Vigilantes push Boko Haram from their Nigerian base
Local knowledge of informer group a ‘game-changer’ in fight against insurgents
Neighbourhood vigilantes get into a truck to search for Boko Haram members in Maiduguri. Photograph: Abubakar/Getty Images)
The men from Boko Haram came tearing through the rural town of Benisheik, setting fire to houses, looting, shooting and yelling, “God is great!” residents and officials said. The gunmen shot motorists point-blank on the road, dragged young men out of homes for execution and ordered citizens to lie down for a fatal bullet.
When it was all over more than 12 hours later, they said about 150 people were dead, and even four weeks later, this once-thriving town of 35,000 is a burned out, empty shell of blackened houses and charred vehicles.
Boko Haram, Nigeria’s home-grown Islamist insurgent movement, remains a deadly threat in the countryside, a militant group eager to prove its jihadi bona fides and increasingly populated by fighters from Mali, Mauritania and Algeria, said the governor of Borno state, Kashim Shettima.
But about 40 miles away in Maiduguri, the sprawling state capital from where the militant group emerged, Boko Haram has been largely defeated for now, according to officials, activists and residents. It’s a remarkable turnaround that has brought thousands of people back to the streets. The city of two million, until recently emptied of thousands of terrified inhabitants, is bustling again after four years of fear.
For several months, there have been no shootings or bombings in Maiduguri, and the sense of relief – with women lingering at market stalls on the sandy streets and men chatting under the shade of feathery green neem trees in the 95-degree heat – is palpable.
Boko Haram has been pushed out of Maiduguri largely because of the efforts of a network of youthful informer-vigilantes fed up with the routine violence and ideology of the insurgents they grew up with. “I’m looking at these people: they collect your money, they kill you – Muslims, Christians,” said the network’s founder, Baba Lawal Ja’faar (32), a car and sheep salesman by trade. “The Boko Haram are saying, ‘Don’t go to the school; don’t go to the hospital’. It’s all rubbish.”
Shettima has recruited the vigilantes for “training” and is paying them $100 a month. In the sandy Fezzan neighbourhood of low cinder block houses, where the informer group was nurtured over the past two years, the walls are pockmarked with bullet holes from shootouts with the Islamists, a visible sign of the motivations for fighting the insurgents.
“The suffering of our people was just too much,” said the group’s third-in-command, Ja’faar’s younger brother Kalli, standing on a street corner in Fezzan as others nodded.
The elder Ja’faar moves around discreetly; people are afraid to be seen with him. “People will run away from me because I am catching the Boko Haram,” he said during a nighttime interview indoors. But he seemed unafraid of the danger, lifting his yellow polo shirt to reveal a thin leather strip around his waist, which bore an amulet. He carries “plenty of magic” – 30 charms – to protect himself, he explained.
The network’s intimate knowledge of the community enables it to quickly recognise Boko Haram members and turn them over to the Nigerian military. Dozens have been turned over, members of the informer group said. The military, known as the Joint Task Force, or JTF, has been unable to defeat the Boko Haram on its own despite four years of a bloody counterinsurgency campaign that has been widely criticised for the indiscriminate detention and killing of civilians.