The dangerous development in Nigeria is that government is no longer associated with the organization of this essential commodity of governance: protection. Nigerian governments have virtually told Nigerians to fend for their own protection. My hometown of Okpara with its environs has a population that is more than 20,000 people in Delta State. It has no police station. Indeed, there is no presence of government in the daily lives of its people. That is, the Nigerian state and its governmental agencies are absent from their daily lives. Crimes will be committed in any community and are being committed in my hometown. How are they resolved? Clearly, without the help of any governmental agencies. For as long as such problems of crime are internal to the community, they will be resolved according to respected norms of the community and its standards of fair sanctions.
By Peter P. Ekeh
Human Rights Watch (HRW) has been active in its international duties of watching the actions of several agencies and branches of the Nigerian government in their relationships with ethnic groups and the human person in Nigeria. It has also been active in the examination of the corporate behaviours of Western oil companies operating in the Niger Delta. During the ugly years of military rule, many Nigerians looked to the courageous reports which Human Rights Watch issued from time to time, for instance, on oil companies' treatment of Niger Deltans and the misbehaviour of the Nigerian military in Choba and Odi in the Niger Delta. In the post-military era, Human Rights Watch has continued to be active in its care for human rights matters in Nigeria. Its 2000 report on Nigeria must be praised for its thoughtfulness and for pointing up the failures of President Olusegun Obasanjo's civilian government in matters pertaining to the government's lack of respect for the individual's human rights, especially in the Niger Delta.
It is in the light of these important achievements that the strengths and shortfalls of Human Rights Watch's recent report titled THE BAKASSI BOYS: The Legitimization of Murder and Torture must be carefully weighed. Written in partnership with a Nigerian pioneer NGO, Centre for Law Enforcement Education (CLEEN), the significance of this report is enormous. Human Rights Watch and CLEEN have called attention to the rise and dangerous development of vigilante groups as a means of law enforcement in Nigeria. Although their report was trained on the Bakassi Boys among the Igbo and their state governments in Southeastern Nigeria, the development of vigilante groups is widespread and is on the rise throughout Nigeria. Calling attention to this development is therefore important. That Human Rights Watch, with a far-flung international reach, is the agency for issuing this timely report may well mean that there will be international attention and focus on this crisis of law enforcement in Nigeria. The good prospect that may arise from such a development is that the Nigerian Government may be helped and possibly pressured to pay attention to the vigilante crisis in the country. The danger that may well flow from this report is that both the Nigerian Government and the international community will adopt the report's faulty understanding of the causes of vigilantism in Nigeria. More troubling, there is the added danger that Human Rights Watch (HRW) and CLEEN's recommendation calling for the "reform" of the Nigeria Police Force may be readily and falsely adopted as a solution to the problem which vigilante groups pose in Nigeria. These problems of the report and alternative perspectives on the crisis of the popularity of vigilante groups in Nigeria should be called to the attention of the Nigerian Government and the international community along side Human Rights Watch and CLEEN's engaging report THE BAKASSI BOYS: The Legitimization of Murder and Torture.
Causes of Vigilantism in Nigeria: Absence of the State
There is a common temptation in studies of difficult issues in African societies, which do not make sense in contemporary times, to reach back to anthropological analysis of their precolonial traditional origins. Thus, in HRW and CLEEN's report on vigilante groups in Southeastern Nigeria, the modern spectre of vigilante groups in Igbo States has been explained historically as a playback to practices that were in vogue in precolonial Igboland. HRW and CLEEN contend as follows:
Vigilantes and other self-defense groups currently operating in Nigeria have roots that reach deep into the country's history. In the pre-colonial era, some -- though not all -- independent local communities, especially in the south-east, maintained their own standing army to defend their territory against the threat of invasion from neighboring communities. Although there was no equivalent of a modern-day state structure at that time, some parallels can be drawn between these groups which were created by local communities for their own protection, and the more recently formed self-defense groups. Local conflicts were also fought between members of warrior cults; a clear link can be traced between these secret societies and contemporary vigilante groups in Nigeria, including the Bakassi Boys.
This expansive anthropological speculation is unnecessary. If the causes of the rise of vigilantism were rooted in practices of long ago, then we should expect two consequences. First, we should find other instances of vigilante groups that were so clearly organized and were adopted by the people in prior Igbo history, during colonial times and in the post-colonial era. The truth of the matter is that the rise of the Bakassi Boys is significant because it is fresh, not a repetition of previous history. Second, if the analysis offered by HRW and CLEEN were valid, then we should expect such vigilante groups to be restricted to areas where they were once practised, in precolonial times. On the contrary, and as the report from HRW and CLEEN testifies to, what we know is that the modern employment of vigilante groups in Nigeria is widespread and ranges beyond Igbo territory, although it is true that Igbo state governments have embraced them much more thoroughly.
The explanation of the rise of vigilante groups in Nigeria is far less complicated than what is suggested in the report from HRW and CLEEN. Throughout human history, ordinary men and women have paid onerous prices in order to ensure that they and their families will be protected from life-choking dangers. That human impulse is no less prevalent in Nigeria than elsewhere. Governments -- in Western Europe, in Africa, and elsewhere -- originally arose because they could offer such protection to those under their domain. Indeed, in its original and correct meaning, it does not make sense to talk of government which is divorced from the protection that it can offer to those under its control.
The dangerous development in Nigeria is that government is no longer associated with the organization of this essential commodity of governance: protection. Nigerian governments have virtually told Nigerians to fend for their own protection. My hometown of Okpara with its environs has a population that is more than 20,000 people in Delta State. It has no police station. Indeed, there is no presence of government in the daily lives of its people. That is, the Nigerian state and its governmental agencies are absent from their daily lives. Crimes will be committed in any community and are being committed in my hometown. How are they resolved? Clearly, without the help of any governmental agencies. For as long as such problems of crime are internal to the community, they will be resolved according to respected norms of the community and its standards of fair sanctions. What happens if the community is invaded from outside its boundaries or by organized crime from within its confines? There is no government to help, because the meaning of government in Nigeria is now devoid of protection for its citizens. They will have to find a way of defending themselves. What is true of my hometown is true of tens of hundreds of towns and villages in Nigeria from which government's security is absent.