If they must be recognised, their right to bear arms should be reviewed

In the course of a public hearing by the House of Representatives Committee on Police Affairs last January, the Speaker, Hon. Yakubu Dogara raised some serious issues about the Vigilante Group of Nigeria (VGN) that is seeking official recognition from the federal government: “Is this a branch of the police force or yet another security service being established by law? It is also pertinent for the committee to find out whether the legal framework sought to be established merely gives authority to an existing organisation by licensing them or whether a general framework is being legislated upon for government to operationalise at its discretion,” said Dogara.

Apparently uncomfortable with the whole concept, Dogara added that if community policing was the main reason for the bill, could that not be operationalised within the purview of the police? “Is vigilante services not part of the social activities by various towns and communities in Nigeria and a residual matter within the authority of state governments? In view of the existence of new security organisations such as Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps and even the Peace Corps of Nigeria that is being proposed, do we still need another at the national level? Do we have the resources to set up yet another security organisation instead of properly funding the existing ones and increasing mandate where necessary?”

There are even more pertinent questions that the speaker did not pose yet need to be addressed: Have the men and officers of the VGN been given adequate training in weapons handling along with the psychological preparation necessary for such responsibilities? Does the organisation have a serious command and control structure that is based on proper processes? Are there clear rules of engagement for these people who bear all sorts of arms? And most importantly, are there clear delineations of responsibilities between them and the police as well as with other intelligence, defence and law enforcement agencies?

According to its mission statement, the Vigilante Group of Nigeria “is to protect and serve the citizens of Nigeria in an effective and efficient manner through the wise use and management of all resources and to ensure the safety and security for each person in our community.” That ordinarily is the duty of the police and other law enforcement agencies. But given the growing challenge of insecurity in our country, Nigerians have come to imbibe the concept of community help by way of “vigilante”, an untrained security outfit of able-bodied men with no defined code of ethics.

If the idea is to improve on security, we can borrow a leaf from other climes where the existence of neighbourhood watch is basically to serve as the third eye which gives information to the police on unusual activities and suspicious faces in their neighbourhoods. In those societies, there is a close synergy between the neighbourhood watch and the security agencies, with the former helping to gather intelligence in areas where the latter lack the required manpower and resources. And on occasions when they assist in nabbing suspected criminals, such suspects are promptly handed over to the police for proper investigation and possible prosecution.

While we are not in any way opposed to efforts by communities to protect themselves against violent hoodlums and night marauders, or for the existence of vigilante groups as part of efforts to tackle the challenging security situation in the country, we do not believe it should become another government-funded security outfit. Also, their right to bear arms, even if such arms are locally made, must be critically reviewed. A situation where known touts and confirmed drug addicts bear arms at night as members of vigilante groups is unacceptable.

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