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.

These problems were not so bad and urgent twenty or thirty years ago. The military governments that ruled Nigeria for three decades lived by violence and encouraged violence on a large scale. But it did not understand what civilian policing in government means. Military rule has done two things that have led to increased insecurity that the Nigerian people feel in modern times. First, it militarized the Nigeria Police Force. Under military rule, Nigeria Police Force was more or less a branch of the military. Its civilian character has been greatly denuded. The military has enforced this attribute of a militarized Nigeria Police Force on the Nigerian people. Remarkably, in the current 1999 "Constitution", which the military made for Nigerians, the Nigeria Police Force is repeatedly mentioned and situated alongside the Nigerian Armed Forces (see Articles 34(2); 35(7); 39(3); 42(3); 162(1)). Second, the Nigeria Police Force's ties to the communities in which its officers operate are brittle and marked by distrust and hostility. As in colonial times, the Nigeria Police Force has deliberately been designed to appear tough and intimidating before civilians. But unlike colonial times, the Nigeria Police Force under the military was the sole policing authority in Nigeria. During colonial times, there were multiple police jurisdictions, at least in Western and Northern Nigeria, in which local police were responsible to regional and local governments. It was the military that sacked other policing elements whose authority it vested in the huge and centralized Nigeria Police Force, at the onset of military rule in the late 1960s. At that time, the image of the Nigeria Police Force was tolerable and was preferred by many to the local police. But that image of the Nigeria Police Force has deteriorated badly. This result is inevitable because it is now the sole policing authority in Nigeria.

In these circumstances, many Nigerian communities have not looked to the Nigeria Police Force for their protection from violent criminals or from other sources of danger. Instead, they have resorted to other means for their own protection. These have included unregulated and often violent reprisals against suspected sources of their collective endangerment. The sad truth is that the Bakassi Boys and other vigilante groups were demanded by the populace for their own protection, in large measure because the people have no trust in the government's police organization. As Stephen Faris put it (in, April 2002), "Fed up with soaring crime and ineffective police, Nigerians are embracing vigilante groups -- despite their murderous methods." An articulate witness narrated his own experiences to justify the preference for the Bakassi Boys in Igbo communities over the Nigeria Police Force, in Imo State of Nigeria. Harry Nwana's account is worth sharing in studying this phenomenon, because it explains why vigilantism has grown in Nigeria:

I am a living witness to the fact that for three years before the year 2000, in my part of Imo State, life was made unbearable by the callous activities of armed bandits. They suddenly seemed to have so multiplied that anybody found outside his front door after dusk was risking his or her life. Stories of robberies, torture and car snatching filled the air. Everybody had an experience to share in these orgies. Then something intolerable happened warranting the community setting up local vigilance units. They were assigned the responsibility to stem the rise in crime, identify the criminals and involve the police at Owerri, Urualla and in Okigwe. Before the members knew it, their anonymity was compromised and they were marked for elimination. The activities of gangs of robbers confined royal fathers [kings] to their palaces following threats of their being killed for identifying with their subjects in the search for a peaceful community.

It did not take a lot of investigation to learn that the culprits were local boys and that the police collaboration was part of their strength. All information placed at the disposal of the police about suspected dare devil home-based hoodlums were passed on to the men of the underworld. At this stage a voice suggested the engagement of the services of the Bakassi Boys whose successes in other communities had become remarkable. How they were reached was another dimension to their anonymity and security effectiveness. They went to work immediately with a dose of discreteness that allowed them to know their employers and be briefed in detail on who the suspects could be. Until they were perfectly ready, nothing happened. Faith and patience were running out as anxiety heightened.

Then suddenly things began to happen. Well known hoodlums who were friends of the police gradually took notice and either fled or stayed at their peril. In a short time, locking and bolting gates and doors in my village became only a matter of habit; nobody needed to. Home was becoming haven again and evening parties and outside engagements returned to the community. It was such a great relief. Asked thereafter to choose between the Bakassi Boys and the police, the village folks preferred the former. Information is perhaps the greatest help the police force needs to combat crime. The same applied to the Bakassi Boys. But whereas police informants were betrayed through the flippancy, irresponsibility and criminal intent of the bad eggs in the force, Bakassi Boys did not have that problem or gloat about their successes. They respected informants but still investigated every case reported.

In my view, Nwana's explanation of the rise and popularity of vigilante groups in Southeastern Nigeria is convincing on its own terms. Note that his account is not hinged on some anthropological predisposition to vigilantism in his community. There was no police force in Nwana's village. The community had to travel out to contact the police in the City of Owerri, who, according to Nwana's account, betrayed it. Vigilantism was filling a vacuum. If the Nigerian government would not protect Nwana's community, it would take action to protect itself. That action arose from a human impulse that is as old as human history.

