Gun-toting men greet visitors to Gombi, in Nigeria’s Adamawa state. That’s not an unusual sight in Nigeria’s northeast. But the weapons these men use are mostly old-fashioned rifles. They don’t wear uniforms, but some do have amulets under their shirts to protect them in battle.
Vigilantes have long provided security in Gombi. But when Boko Haram overran the town last November, they turned their guns, bows and knives against the insurgents, said Babuka Jimeta, a vigilante commander.
“Boko Haram is a new group," he said. "Before, we didn't know them. But we usually heard that they would attack this village, sack that village, do this, do that. We didn't know what they wanted. We didn't know that they attack any religion. We cannot sit down at home and hold down our arms and leave them to do their atrocities.”
In its more than five-year quest to establish Sharia across Nigeria’s northeast, Boko Haram has sacked many towns and villages like Gombi. The damage in Gombi is typical: Shops were burned, and churches were destroyed. Locals said the military and vigilantes pushed the insurgents out of town shortly after they occupied it.
Vigilante Adamu Mohammed said he and his fighters have advantages over Nigeria’s military, which has repeatedly failed to stop the insurgents from overrunning population centers.
“Whatever they do in the city, we will just follow them to the bush and defeat them," he said. "The military only knows how to fight in the city, but they don’t know how to fight in the bush.”
Alkasim Abdulkadir, a freelance journalist and security analyst, said vigilante groups formed in the northeast in the 1990s as a way to address rising banditry. In rural areas like Gombi, many were made up of hunters, who wear amulets or jackets that they believe can stop bullets. But Abdulkadir said their most important advantage is that they are fighting Boko Haram on their own turf.
“One edge they have over the military is because they are local residents," he said. "They identify Boko Haram insurgents upon seeing them, which is something a soldier does not have the capability to readily do, because most of the soldiers are from other parts of the country.”
Nigerians will vote for a new president in an election that was recently rescheduled for March 28. The vigilantes in Gombi say they can keep the town safe during the election. Nigeria’s military also has high hopes. It says it can destroy Boko Haram’s camps in the northeast by the day of the polls.