On 17 February 2021, as students of the Government Science College (GSC) in north-central Niger State slept, they were woken up at midnight by gunshots fired by over 50 bandits who strolled into the school that had no fence but just a single guard as its security layer.
After operating for about three hours in the school without any resistance, despite a police station located less than three kilometres away, the armed gunmen took 42 people hostage — mostly schoolboys averagely aged 15 — and found their way back into the forest.
In the following days, President Buhari was in a fury, and time was running out.
In search of help, Governor Abubakar Sani Bello deployed a local vigilante group into the forests to track and rescue the captives. Their support eventually helped release the school children after ten days in captivity. Now, the governor, like many of his counterparts, is mobilising local security and vigilante groups as the federal police now seem overwhelmed to tackle rising violent crimes.
Vigilantism flourishes with governors’ support
According to the Lagos-based SBM Intelligence security firm, 590 Nigerians were killed in violent attacks recorded in April 2021, with just five states spared.
To help tackle insecurity in their region, governors in the South West region had in January 2020 launched a regional security outfit named ‘Amotekun’ as part of measures to restore peace across the region. Now, more than a year later, their counterparts in the South East have established a similar outfit to “fight and flush out criminals and terrorists from the zone.”
“It is a joint effort by the governors who are coming together to ensure that the efforts of the police and other security agencies are complemented to ensure adequate protection of the residents,” says Louis Amoke, spokesman of the governor of Enugu State where the headquarters of the outfit is located.
Unlike the civilian joint task force (CNJTF) established in 2013 to help fight the Boko Haram insurgency restricted to the north-east at the time, many other security groups are sprouting up in almost all the states and communities. With support from the governors, they come in various forms — either as vigilante groups, regional security outfits or informal community groups.
Okechukwu Nwanguma, executive director of Rule of Law and Accountability Advocacy Centre (RULAAC), an organisation that advocates for police reforms in Nigeria, sees the trend as “the loss of confidence in the ability of the police to secure the country.”
“The police have, over the years, failed to provide security and they themselves are not properly equipped to the extent that they are not able to defend themselves against attacks,” Nwanguma adds.
“Policing is local and must be decentralised so states creating their own security groups is a natural tendency to respond to crimes which are localised and so, if crime is local, it means you also have to deal with it locally.”
Different stroke for different folks
One thing is common in interviews with various state officials: Every governor adopts the framework for the security outfit that works best for them.
Some are establishing laws to back them while others are not; some have a trust fund for them while others empower them as the spirit leads; some supervise their operations while others leave them in the hands of leaders at the local government levels; some are under the control of the police and other security agencies while others are fully independent and report to the state executive.
In the southwest where Amotekun operatives have arrested many suspects since they were drafted into the communities, the various state laws establishing the outfit provide for a framework that stipulates how they will operate including an organisational structure, rules of engagement, governing board among others.
But in southeast Ebonyi State, the governor has deployed operatives of the new security outfit to work with no law backing them yet, while in Niger State, Governor Bello announced that he will arm volunteer security groups who do not have legal backing and are prone to abusing their powers.
In Anambra State, Governor Willie Obiano is “strengthening the synergy between the conventional security agencies with the vigilante groups” with nearly all the councils and communities operating their own vigilante groups supervised by the state, according to James Eze, the governor’s chief press secretary.
“The arrangement is community-based but the control is from the centre because the power of prosecution resides with the state and not with the communities, so, the various vigilante groups still report to the Nigeria police,” he adds.
How independent and effective can the security outfits be?
In Niger, Yunusa Acha, a resident in Rafi LGA, complained that even with the deployment of the local vigilante, his village and neighbouring ones are still not safe, mainly because the group is not as effective as it ought to be.
“We see them around but they are not equipped, so what can they do? And in some cases, the police tell us where to go and where not to go. If the commissioner of police wants to intercept the bandits, he will tell them, ‘go this way’, ‘don’t go this way’” he says, adding that “manipulation is too much.”
