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Nigerian state turns to vigilantes in fight against bandits

By Aminu ABUBAKAR
Nigeria Nigeria's Zamfara state has previously banned vigilante groups.  By Kola Sulaimon AFPFile
FEB 1, 2024 LISTEN
Nigeria's Zamfara state has previously banned vigilante groups. By Kola Sulaimon (AFP/File)

The governor of a troubled Nigerian state has inaugurated a 2,600-strong vigilante force to combat violent criminal gangs terrorising the country's northwest.

Impoverished Zamfara state is one of several in the region plagued by criminals known as bandits who raid and loot villages, kill residents and burn houses to the ground.

The gangs maintain camps in a huge forest straddling Zamfara, Katsina, Kaduna and Niger states, and have carried out mass kidnappings of students from schools in recent years.

Zamfara previously banned vigilante groups over concerns they were driving the cycle of violence and experts have voiced fears, but authorities say the new outfit has undergone thorough training to prevent abuses.

Governor Dauda Lawal Dare declared the formation of the Zamfara State Community Protection Guards at a ceremony in the state capital Gusau on Wednesday.

"Today, the first batch of 2,645 community volunteer guards are graduating," footage broadcast by Nigerian media showed Dare telling a cheering crowd.

"These young energetic and vibrant personnel have undergone rigorous training, extensive drilling as well as understanding the rules of engagement... to defend our communities," he said.

Addressing the vigilantes in their yellow and purple uniforms, he said that after two months of instruction they were now ready to "help end banditry, kidnapping, cattle rustling."

He acknowledged these crimes had "become endemic for over a decade" and said "Zamfara has consistently remained in the spotlight for the wrong reason".

Banditry in the northwest is just one of the severe security challenges Nigerian authorities are struggling to control.

Though the bandits are driven by financial gain, there are concerns among officials and analysts about their growing ties with jihadists waging a 14-year insurgency in the northeast.

Fears and abuses

The inauguration of Zamfara's vigilante force was attended by governors of the seven states in the region, where farming and herding communities have increasingly resorted to forming vigilante groups for protection.

In October last year neighbouring Katsina state set up a 2,400-strong volunteer force dubbed the Community Watch Corps to help fight bandits.

In 2018 Zamfara's state government inaugurated an 8,500-strong civilian militia Joint Task Force to combat cattle rustling and kidnapping gangs.

But the vigilantes were also accused of extrajudicial killings of suspected bandits, leading to reprisals and tit-for-tat killings.

This prompted the state government to ban the vigilantes in 2020.

Zamfara has also tried striking peace deals, offering the bandits amnesty and cash incentives, but truces have failed to hold.

Military operations, telecoms blackouts and petrol station closures to disrupt supplies and communications have also proven unsuccessful.

The state government is now falling back on the vigilantes "to compliment the effort of conventional security forces," Dare said.

To check abuses the guards were trained to "operate with effectiveness, the respect of law and the dignity of law-abiding citizens," he said.

The governor hailed the new outfit as a "significant step in our commitment in enhancing security in Zamfara".

But experts are sceptical, pointing to the state's record on dealing with the violence.

Analyst Confidence MacHarry from the Nigerian risk consultancy SBM Intelligence told AFP many strategies had been "tried before and failed in the northwest".

"Given the situation in Zamfara there's a huge chance the new vigilante group will go the same way," he said, warning of a lack of proper oversight and the risks of "justice meted out by vigilantes."

"It remains to be seen if this is any different from the past," he said.

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