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”.

“The police are strangers, so we need to help them”

Marcus Ayankoya is the Regional Commandant of Ijebu, in the Vigilante Group of Nigeria (VGN).
There aren’t enough policemen, and they aren’t locals. We’re indigenous, we know individuals personally, so we can trace people more easily. The police are strangers, so we need to help them. The police are happy to work with us: I'm on operation with them regularly. If we find something out, we go to them with our information, and if they need us, they come to us. We can arrest people, but we cannot detain people. When we arrest someone, we immediately handover them over to the police, and it’s the police who investigate and prosecute.
Photo published on Facebook page belong to the Vigilante Group of Nigeria
We don’t have problems with Islamist militants here; our big problem is armed robbery.
Many people in our community have a crime alert on their mobile phones, which means when there’s a problem they don’t have to ring us, they just dial a code and we receive the alert. Then we know to send a team down to where they are. The alert will tell us their address and their name. It helps us. In one day we might received up to five alerts, but on others, if there’s no crime, we won’t receive any.
Photo published on the Facebook page belonging to the Vigilante Group of Nigeria
We have an office which is staffed all the time, but none of us are paid. This is not my full-time job: I’m a teacher. I do it when I’m not at work, or when there’s an emergency I’ll get call and I’ll leave work. We’re hoping that soon the job will become full-time and paid.

“It was reassuring to know the vigilantes were there”

Ifeyinwa Elueze grew up near Lagos.
When I was growing up there was a lot of crime. The vigilante group near me would patrol about six or seven men at a time. At night I’d hear them: they’d make a noise with some kind of instrument or whistle, and I’d know they were there. It was reassuring to know the vigilantes were there.
The problem is they don’t have legal backing, many of them are unemployed, they might not be accountable to anyone, they have no legal recognition and so there’s a problem with recognising them in the street. People who aren’t vigilantes can pretend to be vigilantes, so you trust them, and then they rob you, or commit some other crime.
They didn’t have guns; they had batons. They didn’t wear uniforms. In some communities they’re sponsored by a rich person who has access to arms, which they give to the vigilantes.
I hope that in ten or twenty years things will be more organised so that there won’t be a need for vigilantes. Criminals take advantage of the need for vigilantes to do things that are evil. Civil society groups who inform and educate about crime would be fine, but not people who go out and fight.