In the early days of what was then viewed as a menace, my elder brother, who was at the time working in Borno, first told me about locals organising themselves into groups to take on Boko Haram in the face of what appeared like the helplessness of the military against the terrorists at that time. I was of course aghast then owing to the sheer horror of considering the one thousand and one things that could go wrong when citizens form themselves into positions to go after criminals. Getting killed was not the worst of them.
I had worried about the potential for the group to metamorphosize into an ugly crowd that would use the cover of fighting terror to settle long standing intra and inter-community squabbles. In this same country we have seen what happens to innocent people even in peaceful areas where people have used vigilantes to exact revenge on long standing adversaries.
My second worry was what would become of the vigilante youths once the Boko Haram terrorists were defeated or when the military picked up the slack that was present under the immediate past administration. The thing then was that I saw a future where youths who have had course to bear arms – even if they were the locally made ones, would be left to roam the north-east without employment. My theory then was that the vigilantes would simply evolve to become a new problem post Boko Haram defeat.
There was further an issue that we do not count much on in this country, mental health. I was afraid that the violent and always bloody encounters the youths were having with terrorists would create an avalanche of persons suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) on a scale that could cause major social dislocation. The idea was that while everyone in the north-eastern towns and cities was being traumatised one way or the other by the persistent terror attacks, youths that go out of their way to confront Boko Haram were specifically asking to be unwell in the head going by the encounter they always have.
The youths were however more savvy than I gave them credit for. First, they organised and branded themselves as Civilian JTF, a run on the tag ‘Joint Task Force that defined the combined military operation against the terrorists in the axis. This development ensured they did not become the psychopathic crowd I feared. Instead they have members that operated under agreed rules that ensured not much crazy news to come from their operations. They of course recorded successes in working alone under the previous administration and with the military under the current dispensation.
The present leadership of the military services turned the tide against Boko Haram and recorded massive success with the technical defeat of the insurgents. This gave rise to the second problem – what to do with the battle hardened Civilian JTF youths once the terrorists have been defeated.
The recent news that as many as 250 of them have been trained and absorbed into the Nigerian Army and many others integrated into the Department of State Services (DSS) is therefore welcomed.It is a creative solution that means the youths would have been put through formal training and made part of a structured organisation. Down the line, when it is time to hang their weapons, if they are issued some in service, they would be turning in their government issued weapons and demobilising in accordance with known regulations and not just disappearing into the others.
This move of absorbing them is like embarking on community policing and President Muhammadu Buhari must be commended for this initiative. Apart from addressing my second fear it also ensures that the military now have locals who understand the terrain as well as Boko Haram fighters understand it and should thus bring some gains for the anti-terror fight. All things being equal, it is a matter of time before the military is able to clean out the remaining terrorists and declare a conclusive end of the war on Boko Haram.
Since the Civilian JTF comprise more than the number so far accepted into the Army and DSS, the government must scale up the strategy since to incorporate more of the vigilantes. They would similarly prove useful in Immigration Service for border patrol and with the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps. Beyond the inherent advantages identified I also see the compelling need for diverse operations that are not necessarily military in nature but with security implications that must be undertaken in that axis and these other agencies are the right platforms to use in exploiting the vigilantes’ unique skills in preventing the terrorists from regrouping or resurging once defeated.
My other concern however remains and must not be treated with levity. PTSD is real and must be treated as such among the former and current Civilian JTF. I think professional intervention is needed given the toll of conditions taking on the individual and the society. My suggestion is that the Army being the service that likely has the best capacity to deal with this should be strengthened and mandated to make the necessary interventions. This mandate should include assisting even the ex-vigilantes that were or would be absorbed by other services and agencies.
As crises entrepreneurs that have been dislodged from the north-east have made the south-south their new base of operations, it behoves youths in this area to learn from the Civilian JTF that rose up against Boko Haram instead of shielding them. I am of the opinion that the stories of these vigilantes have something for us all and should be taken with all seriousness.
By Anthony Kolawole
Kolawole PhD is a University lecturer and contributed this piece from Keffi, Nasarawa State.