Auwal checked his two guns before another night of patrolling his village in Nigeria’s northwestern state of Kaduna.
“I have decided to arm myself with these guns to protect my family because the government has failed to keep us safe,” said Auwal, whose real name — like those of other volunteers and of the village itself — is not disclosed here for security reasons.
Auwal belongs to a volunteer youth patrol trying to protect the community from criminal gangs — so-called bandits — who swoop in on motorcycles to kidnap people, steal livestock and otherwise spread terror.
With abductions and violent attacks rampant in northern Nigeria, some civilians like Auwal have grown impatient with government security forces’ inability to protect them and have taken up arms themselves.
Kaduna state is at the epicenter of violence that has traumatized Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country. Kidnapping for ransom has surged, with Kaduna’s government reporting 1,723 people kidnapped in the first six months of 2021, compared with nearly 2,000 for the entire previous year. Many of the bandit attacks have been deadly, with at least 545 people killed from January through June.
The administration of President Muhammadu Buhari, elected in 2015 after campaigning to improve security, has faced criticism for the rising violence. In early September, Buhari ordered security agencies to step up their efforts to protect the public, especially in the besieged north.
Separately, several states — Kaduna, Sokoto, Zamfara and Katsina — in September began trying to curb bandit gangs by banning motorcycle use, limiting petrol sales and interrupting telecommunications service.
Meanwhile, some communities have become increasingly self-reliant. Aliyu, another young man in Auwal’s village, said rising insecurity compelled him to join the patrols, which sometimes get donations of weapons and money from elders and other neighbors.
“This has become necessary to keep our families safe,” Aliyu said. “Cattle rustlers and kidnappers have been terrorizing us. … They are killing us, too. We can’t fold our arms and allow this to continue.”
Nasiru Sani’s support for community patrols came after an attack on his family’s compound one night in December.
“Through the window, I saw six people with guns. They shouted, ‘… We are Boko Haram. We will kill you if you don’t open the door,’” Sani said. “They put their guns through my window and started firing into the room. I held one of the guns, but they overpowered me. They shot me several times.”
The 40-year-old spoke from the Kaduna hospital where he was treated in January for multiple gunshot wounds. While recovering, Sani also was trying to free his pregnant wife.
“They kidnapped my wife,” Sani said, “and demanded a ransom of 500,000 naira” — just over $1,200. “We raised the money and sent someone to deliver it. But they abducted the messenger, too, and asked for more money.”
Sani’s wife finally was released in late February, after he paid a total of 1 million naira, or more than $2,400. She gave birth to a son in March.
Risks of civilian patrols
When communities resort to armed civilian patrols, members often are risking their lives. In Kaduna state, bandits killed at least four vigilantes in Dande village in May and another five in Udawa community in September, according to local media reports. In neighboring Niger state, bandits killed 30 vigilantes in a single incident in June.
Sometimes, patrols suffer self-inflicted wounds.
Neighborhood patrols say they’ve been getting guns through back channels, especially after a 2019 federal ban on civilian gun ownership. But those weapons can be defective, as a man named Jafar explained. His homemade gun unexpectedly discharged during patrol, wounding his hand. Nonetheless, Jafar reasoned, “It’s better to sustain this injury than to be kidnapped from my house. Kidnappers may demand a ransom that I cannot afford.”
Armed civilian patrols have been accused of vigilante justice, including summary executions. In Niger state alone, at least 86 people were arbitrarily killed in the first four months of 2021, according to the Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria, a group representing ethnic Fulani herders.
Security analysts have attributed most kidnapping attacks to young, nomadic Fulani men, fueling anti-Fulani sentiment that has exposed others to random attacks. Fatalities have been reported in other parts of the country, too.
The federal ban on civilian gun ownership is reinforced by Kaduna state law, said the state’s security commissioner, Samuel Aruwan. He said violators face prosecution.
“It is illegal to possess firearms without a license,” he said. “… There is no justification for individuals or citizens to take arms against fellow citizens. If you feel someone is threatening you, you should report to security agencies.”
In August, northern Katsina state’s Governor Aminu Bello called for civilians to arm themselves against so-called outlaws. But some security experts say arming civilians escalates problems.
“In certain instances, community leaders or militia leaders distribute weapons,” security expert Kabir Adamu told VOA’s Hausa Service. “The consequence … is it further drives the conflict.”
This report originated in VOA’s Hausa Service.