A couple who were part of a citizen patrol in Gambaru, a town in Borno state, in northeast Nigeria, were recently killed by Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram. Known locally as 'vigilance committees’, these groups are made up of civilians, who alongside the authorities, are engaged in the fight against terrorism. It’s not the first time members of one of these committees have been targeted in this border zone, where Boko Haram remains very active.
The town of Gambaru is located on the border with Cameroon (in red on the map). Boko Haram fighters attacked it for the first time in May 2014, killing more than 300 residents, before taking over the town that August. Many residents fled to nearby Fotokol (marked in blue on the map), a town located across the border in Cameroon. The only separation between these two towns is a bridge.
That year the terrorist group made several incursions into Cameroon.
In February 2015, the Chadian army liberated Gambaru. However the army quickly withdrew from the town, leaving it once again to the mercy of the terrorist group. The Nigerian army took it back that September.
Boko Haram also attacked the Cameroonian city of Fotokol several times in 2015.
>> READ ON THE OBSERVERS: Boko Haram’s lesser-known reign of terror in southeast Niger
The situation in this border zone calmed down in 2016 and 2017, before worsening again in early 2018.
"The people who are working with the authorities in the fight against Boko Haram are targeted"
Ali (not his real name) is our Observer in Fotokol, Cameroon. He regularly crosses the border to go to Gambaru, Nigeria.
Since the beginning of the year, Boko Haram has carried out several attacks, especially on the Nigerian side. It’s like we are back in 2015…
In early January, a suicide bomber blew himself up near a mosque in Gambaru, killing several people [Editor’s note: At least 14, according to security sources]. On another day, in the same city, soldiers managed to stop two girl female suicide bombers from blowing themselves up.
On March 1, Boko Haram fighters also attacked Rann [Editor’s note: A Nigerian town located about 40 kilometres to the east of Gambaru, identified in green on the map below]. A friend who lives there told me that they arrived in four pickup trucks. They killed numerous soldiers and civilians, including an employee of Unicef and two from the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
On the Cameroonian side, Boko Haram has mostly been going after livestock and goats since the beginning of the year. But most of the villages along the border are just abandoned.
Boko Haram usually targets soldiers. But all of the people who collaborate with the intelligence services and the authorities in the fight against Boko Haram are also potential targets, especially traditional chiefs and members of the vigilance committees. The vigilance committees started up around 2014 on both sides of the border when Boko Haram really became a threat to the region.
>> READ ON THE OBSERVERS: Boko Haram targets tribal chiefs in northern Cameroon
On the night of March 8, Boko Haram fighters killed a couple in their home in the Fulatari neighbourhood in Gambaru. The couple belonged to one of the vigilance committees.
When they heard gunshots, other members of the committee intervened and killed the assailants. The army took their weapons. A few weeks earlier, another member of a vigilance committee had his throat slit in Gambaru…
One of the Boko Haram fighters who killed the couple the night of March 8 in Gambaru. He was then killed by members of the vigilance committee. (Photo blurred by France 24.)
"In Gambaru, members of the vigilance committee got 12 calibre guns from the authorities”
In Gambaru, Fotokol and other nearby villages, there are vigilance committees in every neighbourhood.
They question pedestrians and stop and search passing cars. They are thorough. They open up suitcases. They are armed with metal detectors, and search people who are going into the mosques for Friday prayers.
They know the local people well, so they can easily flag suspicious persons to the army. They keep watch at night and carry out patrols on their motorbikes. In Gambaru, they even have some pick-up trucks. In theory, if there is a Boko Haram attack, they do not intervene directly but will alert the army.
In Gambaru, authorities provide members of the vigilance committees with a salary. And, since January, the authorities have also been supplying vigilantes with 12 calibre guns--before, the vigilance committees were only armed with machetes, bow and arrows and knives – because the army can’t keep the situation under control.
Now, they are practically soldiers. The members of these committees joined on a volunteer basis. There are some women in the intelligence teams, who provide the authorities with information.
In Fotokol, it’s a bit different. Mostly, it is the traditional chiefs who set up these committees and, sometimes, call on people to join. Their members don’t have a regular salary, they just get paid from time to time. They are only armed with machetes, bow and arrows and knives. But it is important to add that the Cameroonian army has much more of a presence in the region [than the Nigerian army in Gambaru] – they have about a dozen bases around Fotokol.
Article written by Chloé Lauvergnier (@clauvergnier).
In Cameroon, thousands of young people have already joined vigilance committees, according to French daily newspaper Le Monde. On several occasions, the government has commended their efforts and efficiency in the fight against Boko Haram.