Hilary Matfess

On the night of April 14, a group of militants, dressed as Nigerian policemen and wielding weapons, stormed into a government-operated school for girls and ordered students to evacuate the building. The school, Chibok, is located in a primarily Christian town in the country’s conflict-ridden Borno State. It had been closed for a number of weeks prior to the abductions due to the precarious security situation following a spike in Boko Haram’s activity. Once the militants had corralled the terrified girls outside, they began chanting Allahu Akhbar—a common rallying cry of Boko Haram. More than 250 girls were forced into vans that may have been bound for the Boko Haram’s camps in the Sambisa Forest near Nigeria’s border with Chad. The students present at the school during the April 14 attack were there to take a senior secondary certificate exam in physics, and while it is unclear how many students were present at the time of the raid, 530 girls from a variety of villages were registered. A few dozen were able to escape from the militants by fleeing into the forest or clinging to the branches of trees.  

The abductions were met with global condemnation reminiscent of the Kony 2012 campaign. #BringBackOurGirls gained international traction on Twitter, most notably with Michelle Obama tweeting a photo of herself holding a #BringBackOurGirls placard. Demands to bring the girls to safety reached a fever pitch following the release of a video in which Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, stated “I abducted your girls” and revealed that he intended to sell them, as “there is a market for selling humans.” 

Despite the international focus on Boko Haram’s atrocities, the terrorist group is not the only one responsible for the culture of fear and frustration that has taken hold in Borno State. Compounding the violence is the government’s heavy-handed response. The Joint Task Force (JTF), the coalition of government police and soldiers responsible for responding to the threat from Boko Haram, has engaged in a number of extrajudicial killings and has harassed civilians in the area. Following a Boko Haram attack in July of 2009, members of the JTF stormed a mosque, removed the robes of five men, beat them, and then forced the men to a bridge where they were executed as their commander observed. When one of the men attempted to move, the soldiers opened fire again. One of the men who managed to survive recounted to Human Rights Watch: “I spent the night under a bus. In the morning a … man who knew me took me to my house. My family called a doctor…. They removed four bullets from my body.” A former member of Boko Haram who saw the incident told interviewers it was clear that the five men were not members of Boko Haram since their dress and demeanor did not match those of Boko Haram members. 

While Nigeria does not have the most sophisticated security apparatus, its response to Boko Haram has demonstrated a remarkable capacity for repression and a disregard for the rule of law. The Joint Task Force, has brutally suppressed civilians and killed a number of suspected members of Boko Haram extrajudicially in the name of counterterrorism. The group has earned a reputation for going on “rampages” following Boko Haram attacks, in which the officers burn down buildings and target civilians in the affected area. The Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium notes that “fear of the Joint Task Force runs so deep that when there is an attack, people in the area move out to avoid being harassed or picked up by the JTF.”

Throughout this tragedy, the Nigerian government has been portrayed as either unresponsive or incapable of response. The New York Times reports that Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan “responded to the kidnappings in the same way that he has responded to countless other Boko Haram atrocities... minimally or not at all.” The depiction of the Nigerian state as weak and unresponsive, however, ignores the extent to which the JTF is responsible for the region’s escalating violence and anxiety. The JTF’s abusive tactics, along with Boko Haram’s brutality, have prompted a number of citizens to organize into vigilante mobs. Though these groups have been lauded as courageous and have even received government support, including training programs and an unofficial division of authority, the rise of do-it-yourself counterterrorism in northern Nigeria foreshadows a violent confrontation between the government, Boko Haram, and community protection groups. 

While many argue that the JTF’s unruliness is a product of Nigeria’s budgetary limitations and underdeveloped bureaucracy, the laws governing JTF’s actions seem designed to encourage a disregard for the rule of law. The country’s Anti-Terrorism legislation, drafted in the aftermath of Boko Haram bombings of two churches in 2011, gives certain government security officials “the right to access post, e-mails, phone calls or other data if they believe it is in the interests of national security,” as well as the ability “ to seal off a property or vehicle without a search warrant and allows judges to order the detention of suspects for up to thirty days if they feel it is in the interests of public safety.” The deliberately vague language promotes a loose interpretation of restrictions on police action and encourages abuses of power. The remarkable ambiguity and subjectivity of the law have emboldened security officials to regularly harass citizens, both at government checkpoints and in their homes and places of worship. Although the bill gives Nigeria’s police a number of resources in order to locate and arrest suspected terrorists, only one person has been convicted under the law in the two years since it has been enacted. Troublingly, a number of people arrested by the government under the anti-terrorism laws have simply disappeared once in custody. Nigeria’s rule of law has deteriorated in the wake of the legislation, with a judicial framework that persecutes suspected terrorists and a climate in which security officials increasingly run amok. 

