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Youth Vigilantes Stand Up to Boko Haram, but at a Cost

With Civilian Joint Task Force units having some success in suppressing Boko Haram attacks in urban areas, the Islamist militants have shifted their focus to rural civilians.
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Bagging cowpea in Borno State, Nigeria. Photograph by International Institute of Tropical Agriculture.

Shortly after President Goodluck Jonathan declared a state of emergency in Adamawa, Yobe, and Borno states in May 2013, stories about youth groups patrolling various sections of Maiduguri emerged. Collectively referred to as the Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF), the vigilantes employed knives, machetes, cutlasses, and other crude weaponry to rid their neighborhoods of the Islamist militant group Boko Haram.

The CJTF is representative of a newfound confidence and a population unwilling to live under the sway of militants. Many CJTF members have suggested that their intimate knowledge of the areas in which they grew up − in contrast to deployed security personnel − allows them to identify suspected Boko Haram members or other suspicious individuals more easily. And the groups have been credited in part with changing security dynamics in Maiduguri, reducing violence in a city where attacks had been a near daily occurrence for the previous three and a half years.

However, the emergence of roving youth vigilante gangs has also brought with it some worrying aspects. For starters, their presence potentially opens the door to abuse or political manipulation − all the more worrying given recent history in northern Nigeria. In July 2013, for example, the CJTF in Maiduguri, allegedly looking for Boko Haram insurgents, targeted All Nigeria Peoples Party (ANPP) chairperson Mala Othman, setting his home ablaze. CJTF units have also overstepped their bounds on a number of occasions, lynching suspected Boko Haram members rather than handing them over to security officials. And there are fears that the rise of the CJTF has led Boko Haram to change of tactics and targets.

Yet despite these concerns, the apparent success of the CJTF in Maiduguri has led to the creation of similar youth vigilante groups in other areas of Borno state, sometimes encouraged by political officials. The state government does, however, seem aware of some of the dangers and is also seeking to train and professionalise youth members, with an ambitious goal of training 5,000 by 2015. The training programme is both a reflection of a reliance on vigilante movements to help maintain local security, and the need to avert future trouble by keeping such groups occupied.

Boko Haram and the CJTF

The development of the CJTF has not gone unnoticed by Boko Haram. Abu Zinnira, a spokesperson for the group, first threatened the vigilante youths in June 2013. Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau then referenced the killing of some CJTF during a battle in Monguno in a September video message, and more recently warned of reprisals in a flyer discovered in northern Cameroon. Undeterred, some CJTF members have said they are not afraid, and are prepared to die young.

The rhetoric from Boko Haram has been matched by violent action on multiple occasions too, with clashes reported between Boko Haram members and CJTF units in Mainok, Bama, Benesheik, and Konduga, amongst other Borno state locations. In addition, during a June 2013 attack on a group of fisherman along the outskirts of Maiduguri, the Islamist militants reportedly told their victims, “your children brought this fate upon you; they are busy catching our members.” The assailants then reportedly killed some and ordered those they had spared to take the message to the vigilante youths.

Since then, it seems that the expansion of the CJFT's operations has instigated a further shift in Boko Haram's tactics, with the militants targeting not just youth vigilantes or their friends and families, but also civilians at large. In September 2013, Boko Haram dressed as soldiers set up a roadblock in Benesheikh and proceeded to slaughter at least 143 travellers. Assailants reportedly selected those from Borno state for death, while letting others go free. And more recently, Boko Haram has conducted major assaults on small population centres in Borno, killing over 200 in Konduga, Izghe, and Bama in February 2014 alone.

Boko Haram has typically dealt violently with perceived informants, and not been squeamish about killing hundreds of civilians. But the recent attacks in Borno state are notably different to the January 2012 Kano bombings, for example, or the November 2011 attack in Damaturu. The attacks in the last months have been more rural and less discriminate, involving up to hundreds of gunmen descending on small villages and towns to wreak havoc for hours. These assaults seem have had little specific targeting but rather the goal of complete destruction, marked by the use of petrol bombs and other improved explosive devices to burn large swathes of villages to the ground.

The highly destructive Kano and Damaturu attacks initially focused on the traditional Boko Haram targets of police stations and churches. By contrast, the recent attack in Konduga destroyed houses, shops, health clinics, schools and government buildings, while in Izghe, gunmen reportedly went door-to-door murdering villagers.

Civilians in the crosshairs

While security dynamics in Maiduguri may have largely improved in part thanks to the CJTF, conditions in rural areas of Borno state, especially near presumed Boko Haram hideouts in the hills by Gwoza or the forests of Sambisa Game Reserve, have deteriorated. This is likely more than just a coincidence. Boko Haram is seeking to punish Borno state citizens for the rise of the youth vigilantes, and re-establish a culture of fear and intimidation.

A professed Boko Haram member captured in October 2013 explained as much, revealing, “our original target was security operatives and politicians, but [now] ... we decided to kill anyone that is from Maiduguri, because we believe every person in Maiduguri and some other towns of Borno state are members of Civilian JTF.” As a result, Boko Haram has expanded its target list to include all Borno residents, rendering the definition of an innocent civilian in the eyes of Boko Haram − at least in its main operating centre of Borno state − non-existent.

Thus, while the Civilian Joint Task Force in Borno state has commendably confronted Boko Haram and positively affected the security situation in urban locations such as Maiduguri, one consequence has been high-level destruction and violence in more rural areas of the state. For all their short-term success, the CJTF units are essentially unarmed and unprepared to repel Boko Haram attacks such as these. And given the apparent helplessness of the Nigerian government to combat these assaults as well, it seems the plight of Borno state civilians is set to increase even further.

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