Beyond the Vigilante Republic

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 GUEST COLUMNIST: CHIDI AMUTA 

Nigeria’s current national security situation is peculiar in many ways. The nation seems besieged on most fronts by its very self. By official admission, over 30 of our 36 states can be described as under one form of undeclared emergency or the other. Official acknowledgment of this is not speculative. The military and allied security forces are actively deployed on diverse security duties in these states. In a few of them such as Lagos, Bayelsa, Borno, Rivers, Adamawa and Delta the military has recently had to go into active combat deployment with air support in a bid to secure strategic national assets and disperse trouble makers. Some of these engagements remain ongoing.

The enemy is however not some ambitious or overpowering external adversary. It is within. Everybody is angry with everybody and the swords of wrath are turned inwards. There appear to be few hiding places from militants, armed robbers, kidnappers, insurgents and club wielding zealots of assorted faiths.

The military is complemented in this undeclared national emergency by a variety of official paramilitary outfits: the police, State Security Services, and Civil Defence Corps etc. Add to these an ever-increasing number of officially sanctioned vigilante forces at state and local government levels. In the active theatres of insurgency, there is something called Civilian JTF, an assortment of hunters, jobless youth, local rascals and miscreants wielding arsenals ranging from machetes, bows and arrows, clubs, charms and amulets and sometimes Dane guns.

At this writing, more states are finding it fashionable and expedient to emplace local vigilantes for yet unclear reasons. In a country where elections are fought like civil wars, there is no way of knowing to what other uses some of these vigilantes could be put in future. Borno, Yobe, Adamawa, Kaduna, Abia, Anambra, Akwa Ibom and some states in the South-west all have one form of officially recognised active vigilante or the other. These outfits ostensibly exist to augment shortfalls in official security and law enforcement capabilities.

In the more volatile resource rich states (Rivers, Bayelsa, Delta, parts of Ondo and Imo), however, the vigilantes exist for themselves. In these places, they are formidable micro private armies, fully armed and arrayed in active confrontation with federal security forces. The interests they are out to protect are theirs. Simply, they want a piece of the oil royalties. Often, these resource hungry miscreants dress up their financial interests in higher socio-economic garbs (resource control, environmental degradation, minority rights etc.). The real object is to blackmail Abuja into some appeasement gesture. Membership of these militias is drawn from an over flowing army of unemployed and unemployable youth. Their acronyms have recently been on the increase in direct proportion to the profitability of the enterprise: MEND, NDA, MASSOB, IPOB, OPC, AREWA Youth Movement etc. More acronyms may be on the way as the ‘industry’ assumes a more prolific Nigerian coloration.

What we have therefore is a worrying state of increasing national insecurity in which the national landscape wears the semblance of a state at war. Combat ready troops in battle fatigue, police personnel constantly in paramilitary roles rather than civil law enforcement duties, civilian volunteer forces pretending to be assisting the official armed forces sometimes at the invitation of the former. There is a general siege psychology in which people leave home fearing they might be kidnapped, assassinated, abducted or harassed for ransom by bandits in or out of uniform.

At the bottom of the existence of all these militant formations is access to a frightening array of unlicensed arms including weapons of war, which are then used to challenge the nation’s sovereignty and the state’s monopoly of violence. Whether we are talking of government licensed vigilantes or the more audacious Boko Haram or other insurgent militias, the core issue is the withering strength and influence of the Nigerian state vis-a-vis the rising ferocity, fire power and political influence of armed non state actors. A state that needs the rising number of uncoordinated vigilantes to prop up the failing security apparatus is obviously failing.

Similarly a state that appears helpless in the face of heavily armed insurgent militias and even offers to engage them in dialogue, pay ransom or grant amnesty to common criminals is openly advertising its incapacitation and incipient failure.

This is not to simplify a clearly complex national security challenge. It is also not an attempt to downplay what has been recently achieved in containing these threats to our national security. Yet, we need to underline the credibility of the threats in order to deal with them. Even then, there is need to admit that moving decisively to crush the insurgent militias is an objective that the Nigerian military can achieve very quickly. But then, the militias are Nigerians. Some of the causes they are espousing are legitimate national blind spots. Therefore, the Nigerian military has a limitation in moving decisively against these organisations without incurring gross international human rights liabilities and alienating local communities.

