By Samuel Malik
The youth vigilante group in Borno state is growing into a powerful army of mainly uncontrollable youths who might pose enormous security problems in future
Twenty-five year old Maimuna Mohammed Bukar, from Machina in Yobe State, has a gripping, pathetic and tragic story to tell, the type one sees only in movies. She is an HIV patient but that is not the worst part of her sad tale. She was infected by her husband who has since died from the disease. Soon after she lost her husband, three of Maimuna’s children, including a set of twins, who were sick at the same time as their father, also died because the family could not afford to pay for their treatment.
However, fate smiled on her briefly as she soon found a suitor who wanted to marry her. But because it was common knowledge in her village that her husband died of HIV, she was advised to check her status. That was how she found out that she was HIV positive. It was just two weeks to her planned wedding.
Because of her status, her new found joy was shattered as the wedding was called off. With her nuptial dreams shattered and a deadly disease to deal with, Maimuna left her village in Yobe State to seek treatment at the University of Maiduguri Teaching Hospital. She had relatives in Maiduguri who could take care of her while she received treatment.
However, her life was to be plunged into deeper tragedy as she got entangled with members of the youth vigilante group in Borno State popularly known as Civilian JTF.
In November 2014, Maimuna was raped by a member of the Civilian JTF and two of his friend. Now, she is six months pregnant with twins and does not know who among the three persons that raped her is responsible..
One of the boys, Mallam, had wanted to date her but she refused. After he insisted on knowing why she would not date him, she told him she had HIV.
But one day Mallam saw her with another man and concluded that the HIV story was a yarn. Because Maimuna and his male friend were seen at a time when a curfew was in effect, Mallam, along with three other Civilain JTF members arrested her, leaving her friend.
When they got to a secluded area, they told her they would take turns sleeping with her or report her to the military for breaking the curfew.
She pleaded with them and even told them about her HIV status but they would not listen
“Three of the four boys raped me while the fourth held me down. When the three were done, they told the fourth that I was too tired and needed rest. So, they gave him money as compensation,” Maimuna told our reporter in Maiduguri recently.
When she discovered she was pregnant, she told Mallam who bought her some drugs to abort it. Unknown to both of them, the drugs were sleeping pills. So the pregnancy remained and her family found out.
The case was reported at a police station and the boys were arrested but they were released and only made to sign an undertaking to provide financial assistant till she gives birth.
Mallam and his colleagues were released because they are members of the Civilian JTF and thus “untouchables” who are virtually above the law and can “do and undo”
The youth vigilante group that has helped the Nigerian military in the fight against Boko Haram has become a powerful and influential force in Borno and other insurgency ravaged states in the North east.
Members of this group, many who have received some tactical military training and now own arms have virtually become a law unto themselves, perpetrating all kinds of crimes, knowing that they can hardly be brought to book.
As the Nigerian military, with the help of neighbouring forces, continues to decimate the Boko Haram terrorist group, not a few people are concerned about the fate of members of the Civilian JTF, an army of largely illiterate boys who have tasted the power of military might, in the near future.
From their initial offer to help the military deal with the insurgency, the Civilian JTF has been accused of gradually becoming a law unto itself, perpetrating vices like rape, armed robbery, stealing, killings and harassment of innocent people
Birth of Civilian JTF
Worried by the lack of progress made by security forces in the war against Boko Haram and the way civilians were being treated, the youths in Borno State, which was at the centre of the insurgency decided to do something.
“We were forced to come out by the military,” Abba Aji Kalli, coordinator of the Civilian JTF in Borno State said.
“The military would come to our area, surround the place and arrest both innocent and guilty and take them to the barracks. Sometimes, if there was any attack on the military or bomb blast, they would come and start harassing everybody,” he recalled.
Things were different in the beginning when the insurgency began in 2009. Kalli said civilians cooperated fully with the police, who were then in charge. But things changed when informants started turning up dead.
“We started identifying suspects to the police but we realised that when a suspect was identified and arrested, they were soon released and a few days later the person who identified them was killed.
