Academic journal article Africa

Introduction the Politics of Protection: Perspectives on Vigilantism in Nigeria

Academic journal article Africa

Introduction the Politics of Protection: Perspectives on Vigilantism in Nigeria

Article excerpt

Vigilantism has become an endemic feature of the Nigerian social and political landscape. The emergence of night guards and vigilante groups as popular responses to theft and armed robbery has a long and varied history in Nigeria. Since the return to democracy in 1999, however, Nigeria has witnessed a proliferation of vigilantism: vigilante groups have organized at a variety of levels from lineage to ethnic group, in a variety of locations from village ward to city street, and for a variety of reasons from crime fighting to political lobbying. Indeed, vigilantism has captured such a range of local, national and international dynamics that it provides a sharply focused lens for students of Nigeria's political economy and its most intractable issues--the politics of democracy, ethnicity and religion.

Contemporary Nigerian vigilantism concerns a range of local and global dynamics beyond informal justice. In the Yoruba-speaking south-west crime fighting has been led by the O'odua People's Congress (OPC) (Akinyele 2001; Nolte 2004, 2007); in the eastern states by the Bakassi Boys (Baker 2002b; Ukiwo 2002; Harnischfeger 2003; Smith 2004; Meagher 2007); and across the north by shari'a implementation committees or hisba (Last 2004; Casey 2007). Beyond fighting crime, these groups spearhead contemporary political contests between the politics of identity and citizenship, and represent divergent aspirations for Nigeria's future including a pro-shari'a movement in the north and ethnic nationalism in the west. Ongoing claims of extra-judicial executions and torture, combined with evidence that vigilante groups were involved in ethnic and religious clashes in 2000 and 2001, have brought censure from the international human rights community (Human Rights Watch 2002, 2003, 2004; Amnesty International 2002), attempts at prohibition by the federal government, and ongoing contests with local authorities over the right to judge and punish crimes. In short, these vigilantes have assumed a status synonymous with the fractured and violence-ridden image of Africa's most populous nation.

A comprehensive history of vigilantism and policing in Nigeria is beyond the scope of this issue and in its localized plurality would prove elusive. However, it is evident that groups of young men or hunters based on lineage, compounds and urban wards were common precolonial bodies organized for the protection of person and property. Almost all types of jurisdictional authority operating beyond the sanction of the state were criminalized up to the Second World War. But by the 1940s a piecemeal authorization of systems of night guards had emerged across the country. This coincided both with a key moment of vulnerability for colonial security forces during the war and with a period of more effective reform in the colonial police. As Anderson and Killingray have noted, however, these improvements were 'to a large extent directed at strengthening the ability of the colonial state to coerce an increasing number of industrial, agrarian and political opponents more effectively' (Anderson and Killingray 1991:12). Indeed, across the continent colonial policing was far more concerned with the protection of property and with the maintenance of social order than with the prevention or detection of crime. Tamuno has argued that in Nigeria throughout the colonial period the distinction between soldiers and police was almost meaningless for the population at large and that the Nigeria Police Force has never shaken off its quasi-military origins (Tamuno 1970). Recent periods of military rule in the country, it is further suggested, have only served to accentuate the military character of the police force (Ekeh 2002).

Fourchard's historical analysis in this collection disputes the commonly assumed watershed moments in the parallel development of Nigerian vigilantism. First, he demonstrates that popular responses to armed robbery did not commence in the aftermath of the Nigerian Civil War, as is commonly understood, but rather emerged from the 1930s onwards and developed with the proliferation of firearms and the availability of cars from the late 1950s. …

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