Crime is notoriously rife in Africa’s most populous country. Unwilling to become victims of armed robberies and violent assaults, many of Nigeria’s 163 million inhabitants accept patrols that comb the streets for criminals and set up guard outside households and businesses as part of daily life. But their protectors are not necessarily members of the official security forces: they are often local vigilantes who have taken it upon themselves to protect their communities when they feel the police are not up to the job.
Vigilantes have long been a feature of Nigerian society. As residents of the communities they protect, they tend to enjoy a more trusting relationship with community members than regular police officers do. Incidents of police brutality and inefficiency encourage the public to turn towards vigilantes in their neighbourhoods. A national survey
carried out by the CLEEN Foundation
in 2012 found a mere 50% Nigerians were willing to report crimes to the police, which itself is an improvement on past police engagement figures. CLEEN is a Lagos-based NGO that aims to reduce crime by promoting accessible justice and dialogue.
Many vigilantes also have a difficult relationship with the police and prefer dealing with captured criminals themselves. At times uneducated and unaware of the legal framework, they do not always report crimes and some take the people they arrest to their traditional rulers, effectively taking justice into their own hands.
Vigilante groups come in numerous shapes and sizes: some belong to organised, nationwide structures while others are made up of a dozen or so unemployed locals. They are a far cry from the mob justice groups that have caused public outage in recent years and helped make ‘vigilante’ a somewhat negative term. In October 2012 four University students
were burnt alive by locals in Port Harcourt who accused them of being thieves. The event was filmed and posted on the internet, reigniting the debate on vigilantism in Nigeria and prompting calls to ban vigilantes altogether.
To avoid association with mob justice groups, the CLEEN Foundations refers to vigilantes as voluntary or community police officers. Its Executive Director, Kemi Okenyodo, told France 24 “they won’t go away, and a lasting solution needs to be found that opens channels of discussion between the police, the public and voluntary police services”.