“That fear entered the public and people refused to cooperate when the military came because they thought it would be the same as before,” he explained.
But as the pressure from the military increased, they felt they’d had enough, and so sometimes in 2011, according to Kalli, one youth did something that altered the way they were treated.
Lawal Jafar, a youth in Hausari, Maiduguri, saw an armed Boko Haram member and decided to accost him. Other youths came out to assist and that was how the communal involvement in the fight against Boko Haram started.
More youths showed interest to be part of this new movement and when the Borno State government was approached, it agreed to recognise them and they were registered as a group, the Borno Youth Empowerment Scheme, BOYES.
It was learnt that three weeks training was given to about 2,000 selected boys from all local governments. A stipend of N15, 000 every month was also approved for them.
But the truth is that over the years, the movement has caught on and the vigilante group has grown in number to more than 30,000 youths, although only about 3,000 of them are officially registered and recognised by the government.
There have been positive contributions by the group to the fight against insurgency, something Kalli said boils down to their understanding of the local terrains better than the soldiers, most of who were deployed from other states.
“They did not know the terrain and could not identify the insurgents but we could because we live in the communities. We would mobilise, go to an area, make arrests and bring them to the military,” the Civilian JTF coordinator stated.
Doing more harm than good
Despite the successes the young lads helped to achieve in the war against terror in the North east, many have been accused of developing a penchant for getting on the wrong side of the law and going scot-free.
Many of the youths have become uncontrollable by even government, just as the security forces also now find it difficult to rein them in.
In March last year, the Civilian JTF had a confrontation with the military when they arrested five plain-clothe men with guns who claimed to be soldiers. While the men were still being questioned, some soldiers came and whisked them away, confirming that the men they were, indeed, soldiers. But the youths did not want to release the men, an action that led to the death of one of the Civilian JTF members..
In February this year, at least five members of the group were killed by soldiers who felt insulted by the Civilian JTF’s insistence on inspecting the ammunition-laden trucks they were escorting. It took the intervention of people at the top to prevent a full-scale war between the military and the Civilian JTF.
Also, in March this year, members of the group, who manned a joint checkpoint with soldiers at Benesheik, one of the worst hit towns by the insurgency, stopped vehicles travelling in and out of Maiduguri and asked everybody to cross the kilometre-long checkpoint on foot. There was a soldier in mufti in one of the vehicles and he was reluctant to obey the order, explaining to the boys that he was a soldier, explanation which fell on deaf ears.
There was a scuffle between the soldier and a member of the vigilante group, who hit the soldier with a stick and threatened to shoot him, pointing his handmade gun.. Even when he explained and identified himself to his uniformed colleagues nearby, they did not caution their civilian counterparts.
If the youths have no fear of the military, their harassment of civilians can be best imagined. Countless allegations of sexual harassment and rape have been lodged against members. There is a case of a member of the Civilian JTF who raped a seven years old girl and the case is due in court.
Not long ago, some female students of the University of Maiduguri experienced the enormous power wielded by these youths.
They were in a tricycle heading home from school when they were stopped at a checkpoint.
“We were talking and laughing among ourselves and when they asked the driver where he was going, he told them we were students,” Hafsat, one of the girls (not her real name), said.
“They allowed us to go but after some time, we were stopped and we realised that they had followed us. They said we were laughing at them at the checkpoint but we said we were talking among ourselves. Next thing we knew, they were beating us.”
Kalli, the Civilian JTF coordinator, attributes these misdemeanours to illiteracy and a case of few bag eggs tarnishing the image of the group and said they had disciplinary measures that are taken against erring members, including locking them in guardrooms in the military barracks.
“There are one or two problems, just like you have in any organisation. Do not forget we have the additional problem of illiteracy among the boys. That is the biggest problem we are facing.
“But we have disciplinary measures, which include taking offenders to the military barracks for further discipline,” he explained.
The Civilian JTF has also been accused of aiding Boko Haram insurgents by spying on military operations disguised as members of the vigilante group.