False Solution: Reforming the Nigeria Police Force

Few Nigerians would doubt that the Nigeria Police Force needs to be reformed. Founded in 1889 by the fresh British colonial administration, its purpose was quasi-military assistance to the British colonization of Nigeria. In his pioneering work The Police in Modern Nigeria, 1861-1965: Origins, Development, and Role (Ibadan University Press, 1970), the distinguished historian Tekena Tamuno says the following about this attribute of the Nigeria Police Force: "By far the most crucial factor in understanding the existence in Nigeria of semi-military police lay in the nature of Nigerian opposition to British jurisdiction and rule. .... These sources of friction ... emphasized the need for troops and police as the ready instrument of enforcing government orders when peaceful overtures failed.... In the circumstances, the police formed the front line of defence in Britain's attempts to maintain law and order while soldiers afforded the last -- at least in theory. Where however the Constabulary housed, as it were, both the soldiers and the police, the distinction was meaningless." Right from its beginning, the purpose of the Nigeria Police Force was to protect Government functionaries, sometimes against "natives." In this respect, the character of the Nigeria Police Force has not changed. Military rule only emboldened the military character of the Nigeria Police Force. Even its name remains steadfast in bearing its colonial birth mark. "Nigeria" in Nigeria Police Force was a geographical indication of where the police were to operate, not a political denotation of its ownership. It is striking that no one has bothered to examine the oddity of a name that was used by British colonial administrators for maintaining law and order during its colonization of Nigeria. I suggest that it is now time to shed "Nigeria" from that colonial formation and endow the national police establishment with a political aura by changing its name to "Nigerian Police Force." Reform in these areas would be welcomed by most Nigerians.

But this is not the reform that Human Rights Watch and Centre for Law Enforcement Education have advocated as a solution to the undesirable appearance of vigilante groups in Nigeria. In their main advocacy on the Nigeria Police Force, HRW and CLEEN want an expanded and reinvigorated Nigeria Police Force. In their own words, they say as follows:

Devote urgent attention and generous resources to reforming and improving the national police force and enabling it to carry out its duties effectively. While restoring the public's respect and trust in the police is a longer-term goal, immediate steps can be taken to begin that process. The government should provide adequate and timely payment to police officers and improve their working conditions, welfare and equipment, with a view to raising their morale. Mechanisms should be set up to eradicate corruption in the police force and bring to justice police officers responsible for human rights violations. The police should be provided with thorough training, which could be undertaken in conjunction with human rights organizations with expertise in this area, and should include practical application of human rights standards, including the U.N. Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials and the Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials.

This is clearly a recommendation for "Police Reform" for which advocates of Abuja-based federalism and the Nigeria Police Council should be thankful. But it is a solution that will only make worse the problem of insecurity that the Nigerian public feels. This is so because the Nigeria Police Force cannot cope with the expansive and security needs of Abuja and all state capitals; deal with the severe domestic security circumstances of such major cities as Lagos, Ibadan, Warri, Jos, Port Harcourt, Kano, and Onitsha; and then still take care of the domestic security needs of small towns and villages that are now bearing the brunt of armed robberies and other severe forms of crimes. In the Niger Delta, the bulk of police work is focused on protecting foreign oil companies, not the people of the Niger Delta. Even if the resources of the Nigeria Police Force, as it is currently organized, were to be increased tenfold, the use of vigilante groups would not disappear from small towns and villages for which the Nigeria Police Force claims no responsibility at the present time. On the contrary, what is called for is the slimming down of the Nigeria Police Force that will allow it to perform specialized policing functions of a federal nature, leaving regional, local, and petty problems of law and order to state and local police -- in a broad constitutional reform of police formations in Nigeria.

Solution that Will Work: Multiple Police Formations in Nigeria

The main culprit in the malfunctioning of the Nigerian policing establishment is Article 214(1) of the 1999 Constitution, which was made for Nigerians by the departing military regime of Abdulsalami Abubakar. It states so:

214. (1) There shall be a police force for Nigeria, which shall be known as the Nigeria Police Force, and subject to the provisions of this section no other police force shall be established for the Federation or any part thereof.

Until the problems created by this pernicious monopoly of policing responsibilities by the Central Government of Nigeria are resolved, individual security problems of Nigerians will not be solved. This article of the Nigerian Constitution forbids any other police formation that is not under the control of the Federal Government of Nigeria. In effect, this obnoxious Article 214(1) deprives state and local governments of the legitimate function of any government, namely, protecting people in its domain. What is needed in Nigeria now is a radical rethinking about policing that will transcend and correct the distortions that the regimes of colonial and military rule introduced into our political system. Is it not rather awful to assume that the descendants of Benin Kingdom, Oyo, Nupe, or Kanuri have no experiences in managing local police forces of their own and that all wisdom in good government now resides in Abuja?

The prime lesson that flows from the rise of Bakassi Boys and other vigilante groups in modern Nigeria is that towns and villages all over the country are yearning to have their own police formations. In temperament and organization, the Nigeria Police Force is not intended for little towns and villages that may well need small police forces for which they can pay. The notion that Abuja is the source of wisdom in law enforcement is plainly preposterous. When there is an expansion of police formations in Nigeria, some state and community police will fail miserably. But others will shine brilliantly. That is how a federal system works. The current conception of federalism from Abuja is that perfection can only be achieved with guidance from Abuja. The net outcome is that the perfect has become the enemy of the good in a vital area of domestic security in Nigeria.

What I am suggesting is the following. In order to reform Nigerian policing, there is need to reform the Nigerian Constitution by deleting Article 214(1) and by permitting multiple police formations. (1) The Nigeria(n) Police Force should become specialized in matters that are deemed federal in nature. (2) State Police should operate in all of its domain in ways that will address personal security problems in their territories of jurisdiction. (3) Local Governments that can raise revenues (not from Abuja) may also have their own police formations. (4) Towns and villages that are willing and able to pay for their own security should be permitted by State laws to operate their own police forces for the sake of meeting their security needs, such as those that have prompted the rise of vigilante groups in the recent history of Nigeria.

This article was written on May 27, 2002.