Academic journal article Africa

'The Thief Eats His Shame': Practice and Power in Nigerian Vigilantism

Academic journal article Africa

'The Thief Eats His Shame': Practice and Power in Nigerian Vigilantism

Article excerpt


Contemporary Nigerian vigilantism concerns a range of local and global dynamics beyond informal justice. It is a lens on the politics of post-colonial Africa, on the current political economy of Nigeria, and on its most intractable issues--the politics of democracy, ethnicity and religion. The legitimation of vigilante activity has extended beyond dissatisfaction with current levels of law and order and the failings of the Nigeria Police. To understand the local legitimacy of vigilantism in post-colonial Nigeria, indeed, it is also necessary to recognize its internal imperatives. Vigilantism in this context is embedded in narratives of contested rights, in familiar everyday practices, understandings of personhood and knowledge, and in alternative, older registers of governmentality. In addition to mapping temporal and spatial communities in which young men are vested with the right to exercise justice, this article assesses the legitimacy of Annang vigilantism within cultural frameworks of accountability linked to conceptions of agency, personhood and power, and the oppositions this produces between vigilantes and thieves.


Le vigilantisme nigerian contemporain concerne un ensemble de dynamiques locales et globales au-dela de la justice informelle. Il offre une perspective de la politique de l'Afrique post-coloniale, de l'economie politique actuelle du Nigeria et de ses problemes les plus ardus, a savoir la politique de la democratie, de l'ethnicite et de la religion. La legitimation de l'activite des vigilantes a depasse le cadre du mecontentement vis-a-vis du niveau actuel de maintien de l'ordre et des defaillances de la police nigeriane. Pour comprendre la legitimite locale du vigilantisme dans le Nigeria post-colonial, il faut en effet egalement reconnaitre ses imperatifs internes. Le vigilantisme, dans ce contexte, s'inscrit dans des narratifs de droits contestes, dans des pratiques quotidiennes familieres, dans des interpretations de la notion de personne et de savoir, ainsi que dans d'autres registres plus anciens de gouvernementalite. Outre le mappage des communautes temporelles et spatiales au sein desquelles les hommes jeunes sont investis du droit d'exercer la justice, cet article evalue la legitimite du vigilantisme annang dans des cadres de responsabilite culturels lies a l'action, a la personne et au pouvoir, ainsi que les oppositions que cette legitimite engendre entre les vigilantes et les voleurs.


Beyond the headlines captured by high-profile Nigerian vigilantes such as the hisba, the Bakassi Boys and the O'odua People's Congress, night guards and vigilantes have been a popular local response to theft, armed robbery and threats to security--from rural lineage to urban street, right across the country. The legitimation of this vigilante activity, of both its regional and local forms, has extended beyond dissatisfaction with current levels of law and order and the failings of the Nigeria Police.

The way in which ordinary men and women devise and support alternative strategies to mete out immediate justice or to organize vigilante groups has been seen, for instance, as a coping mechanism in the face of a predatory state (Chabal and Daloz 1999). It has also been argued that a range of factors contribute to a 'political imagination' that serves to legitimate vigilante operations. These imaginings include conceptions of the elite status and illegitimate wealth of the criminals they target; the normalization of violence as an ethical response against disorder; and the vigilantes' symbolic status as 'superheroes' (Smith 2004). The various regional vigilante movements (including hisba, Bakassi Boys and OPC) are also claimed to draw legitimacy from the way in which they have defended the interests of their ethnic and religious communities. Here Nigerian vigilantes, as ethnic militia, have been located in the context of West Africa's 'collapsed states' and what Reno calls the politics of insurgency. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.