This website exclusively reported that the mastermind of the foiled bomb attack on a displaced persons camp in Maiduguri on March 14 this year was a well-known member of the Civilian JTF known as Abdulraman, who attended a security meeting with the vigilante group a day before his arrest.
Abdulraman, we learnt, was instrumental to the military raiding more than 30 Boko Haram camps and he only came under suspicion after Bama, where he joined the vigilante, frequently came under attack.
However, his arrest shocked security agents because of his contribution, which made him very popular.
A senior member of the group said they were aware of the infiltration of their ramks by Boko Haram sympathisers, who, even though helped provide useful intelligence on the sect, were placed under watch.
“Some Boko Haram members joined the Civilian JTF when it started. We discovered that some of them joined for the sole purpose of monitoring our activities and mode of operation, which would make it easier for them to attack us.
“We worked with them because they gave us very useful intelligence, while we monitored their moves. A lot of them were picked up after we gathered enough intelligence on them,” the source had told our reporter.
Security agents genuinely concerned
Icirnigeria.org reliably gathered that the growing influence and unruliness of members of the youth vigilante group is also giving the security agencies enormous concern and there are many in this community who do not see eye to eye with them.
The February incident that left five members of the vigilante group dead was enough warning that the boys understood the power they now wielded and probably saw themselves as equals – or even superior – to Nigerian soldiers, a dangerous idea.
In our reporter’s interaction with the youths, the impression he got is that the boys believe that but for them, Boko Haram would have annexed many parts of the North east and that the Nigerian military and nation owe them a lot of gratitude and more.
A member of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, SARS, stationed in Maiduguri recounted the February event when Civilian JTF members insisted on searching a military convoy.
“We were already at the roundabout expecting the passage of Buhari (then All Progressives Congress, APC, presidential candidate who was expected in the state capital for a political rally) when we saw the two trucks and two military vehicles (conveying the military equipment) , one in front and one at the back. In a society that is not lawless, when you see such a thing, as a civilian, are you supposed to go near it, let alone demanding to inspect it?” the SARS officer queried.
Our reporter spoke with several security agents, who all requested anonymity, and the general feeling among them is that of concern, especially because the boys have had some sort of military training.
Another security personnel referring to the February incident, said the situation would have been worse, particularly with the bonfire the boys set close to the ammunition bearing trucks as they protested the killing of their colleagues.
“With the calibre of weapons and ammunitions the soldiers were bringing in, what do you think would have happened in this town had there been explosion?” the security man asked.
When our reporter spoke to members of the elite police formation, the Mobile Police popularly known as MOPOL, it was obvious that there is no love lost between them and the Civilian JTF.
The MOPOL men were miffed that the boys had been allowed to become a law unto themselves and constitute security concern and said they would have dealt with them if they had been allowed to do so.
“The day they stopped soldiers and things threatened to go out of hand, the soldiers called us to help but we told them it was their fault because they had pampered these boys,” a member of the unit told our reporter.
“We are the only uniformed people they dare not come close to. With the nonsense they are doing, we only need one week to rout them,” he added, angrily.
“If they had the guts to stop soldiers and demand to check what they were carrying, it means they see themselves as equals with the soldiers and we have always maintained that these boys would one day get out of hand. After the insurgency, one week is enough for us to put them where they belong,” another MOPOL man said.
Our reporter also learnt that there is serious anger against the boys in the police, especially after a policeman was slapped by one of them in the presence of a district head, who intervened before the situation could get out of hand.
Peeved by the boldness of the vigilantes, who are believed to enjoy the backing of Borno State government, some policemen are said to be waiting for an opportunity to deal with them.
The boys know this and are ready and prepared, even look forward, for that confrontation. One of the boys who spoke to our reporters on condition of anonymity said that the police had enough reason to detest the Civilian JTF and their work. First, he said, the police thoroughly compromised the fight against Boko Haram in the early stages when they were in charge and thus enjoy no respect or confidence among the people particularly the youths, who never trusted or cooperated with them.
Also, he noted, the police is envious of the boys because they have proved effective in fighting the insurgents, something at which the police failed.
