Maiduguri, Nigeria – Nigerians living in the northeastern city of Maiduguri go about their lives under the daily threat of attacks from the notorious rebel group Boko Haram.
Once described as the “home of peace” by locals, Maiduguri – the capital of Borno state – is now better known as the epicentre of deadly attacks and abductions that have killed thousands of Nigerians in schools, churches, mosques and markets.
According to Amnesty International, more than 1,500 people have been killed in northeastern Nigeria since the start of 2014. This month alone, more than 450 civilians have been killed in attacks, and hundreds of abducted schoolgirls remain missing.
In response to Boko Haram’s attacks, a vigilante group in Maiduguri calling itself the Borno Youth Association of Peace and Justice – also known as the Civilian Joint Task Force (JTF) – was formed by local residents to protect their town and neighbouring villages.
“I joined the Civilian Joint Task Force June 12 last year,” said Shehu Abdul Gani, a 35-year-old civil servant who worked in the local government in the town of Bama before it was bombed on May 7, 2013. “At that time Boko Haram were living in the same environment as us,” he said. “We would see them carrying guns. They would come out and kill our brothers and sisters any time. My brother was killed. They came into our house and shot him in the evening time. I was sitting right next to him. When I remember this incident, I don’t have mercy for them … We are chasing them with our sticks and cutlasses – we are going to chase them out of Nigeria.”
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Borno’s local and state governments see the Civilian Joint Task Force as a necessity. The group maintains checkpoints, searches pedestrians, vehicles and residences, and provides intelligence to the Nigerian security services. In May 2013, a state of emergency was declared in Borno, and the Nigerian government sent in government troops to root out the rebel fighters. But they were unfamiliar with the geography and with locally known members of Boko Haram.
“We are [government troops’] eyes here. We are watching and listening for them. We are giving them information on anything they don’t understand because we are the sons of the soil,” said Shehu. “We knew Boko Haram and it just became too much … Last June Boko Haram came and killed a 90-year-old woman, three children and many younger ones so we were very angry. So the next day we started this work. We started fishing them out inside the metropolis. We went searching house to house. If we saw people with a gun we would arrest them and hand them over to military personnel. That is the beginning of the Civilian JTF here.”
Violence in northeastern Nigeria no longer fits the overly simplistic early narrative of Muslims killing Christians. Muslims have suffered from the insurgency also, and the Civilian JTF has united Nigerians living in Borno against a common enemy.
“In our Civilian JTF we have Muslims and Christians,” said Bello Damvatta, a 49-year-old shop fitter and married father of four. “Our mission is to see peace return to Maiduguri and the entire nation. When people come out of their homes to go to the market or go to the office around eight or nine in the morning they hear pap-pap-pap-pap! … Any person who comes to our area and kills somebody, we must grab him and hand him to the law, no matter how dangerous.”
What else should we do? We have to do something ... We are not politicians. We are not military, we do not have arms. We are just tired. Borno is the home of peace. We need that peace to return.
Today, visitors travelling to Maiduguri by road will notice an absence of uniformed military presence on the streets of the historic town. In their place stand men and boys as young as 12 manning checkpoints made out of old rubber tyres and mounds of chopped wood. The Borno State Government has launched the Borno Youth Empowerment Scheme (BOYES) and says it will train at least 5,000 local vigilantes by 2015. But now only a small number of the civilian JTF are trained to carry out life threatening volunteer activities. They are unarmed and carry only personal and locally donated swords, daggers, sticks and bows and arrows.
Despite this, they have been successful in their fight against Boko Haram. Shehu told Al Jazeera: “The work is successful in the metropolis and GRA [Government Residential Area]. You will never see any Boko Haram in these places now. But in the villages we still have a little problem. I’ve been to Sambisa to look for Boko Haram. It’s a thick forest, but there are small villages within the Sambisa so the Boko Haram just go and conquer those villages, make it their place. They are using the villages.”
That “little problem” is a big one, according to a Human Rights Watch report released last November. The report described the vigilantes as “a worrisome new dimension to the violence”, saying Civilian JTF members “inform security forces about presumed local Boko Haram activity” and that “the Islamist group then retaliates against both the neighbourhood vigilante group and the broader community”.
When asked about the risks involved in the vigilante work, Civilian JTF member and 39-year-old mechanic Samail Garkuwa responded, “What else should we do? We have to do something. This is our ancestral land, my children’s land. I started doing this job for Civilian JTF because Boko Haram can kill any person: women, boys, old men, young girls, Christians, Muslims, anybody. Boko Haram killed my elder brother … We are not politicians. We are not military, we do not have arms. We are just tired. Borno is the home of peace. We need that peace to return.”