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Fight against Boko Haram sparks vigilante war

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Nigerian ironworker Ba Kaka initially felt
sympathy for Boko Haram’s violent uprising
against a state he and many others saw as
corrupt, un-Islamic and kowtowing to Western
ideology. But as deaths mounted in the Islamist sect’s
bloody campaign against state institutions,
security services, Christians and even school
children in northeast Nigeria, he began to see
them as a threat to his life and livelihood. “We thought they were doing God’s work at the
beginning, but over time, we realized they were
just a cult,” said Kaka, who was forced to close
his shop in the northeast’s main city of
Maiduguri after a spate of Boko Haram attacks
in his area. Kaka is part of a popular backlash against the
Islamists – a member of one of a number of
government-approved vigilante groups that
have become a weapon in a military offensive
that has dismantled Boko Haram networks and
squeezed its fighters into a mountainous area by the Cameroon border. Though the sect remains the gravest threat to
Africa’s most populous country and top oil
producer, it is weaker than it has been for
years. Yet the decision to give these gangs of largely
unemployed youths the go ahead to hunt down
militants risks dragging civilians further into
the north’s conflict. Reprisals are already a
problem, and security troubles could emerge
further down the line, as has happened in the past with youth gangs. Though the state is not giving them guns, a few
have acquired them anyway. Kaka himself uses
his iron-working skills to fashion bladed
weapons like machetes for the militias. “With all the death around us, we have gone
beyond being afraid of them,” he said,
gesturing to a dusty street in his area where a
local politician was gunned down by the
militants. Since an uprising by Boko Haram was put down
by the security forces in a 2009 offensive that
killed 800 people, the group has enjoyed mixed
support from a population caught between it
and a military and police often accused of
using indiscriminate force. That support – or acquiescence – appears to be
waning. “Unprecedented mass popular action against
the group is the most serious setback to its
armed campaign against the Nigerian state …
since the military crackdown in July 2009,” said
Adam Higazi, an Oxford Analytica researched
based in north Nigeria. Boko Haram, who seek an Islamic state in
religiously-mixed Nigeria and who rarely
contact the media beyond Internet videos
uploaded by leader Abubakar Shekau, could not
be reached for comment. “Killed sooner or later” In Maiduguri, a city of tall trees and mosques
ringed by tin-roofed slums at the edge of a
semi-desert, youths armed with sticks man
checkpoints. One group examines car boots
and bags for bombs. The military has arrested hundreds of Boko
Haram suspects since President Goodluck
Jonathan declared a state of emergency in
three states in northeast Nigeria in May, and it
has praised local vigilante groups for helping
identify and denounce them. “If people had given us this type of cooperation
earlier, we could have done better in tackling
the insurgency,” northeast military spokesman
Lieutenent-Colonel Sagir Musa says. A number of vigilantes interviewed by Reuters
said they were fed up with being caught
between the two sides. “Unless something was done all of us would be
killed sooner or later by either the Boko Haram
or the security operatives who were suspicious
of every youth,” said Ba-Lawan, 25, founder of
a vigilante group in Maiduguri. “It was to save
ourselves.” Mohammed Kawa, 28, said he feared Boko
Haram would “turn all of us into their slaves” if
nothing was done to stop them. Before May, Boko Haram had seemed close to
setting up a de facto Islamic state in the
lawless border areas around Lake Chad, where
Nigeria meets Chad, Cameroon and Niger. Local
council officials had fled and police stations
were empty, especially in Borno state, relic of an old Islamic caliphate. The military crackdown has re-established
sovereignty over these areas. Military officials
say senior Boko Haram commanders have also
been killed or arrested – though they decline to
name names – which could mean a secession
crisis if Shekau is caught. At a desk in the capital Abuja, surrounded by
folders marked “confidential”, a top Nigerian
security official, who declined to be named,
watches recently-seized Boko Haram
recruitment videos and scans satellite images
of the Gwoza hills, next to Cameroon, where he says Shekau is suspected to be hiding. Alongside videos of Boko Haram members
demonstrating how to stitch a suicide vest –
“here’s one I made earlier,” says one in the
northern Hausa language, as if baking a cake
for daytime TV – there is also one of “traitors”
being executed. Two suspected state informants are beheaded
in a field by masked men wielding Ak-47s to
creepy music praising jihad. Risks Ahead Since the vigilantes rose up, Boko Haram,
whose name roughly translates to “Western
education is forbidden”, has turned on civilians.
Fighters killed dozens of people in assaults on
Western-style schools, which Islamists suspect
harbor youths who are informants. “Boko Haram can intimidate the (vigilantes) by
targeting their family members and villages
where they are strong,” said Jacob Zenn of the
Washington-based Jamestown Foundation. This will in turn lead to paranoia and over-
reaction by the vigilantes when they hunt
homes for militants, he said. Shehu Sani, president of Nigeria’s Civil Rights
Congress, says there have been cases of
summary executions and burning down the
houses of suspects by the vigilantes – the sort
of abuses Nigeria’s military had been accused
of in the past. “The army is starting to use them to perpetrate
things they don’t want to be seen to be doing
themselves,” he said. Nigeria’s history is riddled with examples of
angry, destitute youths who formed groups
backed by politicians for a particular purpose,
which then grew out of control. Indeed, many describe Boko Haram itself as
one such group – author Wole Soyinka last year
said some northern politicians had “conjured
up a Frankenstein” with their initial backing for
it. Militants who besieged the oil industry in the
southern Niger Delta last decade were
politically sponsored at first. And the underlying drivers of violence and
instability in Nigeria – corruption, extremes of
wealth and poverty, lack of economic
opportunities for the young – remain in place. Underscoring the risks, rival vigilante groups
have clashed in recent days over control of the
town of Biu in Borno. Five people died in
clashes on Sunday. That presents the military with a dilemma: back
off from supporting the vigilantes and leave
them to be killed by Boko Haram, or sustain a
movement that could later turn against the


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