“They are not ashamed. We have helped greatly in combating Boko Haram but they could not. They should be thanking us for doing their job for them because if the police had not misbehaved in the first instance, Boko Haram would not have become such a big problem,” the young vigilante stated.
The dangers ahead
But the truth is that the concerns being expressed about what will happen to the group post – insurgency are valid.
Ben Okezie, a journalist and security consultant, observed that involving civilians in the fight against insurgency was a mistake that should not have been made, especially the training given to them.
“The Civilian JTF, inasmuch as it was not necessary, has now constituted a big economic and social problem to the country because we have to cater for them,” Okezie said.
He continued: “I have said it at different fora that we did not really need to have given the Civilian JTF the type of training and exposure that we gave them. Now, once the war (against Boko Haram) is over these guys are going to be local thugs. They are going to be like militants because they already know how to use firearm.”
Even more foreboding is the threat that they pose with their numbers if they make demands which are not met by the state. With the group made up of 10 sectors – and a sector could have as much as 8, 000 members – according to a source close to the group, Okezie believes they have the numerical strength to threaten government.
“I am seeing a situation whereby, (since) they are under leaders, they know what formation is, what discipline is, they are going to become a pressure group that will start making demands from the federal government. We are going to see a situation just like what happened during the Biafra war,” Okezie explained.
“Once the Biafra war was over, the boys that were recruited by the Biafran government to be spies against the Nigerian soldiers, there was nothing for them to do and because they were armed, they became armed robbers. That was how armed robbery started immediately after the war.”
Another security expert based in the North east who does not want his name in print said that what worries him is that the government had unwittingly created an army of youths with military training who would soon be jobless.
“Such an army of jobless youths would be there for anybody to employ – politicians, criminals, armed robbers, drug couriers, smugglers, trouble makers and even Boko Haram insurgents. They will be a continuous threat economically, socially and security wise to their communities,” the expert warned.
According to our findings, only about 3, 000 members of the Civilian JTF are officialy registered and paid by the Borno State government, a fraction of the over 30, 000 members.
The unpaid majority are reportedly the ones doing the most work and this does not sit well with them.
“They see their colleagues are paid N15, 000 every month by the state government and they are not. How do you think they feel and what relationship do you think they will have with those colleagues?” a district head, generally known as Bulama, said, adding that that it is just a matter of time before trouble springs up within the group.
Our reporter also learnt that aside the monthly stipend given to members of the group, the state government occasionally releases between N10 million and N20 million to the leadership and it from this largess that other members of the group get something, sometimes as little as N500.
Kalli, the Civilian JTF coordinator, admitted that there are concerns about what will happen to the boys but believes that skills acquisition training will go a long way in allaying any fears people have about the group
He also added that the Borno State government needs the support of the Federal Government because of the enormity of the challenge and the spill over impact it could have on the whole of the North east and the country.
“This is not a problem for the state government alone. Why has the Federal Government not come in?” he wondered.
Okezie agrees with Kalli but said something similar to what was done for former Niger Delta militants should be adopted.
“What I will suggest is virtually the same thing that happened in the Niger Delta. We should start thinking of assembling them and taking them out of that environment to where they will either go for education or learn trades, after which you empower them financially to start something.”
“For those who choose education, when they are through, they can be recruited into the military or paramilitary if they meet the standards,” Okezie added.
This website was reliably informed by a top security chief in Maiduguri that 30 members of the Civilian JTF have recruited into the Department of State Service, DSS, in the last one year.
“When the opportunity came, 50 boys, who had distinguished themselves in the fight against insurgency, were chosen from the 10 sectors and invited for screening and 30 were successful. They were taken to Kaduna for training and are now members of the DSS,” the security chief told our reporter.
A source close to the vigilante group also said the army has agreed to give it 200 slots so that qualified members of the group will be recruited into the army.
Attempts to speak with Defence spokesperson, Chris Olukolade, a Major General, were not successful as he did not answer calls made to his phone or reply to a text message sent to him.