June 15, 2017 / 6:07 AM / 4 months ago

On Boko Haram front line, Nigerian vigilantes amass victories and power

MAIDUGURI, Nigeria (Reuters) - His broken arm is in a bamboo splint, his torso pock-marked with shrapnel and his jaw wired together by a Nigerian army surgeon.

A member of the local militia group, otherwise known as CJTF, Adamu Mohammed, 23, poses for a portrait photograph in a compound in the city of Maiduguri, northern Nigeria June 5, 2017. REUTERS/Akintunde Akinleye

But 38-year-old vigilante Dala Aisami Angwalla is undaunted by two nearly fatal brushes in the last year with Boko Haram, one involving a landmine, the other an ambush, and is determined to rid northeast Nigeria of the jihadists.

It is a sentiment shared by thousands of other volunteer vigilantes who have been instrumental in checking Boko Haram’s progress but whose presence now casts a shadow over longer-term efforts to bring stability to the troubled Lake Chad region.

“Why do I do it? Because it’s my country,” the father-of-five told Reuters in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state and epicenter of Boko Haram’s bloody, eight-year campaign to build an Islamic caliphate in the southern reaches of the Sahel.

“My children are OK. When I go out, they say ‘Go well, father. May God keep you safe,'” he said, fingering a charm around his neck that he believes keeps him from harm’s way.

Angwalla belongs to the 30,000-strong “Civilian Joint Task Force” (CJTF) now fighting on the front line of Nigeria’s struggle against Boko Haram after helping the military push the Islamists from towns across Borno in the last three years.

Despite a string of victories, the CJTF has drawn criticism.

Rights groups accuse its members of abuses ranging from extortion to rape and say their entry into the fray three years ago may be the reason for a sharp rise in Boko Haram violence against civilians.

CJTF leaders, who say 670 of its “boys” have been killed in action, say bar a “few bad people” its members are registered, impartial and professional.

FEAR OF ARMED GROUPS

The CJTF, most of whom are unemployed men, has asked the government to provide payment for its operations, a demand seen by political observers as ominous given the blurred lines in Nigeria between local politics and orchestrated violence.

With national elections in 2019 and the long-term illness of President Muhammadu Buhari pointing to a power vacuum, fears about organized armed groups are on the rise.

“In Nigeria in particular, vigilantism did much to turn an anti-state insurgency into a bloodier civil war, pitting Boko Haram against communities and leading to drastic increases in violence,” the International Crisis Group, a think-tank, said.

“In the longer term, vigilantes may become political foot soldiers, turn to organized crime or feed communal violence,” it said in a February report.

Few in Nigeria would question the significance of the CJTF’s role against Boko Haram, whose fighters have killed at least 20,000 people and displaced 2.7 million. Aid experts say 1.4 million are on the brink of famine after years without harvests.

Set up as a Sunni fundamentalist group influenced by the Wahhabi movement, Boko Haram has led a violent uprising since 2009. The group, whose name means ‘Western education is forbidden’, has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State.

CUTLASSES AND ARROWS

Building on Nigeria’s long-standing tradition of communal self-defense, the vigilante group was founded in Maiduguri in 2013 when groups of young men decided they had had enough of the Islamist militants living in their midst.

Their cutlasses, bows and arrows, and rudimentary shotguns were little match for Boko Haram’s modern weaponry, mostly captured in raids on Nigerian army and police positions, but their local knowledge was decisive.

Hundreds of suspected militants were detained by soldiers and police acting on CJTF tip-offs in raids that turned the tide against Boko Haram in Maiduguri, a city of a million established as a military outpost by British colonial authorities in 1907.

“Within one week, we secured the whole center of Maiduguri,” said Abba Aji Kalli, a 51-year-old accountant who is also CJTF’s state-wide coordinator. “The army were strangers but we live with Boko Haram in the same community, in the same neighborhood. We know who are the members of Boko Haram.”

Three years on, the CJTF forms the backbone of Borno’s anti-Boko Haram defenses, attracting the praise of Buhari, who in December declared the Islamist group “technically” defeated.

“They have been of tremendous help to the military because they are from there. They have local intelligence,” Buhari said.

CHEEK-BY-JOWL WITH BOKO HARAM

Now, most day-to-day security in Maiduguri and the refugee camps that surround it falls to black-clad CJTF members patrolling entrances to markets or sitting behind sandbag barricades with machetes, muskets and bows and arrows.

“Without the CJTF, there would be no security at all,” said Tijani Lumwani, head of the 40,000-strong Muna Garage refugee camp, hit by several suicide bombers in March. “They live in the community. We trust them. Without them, we would have no peace.”

Most CJFT vigilantes, including Angwalla, go unrewarded for their efforts, although 1,850 who have received paramilitary training are given a 15,000 naira per month ($48) stipend by the Borno government.

Around 450 have been incorporated into the main security forces and 30 into the intelligence services, group coordinator Kalli said, although he and his colleagues believe that is not enough and want more money and jobs to follow.

Buhari spokesman Femi Adesina said there would be “some sort of demobilization” for CJTF members but denied any obligation to provide jobs. “The CJTF was a voluntary thing. There was no agreement that ‘You do this, and the government will do that.'”

Borno state attorney general Kaka Shehu Lawal said the local government was investing heavily in agriculture and other industrial projects to create jobs for unemployed CJTF members who otherwise had the potential to become trouble-makers.

“We need them not to be idle because an idle man is the devil’s workshop,” Lawal said.

WHAT PRICE PEACE?

However, allegations of CJTF abuses have raised fears among diplomats and rights workers that the counter-insurgency effort has spawned a provincial militia the authorities may not be able to control.

Amnesty International researcher Isa Sanusi said he had credible reports of “widespread” abuses by CJTF guards in Borno, including extorting money from refugees seeking access to camps or sexual favors in exchange for food.

Kalli said a handful of culprits had been arrested.

Rights groups say that if the vigilantes fail to receive what they feel is due to them, they are likely to become another long-term source of instability. “They will come out of this crisis with some kind of entitlement that will make them think they are above the law,” Amnesty’s Sanusi said.

Reporting by Ed Cropley, editing by Peter Millership

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