MAIDUGURI, NIGERIA - Two weeks ago, Umar Muhammed caught a suspected Boko Haram member who was trying to enter the northeastern city of Maiduguri with a bomb.
“I grabbed him and took him to my commander,” Mohammed said in his native Kanuri language. Security forces detonated the explosive.
The 32-year-old is a member of the Civilian Joint Task Force, a volunteer militia officially authorized by the Borno state government in 2013 to help tackle Boko Haram. The extremist sect has ravaged northeastern Nigeria and the Lake Chad region for seven years. The insurgency has killed more than 20,000 people and forced another 2.7 million from their homes.
An ongoing regional and Nigerian military offensive has weakened Boko Haram and pushed them out of many urban areas. The Civilian JTF, and about a dozen other vigilante groups around the northeast, played a pivotal role in turning the tide.
They defended their communities from raids and detained hundreds of suspected terrorists to hand over to the military. Some of the Civilian JTF have even attacked Boko Haram camps alongside the military and rescued female captives.
Know the enemy
Along with the operations team, the Civilian JTF has an intelligence unit made up of about 100 undercover agents stationed across the country. They wear plainclothes, gathering intelligence about the insurgents to share with the army.
“We know Boko Haram better than the army does,” says an official in the intelligence-gathering arm of the Civilian JTF who requested his name not be used.
Some in Maiduguri claim Boko Haram is more afraid of the Civilian JTF than it is of the Nigerian army.
Boko Haram certainly saw the threat. As militants seized territory in the northeast in 2014 and 2015, they executed men in large numbers and razed villages, warning people not to cooperate with the government.
Some of the Civilian JTF members still patrol the streets of Maiduguri with machetes, hunter’s rifles and an assortment of homemade weapons.
“The Civilian JTF are the saving grace for us in Borno State, in fact in northeast Nigeria. Without their efforts, the Boko Haram insurgency wouldn’t have been put down by now,” said Bulama Mali Gubio, a leader of the Borno State Elders Forum. “They organized themselves from each ward from the city and some of the major towns and started fighting their own friends, their own colleagues who were members of the Boko Haram.”
The city of Maiduguri, known for decades as the “city of peace,” is much safer than it has been in recent years.
Business owners are re-opening shops and students are returning to school. Once abandoned gardens are back in full bloom along the roadside.
The curfew fluctuates between nine and ten at night, a stark contrast to the dusk-to-dawn curfews of recent years.
Looking for recognition, incorporation, compensation
Civilian JTF members are beginning to wonder what the Nigerian government will do with them once the war is over.
“They have protected the integrity of this country so they should not be dumped by the government. Government should come in and help the members of CJTF,” said Abba Aji Kalli, the Civilian JTF state coordinator.
Boko Haram has killed about 300 CJTF members, Kalli said. Two weeks ago, a suicide bomber nearly invaded his home in Maiduguri.
“We’re facing a lot of risks but up to now government has not considered us. Government has not done anything to see that the welfare of the members of CJTF are protected,” he said.
In 2013, the Borno state government officially adopted the Civilian JTF, giving members uniforms and promising to pay them a monthly stipend of about $100. Nearly 2000 of them got some military training.
But today, they say they are not getting paid and rely on handouts and what work they can find. Muhammad, like many CJTF members, never finished secondary school. He drives a truck, transporting diesel.
He and other Civilian JTF members want to enter the security forces and law enforcement agencies, such as the road safety task force and customs patrol. Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari has said he supports this idea.
The allocations are already taking place. In June, 350 Civilian JTF members joined the Nigerian army after they passed through the recruitment process. Last year the state security service accepted about 30 CJTF.
Abandonment could be costly
The question is -- are there enough jobs for all 26,000 registered members of the Civilian JTF?
Community leaders like Bulama Mali Gubio are worried.
“They now know how to handle arms and ammunitions. They are trained in the art of warfare. If after the insurgency you abandon them, then you are planting another seed of discord. They have sacrificed their lives,” Gubio said. "That’s why we’ve been arguing with the government to make sure that something is quickly put in place before the end of the insurgency.”
Gubio proposes that the government give Civilian JTF members plots of land and assist them in getting married in a similar manner that the government of Kano State Nigeria coordinates weddings for residents through its Sharia enforcement agency.
But some Civilian JTF members have other plans.
“I’m a student and I know what I’m doing in my life,” said Haruna Issa, a Civilian JTF member eager to resume his computer science studies at the state university.
Issa, a soft-spoken 20-year-old, recounts with fierce pride his work in the Civilian JTF. He said he looked Boko Haram members eye-to-eye while handing them over to security forces.
He's not asking for a job, but he said he hopes the government recognizes them when the fight is over.