Such external influence is not uncommon among commissioners who, most of the time, show their unquestionable loyalty to the presidency. In 2014, Joseph Mbu, who was the police commissioner in the southern Rivers State, was described by the governor as “the toothless attack dog” of the wife of then-president Goodluck Jonathan following a series of controversies involving them.
Also, in 2018, former Governor Ayodele Fayose of Ekiti State claimed that he was “slapped and beaten” by policemen deployed in the state days before its governorship election.
In most cases, as was the case with the two commissioners, the governors in question are mostly known critics of the presidency who are in the opposition party.
“We have seen many cases of abuse of power involving the police hierarchy and when they fight with the governors, the citizens suffer the most because their safety is no longer the priority of the police commissioner in question,” says Philip Aneke, a security expert and rights activist.
State policing and what lies ahead
The moves by governors to seek alternatives in decentralised security outfits is mainly because they do not have a say in the policing of their states as the Nigerian constitution provides — a factor which Nwanguma identifies as “the key factor that inhibits the efficiency of police” in Nigeria.
A bill currently being considered by the National Assembly seeks to address that by amending the 1999 Constitution and creating state police that will operate under the control of the governors with institutions in place to regulate their performance.
Former Deputy Senate President Ike Ekweremadu, the sponsor of the proposed law, told The Africa Report, that Nigeria cannot be playing by the rules of a unitary system of government while hiding under the cloak of federalism.
“Nigeria is the only federation I know in the world that operates unitary police and it is not surprising that it has never worked and it will never work. We must allow state police, which will coexist with the federal police as we have them in other federal states,” Ekweremadu says.
But experts foresee a difficult situation if governors, most of whom find it difficult to pay salaries, are entrusted with a crucial role to manage policing in their states.
Declining oil prices mean that Nigeria might not be able to add additional revenue due to pressure from states who have been unable to fully develop their internal resources, with at least 80% of them unable to survive without federal allocations, according to a 2020 report by the fiscal transparency nonprofit BudgIT.
In Niger, Zakari Mai, a member of the local vigilante group, spoke of how he and other vigilantes have been struggling with poor welfare. “In my local government here, we are not working on our own,” he says as his voice breaks through the phone. “They don’t allow us to work and most of us are not paid. How can we manage to work?”
But even the federal police are not any better: Policemen have in the past staged a protest over poor welfare and owed salaries, including those of them fighting Boko Haram in the northeast.
“The most important thing is that there are modalities put in place to ensure that they are not left at the absolute control of the state governors,” Nwanguma says.
There are also concerns of abuse of power by the governors if they are left to control the security architecture in their states.
For instance, according to the state police bill, governors are empowered to appoint or remove a commissioner of police on the advice of the National Police Service Commission — chaired by whoever the governor chooses — subject to confirmation of such appointment by the State House of Assembly — whose members are often seen as the governor’s loyalists in the various states.
“If governors are left to solely manage the security of their states, he can use the commissioner of police to arrest and jail his opponents and there is nothing anyone can do about that,” says Philip.
Although Ekweremadu says the commissioner in question can decline a request from a governor and refer him to the state police service commission if he or she “feels that the order given is unlawful or contradicts general policing standards or practice”, the show of force that governors have exhibited in the past means this won’t be any easy.
As insecurity bites harder across Nigeria, the prolonged demand for state police is gradually maturing into informal security outfits, which could worsen the state of states whose survival is mostly dependent on how much they get as monthly allocation from Abuja, the seat of power.
While some believe this will help Nigeria address its prolonged security challenges, with policing now localised, others feel a disjointed approach and influx of security outfits could further complicate things without making much difference.
Moreover, the problem of the police is multidimensional, as put by Nwanguma, and for things to get better, he says the government “must show genuine commitment to police reforms” with improvement in their welfare, number and capacity, beyond seeking succour with informal outfits.