Tsafe, Nigeria – It was a sunny afternoon in March. Abdulrahman Yusuf was quiet as he lit a cigarette and drew heavily, puffing twice before passing it to a colleague. The stern eyes of the 17-year-old vigilante told a story of a child who had had to become a man earlier than he should have.
In his penultimate year of high school, Yusuf voluntarily joined a vigilante group to face criminal gangs in his hometown of Tsafe, Zamfara, northwest Nigeria. It was a mission of revenge after a close friend died in an attack by one of the gangs, locally known as bandits, in a nearby village.
“We used to do things together; eat food, go to school together and more,” he said. “I was very pained about his death.”
Across the region, banditry is rife. What began a decade ago as a tit-for-tat clash between sedentary Hausa farmers and nomadic Fulani herders over access to water and grazing land, has morphed into a ballooning crisis in recent years.
An estimated 12,000 people have died and hundreds of thousands more displaced across the northwestern states of Sokoto, Kebbi, Zamfara, Katsina and Kaduna since the conflict escalated in 2011, according to [PDF] the Centre for Democracy and Development, an Abuja-based policy and advocacy think-tank.
Experts say the perpetrators are mostly ethnic Fulani herders who claim to have initially taken to banditry to protest mistreatment and marginalisation of the group in the predominantly Hausa area. Some say the bandits are terrorists, while others say they could be even worse, having no unified chain of command.
The criminal gangs have taken advantage of the porous borders to ferry in sophisticated arms and mastermind a roster of criminality that includes cattle rustling, looting and extorting from villages as well as kidnapping for ransom.
A volunteer force
Nigeria’s security agencies, acutely understaffed because of conflicts elsewhere in the country, are unable to adequately deal with the insecurity.
For example, authorities in Katsina, one of the worst-hit states in the region, say less than 3,000 police personnel serve its estimated 5.8 million residents. This translates to 52 police officers for every 100,000 residents – four times lower than the global recommended average. The story is more or less the same nationwide.
Unsurprisingly, many, including teenagers like Yusuf, have taken to their own devices to safeguard themselves and their communities.
As vigilantes (or Yansakai, Hausa for volunteer force), they perform strategic duties like repelling attacks, rescuing kidnapped victims, arresting criminals, and sometimes participating in joint security operations with the police and army.
“For me, even if I am going to die, I wouldn’t care much because it is a sacrifice I have to endure,” Yusuf told Al Jazeera. “We are helping our people and contributing [our] own quota to the society.”
Commander of the group, Dayabu Baushe, 52, who leads more than 20 young boys in his unit, told Al Jazeera he holds weekly training sessions where the boys brush up their skills at aiming shots, running and taking cover.
In Zamfara, there are 4,200 community guards, drawn from ex-servicemen, vigilantes and volunteers, funded by the state government on a monthly stipend of 10,000 naira ($24). This arrangement, however, does not cover all vigilante groups in the state. Most of their activities are majorly financed through donations from the public.
“We contribute money to buy our weapons. If the government can support us, we know the hideout of bandits and we can go there without fear. We are ready to sacrifice our lives in this work and are not afraid to die.”
Death and disadvantage
Before the violence roped him in, the soft-spoken teenager was cheerful and had dreams for his future, oblivious of the trouble swelling around his present. In school, he played football with his friends hoping to one day be a professional like Ahmed Musa, captain of Nigeria’s senior football team.
But now, he is patrolling the bush, hoping to kill rather than be killed at home. At night, the boys split into separate groups and patrol within their community till dawn. Some hang in tall trees and rock beds, while others man checkpoints.
“This is where we rest after patrol, and cook our charms,” Yusuf told Al Jazeera, pointing to a nearby mud hut with rusted roofing sheets. “Sometimes, we receive calls from different people tipping us on the location of the bandits, and we go there.”
Inside the hut are crude weapons like knives, clubs and dane guns used by the boys against the bandits, most of whom wield sophisticated rifles. This disadvantage increasingly puts the young vigilantes at immense risk of injuries and even death. Yusuf said he has lost five of his colleagues to the unpredictable nature of the conflict.
“There are times we would go for patrol, or get information that bandits are around, but before we get there, they (bandits) may have gotten away,” he said. “Unfortunately, there are times we get ambushed. They will come unexpectedly; whomever they meet they will just kill him. At times we kill them too, like six to seven [of them].”
Last September, bandits attacked Gangara, another community in Zamfara, but the vigilantes who lost two of their own, repelled the raid.
“This alone gives us courage to keep on fighting them because if we all run away, who will stay to defend our communities?” Yusuf said, adding that their charms make the bandits fear them more than the security personnel.
‘A Frankenstein monster’
There have been various reports of some vigilantes engaging in extrajudicial killings that target Fulanis, the ethnic group most bandits hail. Many of these incidents have triggered reprisal attacks and counter-attacks that keep the conflict alive.
Idayat Hassan, director of Abuja-based CDD calls the involvement of the teeangers “unfortunate” and warns of a looming danger.
“Though joining vigilante makes them feel important…it is wrong and should not be encouraged as it creates challenges even post-conflict,” she said. “They have guns in their hands, and have experienced powers; if we don’t demobilise them properly, we will have a Frankenstein monster on our hands.”
But Mohammed Yazid, 18, Yusuf’s fellow vigilante, defends his peers on the matter of extrajudicial killings levelled against vigilante groups in the state.
“They kill our people more than you can imagine,” he said. “They rape and destroy properties. Once we get a hold of them, we are going to keep killing them because that is what they are doing to us whenever they attack us. They even kill newborns.”
Mamman Ibrahim Tsafe, commissioner for security and home affairs in Zamfara, said the state was unaware of teen vigilantes. He insisted that community guards being trained and mobilised by the government are all above eighteen and work strictly under the supervision of the security agencies.
Amidst the chaos and the debate, Yusuf is hopeful that when normalcy is restored, he will be able to pursue a new dream rather than continuing with school or the football pitch. “I want to join the Army, and continue in the fight against the enemy of peace,” he said.