BEFORE PASSING THE VIGILANTE BILL

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Their conduct and mode of operation must be clearly spelt out

The Emir of Ilorin, Alhaji Ibrahim Sulu-Gambari, recently urged the National Assembly to ensure a quick passage of the bill before them for the establishment of Vigilante Group of Nigeria (VGN) which he said has been very effective in dealing with issues of hooliganism and public disturbance. Since the vigilante has become part of our national security architecture, there is nothing new in the call while the law to regulate their operations is in order. However, it is one idea that has to be handled with care by the National Assembly.

While the bill scaled second reading in the House of Representatives in November last year, opinions are still divided as many people feel that turning the Vigilante to another force will amount to duplicating the functions of the police, Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC) and other security agencies. The argument is that rather than create a new outfit, government should beef up the existing security outfits for optimal performance. But we believe a middle-of-the-road approach that will confer on the VGN a measure of recognition without turning them into another official security outfit will be more useful.

What the authorities must never ignore is that the internal security nightmare in the country cannot be resolved through ad hoc measures. Yet the current emphasis seems to be the use of the armed forces to deal with internal security issues ranging from insurgency to kidnapping and armed banditry. Even this is in itself an ad hoc arrangement. The armed forces were never trained or configured for internal security roles except in extreme situations where the territorial integrity and unity of the country are threatened.

However, because the police had remained ill-equipped, badly trained, under motivated and even numerically inadequate, internal security has now practically been outsourced to the army. Moreover, the threat level and sophistication of our current internal security challenges are a bit higher than what the police as a civil force can contain. That is why the VGN, because they relate more like community police and understand the terrain where they operate, become very handy.

The challenge is that Nigerians who pose a threat to our internal security remain our nationals even if they occasionally behave like foreign adversaries. We cannot therefore continue to contain them with the maximum ferocity of military force without risking more human rights violations. We already have too many such violations and the world is taking note. Clearly then, there is a crying need for an intermediate internal security force. This is where the VGN comes in.

However, it is better to integrate them into a coherent national formation. The issues of regulation of their mode of operations, uniformity of code of conduct and even physical appearance must be addressed only through a legislative ordering. Otherwise, we will merely be licensing mobs and squads of killers and armed robbers. Since their contingents are mostly locals who understand the terrain, they can be brought in when the threat level overwhelms the police but does not warrant military intervention.

To the extent that we cannot make the military a permanent feature of our internal security strategy, the idea of institutionalising the VGN is not bad. But it should nonetheless still be handled with care. Given that most of the members were employed almost without any background security vetting, there is an urgent need to put in place an internal mechanism to ensure that they do not end up giving weapons to criminals. We therefore implore the relevant authorities to critically examine some of the highlighted issues so that we do not unwittingly create a new problem in the process of solving an old one.