Auwal checked two of his guns before another night of patrolling his village in the northwestern state of Kaduna, Nigeria.
“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 other volunteers and of the village itself – for security reasons. Not disclosed here. .
Auwal belongs to a volunteer youth patrol who is 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 widespread kidnappings and violent attacks in northern Nigeria, some citizens such as Auwal have become impatient with government security forces’ inability to protect them and have taken up arms themselves.
Kaduna state is at the center of violence that has shocked Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country. Kidnappings for ransom have increased, with Kaduna’s government reporting that 1,723 people were abducted in the first six months of 2021, compared to nearly 2,000 in the previous full year. Several bandit attacks have been fatal, with at least 545 deaths from January to June.
The administration of President Muhammadu Buhari, elected in 2015 after a campaign to improve security, has faced criticism for escalating violence. In early September, Buhari ordered security agencies to intensify their efforts to protect the public, especially in the besieged north.
Separately, several states – Kaduna, Sokoto, Zamfara and Katsina – tried to curb bandit gangs in September by banning motorcycle use, limiting petrol sales and disrupting telecommunications service.
Meanwhile, some communities have become increasingly self-sufficient. Aliyu, another youth from the village of Auwal, said growing insecurity forced him to join the patrol, which sometimes receives donations of weapons and money from elders and other neighbours.
“It has become necessary to keep our families safe,” Aliyu said. “Cattle rustle and kidnappers are terrorizing us. …they’re killing us too. We cannot fold our arms and allow this to continue.”
Naseeru Sani’s support for community patrols came after an attack on her family’s compound one night in December.
“From the window, I saw six people with guns. They shouted, ‘…we are Boko Haram. If you don’t open the door we will kill you,’ Shani said. “They put their guns through my window and started firing in the room. I had a gun, but they overpowered me. He shot me several times.”
The 40-year-old spoke to Kaduna Hospital, where he was treated for multiple gunshot injuries, in January. While recovering, Shani was also trying to rescue his pregnant wife.
“They kidnapped my wife,” Sani said, “and demanded a ransom of 500,000 naira” – just over $1,200. “We raised money and sent someone to give it. But they also kidnapped the messenger, asking for more money.
Shani’s wife was finally released in late February, after paying a total of 1 million naira, or over $2,400. In March she gave birth to a son.
dangers of civilian patrol
When communities resort to armed civilian patrol, members often put their lives at risk. According to local media reports, in Kaduna state, bandits killed at least four in Dande village in May and five others in Udava community in September. In neighboring Niger state, bandits killed 30 vigilantes in a single incident in June.
Occasionally, patrols inflict wounds of their own.
Neighborhood patrols say they are getting guns through back channels, especially after a 2019 federal ban on civilian gun ownership. But those weapons can go bad, as a man named Jafar explained. While on patrol, his house gun unexpectedly went off, injuring his hand. Jaffer, however, argued, “It is better to suffer this injury than to be kidnapped from my house. The kidnappers can demand ransom which I cannot afford.”
Armed civilian patrols have been charged with vigilance justice, including brief executions. In Niger state alone, at least 86 people were killed arbitrarily in the first four months of 2021, according to the Miyati Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria, a group representing ethnic Fulani herders.
Security analysts have attributed most of the kidnapping attacks to young, nomadic Fulani men, fueling anti-Fulani sentiment that has exposed others to random attacks. Deaths have also been reported in other parts of the country.
State Security Commissioner Samuel Aruwan said the federal ban on civilian gun ownership is reinforced by Kaduna state law. He said violators face prosecution.
“It is illegal to have a firearm without a license,” he said. “…there is no justification for individuals or civilians to take up arms against fellow civilians. If you believe someone is threatening you, you should report it to security agencies.”
In August, North Katsina state governor Aminu Bello called on citizens to arm themselves against so-called outlaws. But some security experts say handing over weapons to civilians adds to the problems.
“In some cases, community leaders or militia leaders distribute weapons,” security expert Kabir Adamu told VOA’s Hausa Service. “The result…does it escalate the conflict.”
This report originated in VOA’s Hausa service.