Wednesday, 21 May 2014

In Nigeria, a Troubling Impulse to Vigilantism

As details emerge of yesterday’s bombings in the Nigerian city of Jos, it seems the horrific death toll – now 118 and counting, as rescue teams pull victims from the debris – was augmented by frustrated residents taking the law into their own hands.

Nigeria’s Channels TV news and others have reported that, after the first bomb exploded at a busy market, a crowd approached a man acting suspiciously just prior to the explosion. According to this report they chased him to his car, beat him, and set his car on fire, sparking explosions that killed some people in the nearby crowd.

Nigeria’s government has been unable to stop the militant Islamist group Boko Haram’s killing spree, and has arguably fed the insurgency with the abusive response by security forces. Outraged and frightened residents now seem to be prepared to take matters into their own hands.

The media here is full of stories about concerned communities attempting to settle matters on their own, whether it’s groups of hunters declaring they will find and bring back the nearly 300 schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram last month, or smaller groups attacking individuals they suspect of being Boko Haram members.

In addition, a “Civilian Joint Task Force,” formed by private citizens but supported by the Borno state government, is cobbling together young men and boys in villages and towns to help them defend their communities with whatever weapons might be at hand.

One huge problem with all of this vigilante activity is that these citizens, though justifiably outraged by events, are untrained and undisciplined. Without the necessary skills, experience, and supervision, they risk inviting dangers they cannot overcome. And, the justice they aim to provide is not really justice at all. As the Jos tragedy demonstrates, vigilante actions make the problem worse.

What Nigeria needs are military and police forces that are professional and able to address the insurgency in a way that respects rights and wins public confidence. Unfortunately, what Nigerians have now are abusive security services that lead to people seeking revenge, in place of seeking justice. 

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