The bill’s failure to stymie Boko Haram’s attacks prompted President Jonathan to declare a state of emergency in a number of northern districts in 2013. The state of emergency was accompanied by a surge of armed government security forces to the affected regions and the suspension of a number of constitutional protections for Nigerian citizens. The state of emergency authorized warrantless searches and granted security forces the right to occupy any structure “used for terrorist purposes.” 

Unsurprisingly, the influx of security forces resulted in greater insecurity for residents, as they were now vulnerable to attacks by both Boko Haram and abuse by the JTF. One citizen of Borno stated that “they [the government] come in and don’t know who’s Boko Haram so they think everybody is one… Boko Haram is harassing you, the military is harassing you. Everyone is harassing you.” Some observers found that Boko Haram’s violence actually increased following the declaration of the state of emergency and the surge of security forces, suggesting that this crackdown approach is counterproductive. 

It is little wonder that a number of Nigerian citizens have resorted to organizing vigilante groups to defend themselves and their communities. These groups have become responsible for traditionally governmental activities such as monitoring checkpoints and searching suspected members of Boko Haram. Some groups have access to somewhat sophisticated weaponry, including firearms, though others patrol wielding little more than sticks, knives, and in at least once instance, a bow and arrow.  The size, characteristics, and relationship to government security apparatuses vary incredibly between groups. It is important to note that these groups “are not lawless mobs, but rather function as community-based police forces.”  Though the vigilante groups are currently cheered by citizens, the lack of the sort of “formal accountability a police force would ideally have,” could prove problematic in coming months. No reporting mechanism exists to address abuses by vigilante groups; as these groups grow in number, the likelihood of such abuse increases. 

The most prominent and organized of these vigilante groups is the Civilian Joint Task Force. The CJTF began in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State, in June 2013. Members of the group report they were motivated to organize such a team because they “had grown tired of being targeted by both Boko Haram and the security forces.” Currently, the group operates a number of checkpoints in the state, inspects citizens and their residences, and works as a partner to the government’s security services. The government of Borno State has responded enthusiastically to the CJTF and organized “a short boot camp for thousands of youth,” called The Borno Youth Empowerment Scheme, which involves military training, the granting of uniforms, and a monthly stipend of $10 (though no official affiliation with the government). The already convoluted relationship between the CJTF and the government is beginning to fracture, as the vigilante group is now splintering amid organizational disagreements. The danger posed by a proliferation of armed and trained militias in the already unstable areas of Nigeria is difficult to overemphasize. Further, the CTJF and the Borno State government officials have accused one another of having been infiltrated by Boko Haram, leading to mutual distrust that could prove inflammatory. The history of JTF harassment of citizens in these areas may prove difficult to overcome and could prevent the CTJF from cooperating with the JTF. 

The popularity of such vigilante justice points to a broken political system and demonstrates the extent to which rule of law is ignored in Nigeria. The government is largely responsible for this situation. By failing to make use of the existing legal framework for countering Boko Haram and not remanding the JTF for its civilian abuse, the state has implicitly sanctioned extrajudicial measures in the name of counterterrorism. The degradation of the rule of law in Nigeria is both a symptom and a cause of the instability in the country’s north. Perhaps most troubling is the government’s willful violation of human rights provisions and the attempt to institutionalize unregulated violence as a counterterrorism measure. The rise of vigilante groups in the country’s north could lead to a bloodbath in which Boko Haram, government forces, and vigilante groups wage a three-way war against each other. Although the media has depicted the Chibok abductions an issue of government inaction, the real issue is Nigeria’s heavy-handed response to Boko Haram, which has given wide and disturbing legitimacy to extrajudicial action as a way of life.

The Chibok abductions mark an uptick in the level of violence in Nigeria. Currently, there are near daily bombings, killings, or raids by either Boko Haram or the JTF. Nigerians are trapped in a pattern of spiraling violence; the only solution is for the government to take a radically different approach to counterterrorism that emphasizes the rule of law and a commitment to social stability. 

Hilary Matfess is a graduate student at the Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, where she is pursuing a degree in International Economics and African Regional Studies. Her primary focus is modern African political economies. Foller her on Twitter at @HilaryMatfess.

Image via PRI.