What Nigeria is experiencing has a contemporary international character. The nation state was the building block of the Westphalian order which was adopted as the principle of the establishment of the United Nations to ensure world peace and global order after the Second World War. The mushrooming of armed non-state actors mostly in the Middle East and Africa is today challenging that system of order. These non-state actors are able to disturb global peace and order within individual nations because of their relatively easy access to an assortment of illegal weapons of war. Nigeria’s multiple militias and armed separatists belong in this nascent fold.

Decades of war and anarchy in troubled parts of the world have put incredibly dangerous weapons in the hands of a motley of ambitious warlords who are actively challenging states as we have come to know them. In Nigeria, the bad guns have come from all directions: from the back door of the official armoury, the civil wars in Liberia, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Chad, Libya and Sudan.

Ordinarily, the forces contesting control of Nigeria with the federal government should stand no chance against a military establishment that has been battle tested in a civil war and countless peace enforcement and peace keeping operations all over the world. But the rules that govern conventional forces are quite different from the gangster codes of these unconventional armed groups. What makes the vigilantes and non-state ‘armies’ and formations more frightening is that they have no rulebooks. No hierarchy, no order, no command and control, no operational protocols, no centralised authority. Pretty much like the alibaba churches, a man can declare himself bishop or pope, commander in chief, capo etc. On several occasions during the dying days of the beleaguered Jonathan tenure, leaders of Niger Delta militants gathered to articulate solidarity for the man’s re-election bid. In an advertorial in several national dailies, the gathered militant leaders all signed off as ‘Generals’ of their respective creek ‘armies’. There was neither official nor public outcry. Anything goes in Nigeria!

In contrast, the official armed forces minimally follow civilised processes. There are minimum recruitment requirements. There is a chain of command. There is command and control without which any army becomes an irate mob of state licensed killers. People undergo training, are indoctrinated so they know what they are defending and are likely to die for. A formation of trained men under arms expects that the enemy has also undergone more or less the same training and would obey the rules of war. This is the underlying assumption of modern warfare. But when confronted by irate vigilantes and militias, shooting randomly, conventional forces tend to disintegrate in utter bewilderment and terror. That is one reason why these counter insurgency and anti-terrorist operations last so long.

Thus emboldened, the affront on the state by non-state contenders for armed supremacy intensifies. Their boldness is shown in their routine encroachment into areas that used to be the exclusive preserve of governments. They wear uniforms, bear frightening arms, assume titles and ranks that used to be for conventional armed forces. In fact, the uniforms and outfits of the militias are more intimidating than those of the official armed forces. Mr. Shekau and his comrades pose daringly in battle fatigue in front of tanks and armoured personnel carriers and other intimidating weapons of war. Formations of the Niger Delta militants parade the waterways carrying sophisticated machine guns with limitless rounds of ammunition.

The virtual siege on the nation is coming at a time when we should feel most secure. Our president is Muhammadu Buhari, who is easily the most feared among the ageing breed of ex-military leaders who rode to national prominence on the battle tanks of the civil war.

Perhaps Goodluck Jonathan could be excused for not reining in Boko Haram as and when he should have on account of his military innocence. But for Buhari to be presiding over a nation besieged on all fronts by assorted criminality, armed insurgency and open degradations of the sovereignty of the Federal Republic says something of the state of our national security.

The road to the restoration of national security and order will involve difficult choices and measures. First, we need a revision of existing gun laws. The law that allows the police to license responsible individuals to legally possess certain categories of non-lethal firearms for sporting purposes remains excusable and sensible. But the illegal acquisition of weapons of war by all manner of miscreants remains a crime and should be treated as such. Therefore, all participants in insurgent and militant confrontations with the federal government and the Nigeria armed forces are first and foremost criminals by virtue of their violation of existing gun laws.

The revision and rigorous enforcement of a revised and enlarged gun law ought to proceed in tandem with the ongoing military operations. Where there have been threats that are organised and targeted at overthrowing the state, treason is the word. The federal government must be resolute in the enforcement of the constitutional and other extant laws on treason in all its ramifications.

The new normal in which the armed forces are more engaged in internal security operations than training to protect the country from external foes is an aberration. It degrades their professionalism and downgrades the civil essence of a democratic polity.

Clearly, the increasing complexity of our internal security challenges overwhelms the police and civil defence corps. But the answer is not the ad hoc convening of rag tag vigilantes or the yielding of space for the rise of armed militia gangs. The desirable alternative is first the formation of a National Guard with state based contingents that are conversant with the local terrain and security circumstances. To complement this would be a constitutional revision that allows for the establishment of state police as has been canvassed variously.

· Dr. Amuta is Chairman, Wilson & Weizmann Associates Ltd, Lagos