday Okwoserie heads about 80 groups that are composed of between 20 and 200 men each. He says armed robberies have decreased dramatically since they have been on patrol. But, he adds, kidnappings now plague wealthy Niger Delta families on a nearly daily basis.
“The latest crime now is kidnapping. We are fighting against kidnapping. We want to reduce it by all means.”
In early December, 83-year-old Kamene Okonjo, the mother of Nigeria’s finance minister and the wife of a traditional king in the Niger Delta, was abducted from her palace, prompting many people to say that no one is safe.
Gabriel Asakene, a security consultant in Delta State, says the civilian armed groups have made the streets safer in some places where security forces are overstretched.
“They are supposed to guide and protect the citizenry in that particular locality.
Actually, the role they are supposed to play is to maintain peace for that particularly place," he said. "To see that there’s no sign of robbery, thieves and the rest of them.”
He says, however, little oversight of the groups, sometimes known as bakassi, means they can act like thugs, beating up people and demanding thousands of Nigerian naira, the local currency.
“An incident that happened not that long ago in my area: Some bakassi came and arrested some group of boys and they got home and beaten up. And in the end they were instructed to be settling themselves with some 15,000, some 8,000 [Nigerian naira],” he said.
Asakene says local people often fear the bakassi, and that fear alone prevents some crimes.
Okwoserie, the Delta State head of the civilian armed groups, denies accusations that his men extort cash or beat up alleged offenders, saying arrestees are always turned in to the authorities.
Police in Delta State, home to roughly 13 percent of the people in the region, say they have arrested 450 kidnappers and rescued 80 victims in 2012, with most of the incidents taking place in the first half of the year. But analysts say when people are kidnapped, they often do not call the police because they are more likely to go free if they just pay a ransom.
Hilary Uguru contributed to this report from the Niger Delta.