Nigeria’s Boko Haram-fighting vigilantes losing heart

Accused of abuses and deployment of child soldiers, CJTF volunteers are giving up fight

In the shade of a porch outside a long, low, run-down building, a group of middle-aged men sit playing cards, like they have on many afternoons over the last four years. They’re hunched over and lethargic but, despite appearances, this scene is an epicentre of a hub of activity and intelligence. These men have abandoned their businesses and become estranged from their families to be here.

This is the headquarters of Sector 10, a division of the Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF), the vigilante paramilitary group of Nigerian locals who have been key in the fight against Islamist militant group Boko Haram – one of the deadliest terrorist groups in the world.

This particular group in Maiduguri, a dusty city in northeast Nigeria, have a unique tie to Boko Haram – the militant group was founded in its neighbourhood, a road away from its headquarters in the city centre. Some present used to play football with Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau, whose face has become synonymous with a series of rambling propaganda videos in which he has declared an Islamic state, boasted about massacring infidels, and announced he planned to sell the schoolgirls kidnapped in Chibok in 2014 – just a small percentage of the thousands of abducted women – as slaves. "He was always strange. He had psychological problems," one Sector 10 member remembers.

Analysts and officials worry the CJTF could pose the region's next major security threat, with Borno State governor Kashim Shettima describing the vigilantes as "the Frankenstein monster that might end up consuming us". Yet, disgruntled members say they're more likely to give up the battle altogether, just as Boko Haram begins to intensify its attacks again.


Untrained and unpaid

The CJTF now has more than 26,000 members – most of whom are untrained and unpaid. They man checkpoints, look for people acting suspiciously and accompany the Nigerian military on “operations” to Boko Haram enclaves in rural areas.

For weapons, CJTF fighters use whatever they can find: cutlasses, bows with rusty arrows, hunters' guns. Speaking to The Irish Times, members complain about the lack of equipment such as binoculars, as well as the shortage of rifles, which they collect after winning them off Boko Haram fighters. Even though they work in tandem with the military, the vigilantes have been plagued by under-resourcing. They've also been accused of committing human rights abuses and condemned for their use of child soldiers.

The CJTF was formed in 2013, when Boko Haram was operating openly in the state capital, Maiduguri. “They would sit on the roadside with their guns, threatening us,” one resident recalled. The vigilantes succeeded in ousting the militants – stepping in where the Nigerian military was failing.

The CJTF carried out raids, set up checkpoints and aided with arrests, using local knowledge to temper indiscriminate harassment, detentions and mass murders by Nigerian soldiers, who didn’t know the region and habitually suspected the whole population of being in Boko Haram.

The past few months have seen an increase in attacks in Maiduguri – a city of one million residents sheltering another million displaced by the war. Suicide bombings in the city and its surroundings have resulted in dozens of deaths. In early June, Boko Haram launched its first large-scale assault on Maiduguri since 2015, killing at least 11.

Indefinite conflict

Yet, eight years after the insurgency began, and four after its formation, the CJTF faces a new challenge: as the conflict stretches on indefinitely, many volunteers are giving up the fight.

No total figure exists for how many have resigned, but local units asked by The Irish Times reported that anywhere between 5 per cent and 33 per cent have left their positions, returning to business or education in an attempt to kickstart their fortunes.

“We need something that will motivate us,” says law graduate Babangidab Audu, sitting on a shaded wooden bench outside Sector 10’s headquarters. “Nobody wants to do the work. We work 24 hours every day. We don’t sleep.”

Audu, a gaunt 42 year old in a yellow-checked shirt, went from being a car salesman to “not being able to afford a tyre”, after Boko Haram militants burned down his shop. His family live in a tent in a car park, he says, but he stays in the loaned CJTF premises because there’s not enough space for him to live with them.

Audu has been in the CJTF since it was founded, but says he hasn’t received “one naira” (Nigerian currency) for his service. “We just decided to sacrifice our lives to save our state.”

Like other CJTF members, Audu complains that international aid organisations give food and supplies to many of Maiduguri’s one million displaced people, but not to the local vigilantes who protect them. “We watch them going from house to house. They never talk to us. You’re the first person who has,” he says.

Sector 10 members eat one meal a day, he adds. Their families are suffering, and the longer they stay out of civilian work the harder it will be to go back. And that’s for those who survive the conflict. At least 680 members of the CJTF have been killed over the last three years, according to CJTF legal adviser Jubril Gunda.

State neglect

“The government gives nothing to their family,” said CJTF Sector 10 member Bashir Mohammed (22). “No compensation to their wife or children, no schooling. They’ll just give your body back.”

“You’ve just died uselessly for your country,” chimes in Yakubu Tanko (43), a small, bespectacled father of six who used to deal in clothing. Tanko says he misses his old life – when he could afford to gift relatives money at weddings or on other occasions. “Before you can assist somebody. Now you can only assist yourself.”

He also expresses frustration with the military – whom he blames for failing to put down the insurgency. “There are lapses from the security agents,” he says. “They’re supposed to be hunting [Boko Haram]– agreeing not to steal, extort or threaten people; to report anything suspicious, even if it’s done by a friend; and pledging not to torture or extrajudicially execute militants.”

“Boko Haram will be executed – but it’s by the police,” Audu says.

However, the vigilantes have been accused of war crimes and participation in human rights abuses. In 2014, graphic video footage appeared to show CJTF fighters taking part in massacres, along with the Nigerian military. In 2016, a report by the US-based Human Rights Watch said both the CJTF and the military had been involved in sexual abuse of displaced women in camps.

Most recently, in June, this year's US Trafficking in Persons report accused the CJTF of using child soldiers. While some CJTF commanders will deny this, the fighters I spoke to all confirm children do work with them – acting as informers or trackers, manning checkpoints, and even accompanying them on offensives, though they denied minors would ever engage in combat.

Child soldiers

In a quiet space in the back of one Maiduguri camp for displaced people, a CJTF fighter agrees to speak to me about this on condition of anonymity. He says he worried for his safety if anyone finds out he is complaining – distrust is high between the vigilantes.

A 26 year old, he dropped out of education to join the CJTF without getting the national diploma he needs to apply for university. Now, he is used to killing people, he says. clasping his rifle to his torso.

This CJTF fighter admits they do bring children on military operations – usually those who have previously been held captive by Boko Haram. The children work as trackers, helping the military negotiate the territory and directing them towards Boko Haram hideouts.

Occasionally, the soldiers, vigilantes and trackers will be ambushed. “The operation is like a game. Sometimes you will win, sometimes you will lose,” the fighter says.

He also confirms there are underage boys working on checkpoints in Maiduguri and the surrounding areas. The checkpoints are occasionally the site of suicide bombs, detonated when attackers realise they won’t manage to pass screening. “Yes, it is a problem that these small, small boys are working with us. If we teach them something like this now, [in the] future it will be a problem.”

He also claims the use of children, however, is a necessity. “We have a lack of manpower in our organisation.”

He is not alone in this attitude. For CJTF members across Maiduguri, rules about child soldiers and human rights abuses feel largely superfluous – removed from therealities of day-to-day life. The war is affecting them all and, without increased opportunities and regional development, the situation is dark for everyone, the war set to repeat itself over and over, they argue.

“If this ends, we don’t know, maybe in the future there will be another crisis,” Audu says, reflectively. “All we can do is shoot guns.”