Every so often, people talk about finding local solutions to local problems. These include issues pertaining to security and the welfare of the citizenry. In public and national interest, we bring you a paper delivered by an erudite scholar, politician and political scientist, Prof. Tunde Adeniran as part of what we tag: ”THE WAY FORWARD”.
With the exception of Basorun Rock, where a passionate concern for Ibadan, the capital of Oyo State of Nigeria, led to some discussions on the perverse ecology of the city, with each problem feeding another, the general decay and pollution, the massive sanitation problem, etc, including the dynamics of sub-ethnic politics, the gatherings I have attended in the recent past have focused largely on the staggering problem of Nigeria’s internal security. The general interesting the issue, coupled with the agitations for a dual policing system and the fad of “Vigilante Associations”, struck me as indicative of the seriousness ‘of the problem and the common anxiety to secure a solution.
In every instance, people were generally worried and wondered whether they stood any chance of surviving the next day as stories were shared regarding the exploits of dare-devil armed robbers, the fears, chaos, social disorder and the dislocation of people brought about by the operations of bandits. From the discussions, things have hardly .been helped by the multitude of doubts which assailed the law enforcement agents’ capacity to cope with the security crisis.
From personal observations, one could also note that the unmoored generation of Nigerians that had surrendered itself to luxury, a life of comfort and pleasure without restraints and a mythical fanning of individualism, had suddenly joined others in solidarity of concern beyond individual survival to collective security in the face of mortal threats. And so from Benin city to Bimin Kebbi, from Kano toKabba, from Lagos to Langtang, from Abeokuta to Azare, from Port Harcourt to Pankshin, and from Nnewi to Nguru, etc., there ,began a mushrooming spread of heavy iron gates installed to protect each family and’ neighborhood from,’ unwanted visitors from the underworld. Along with this has been the gradual institutionalization of the Vigilante System that has become a psychological source of security as well as a palpable threat to it.
How did we get to the present comer of irony in our search for personal or neighbourhood security? And what is the real origin, the dimension and possible consequences of the current Vigilante System? And, finally, how do we resolve the dilemma? I now proceed with the assumption that the Development Policy Centre (DPC) fora usually combine the traditionally academic audiences with those of public policy concerns who are equal beneficiaries or victims of public policies.
THE GENESIS: From the Latin words vigilia and vigilantia we come about present days’ idea of keeping awake (vigil/vigil are). A common occurrence in some parts of Italy in the late 15th century, in France in the late 16th century, in Spain in the mid-nineteenth century, what we now commonly call VIGILANTE is the system of self-appointed groups of citizens undertaking law enforcement in their community without legal authority. It was introduced when citizens felt that the existing law enforcement agencies were inadequate, but the structure and form of operations have varied from time to time and from place to place. Since, we now operate a presidential system of government, modelled largely of the American experience; I should, for purposes of brevity, like to take us to that land only, and not to Europe, and have a peep into the genesis of the Vigilante System. Thereafter, we come back home to the Nigerian origins.
In the United States vigilantes were members of a Vigilance Committee. There were many such Vigilance Committees in the United States frontier communities and were specifically established to enforce law and order before a regularly constituted government could be established or acquire real and sufficient authority. The mining communities harboured the greater percentage of them “while many ‘cow towns and farming settlements also had a sizeable share of their presence. In ‘their operations the Vigilantes dispensed justice as they wished and the infliction of such extreme penalty as lynching was common.
While the presence of many vigilantes was felt in virtually all the communities in which they were formed and operated, those formed in San Francisco in 1851 (and organized in 1856 to bring order to the notorious Barbary Coast) ,were the most famous. The general reaction was that the system was necessary for curbing’ specific’ excesses but public opinion soon shifted to seeing it as uncivilized. Essentially, measures taken by Vigilante Committees were extralegal at best. And when such committees were established and operated in a community that was properly” structured with a well-constituted government and a police’ force they were, it) every sense, illegal. They were, in such circumstance, also viewed and’ regarded mainly as the expression of mob violence.
THE VIGILANTE SYSTEM IN NIGERIA: In Nigeria, the Vigilante System developed as a reaction to the growing threat to life and property and the failure of the police and self-installed iron-gates, barricades and fences to deter armed robbers who became more wild and daring by the mid- 1990s. Anyone who was in Nigeria anytime before the advent of military rule and returned in the mid-nineties would be shocked to see Nigerians living like prisoners in their own homes. Suddenly; many homes became decorated or fortified with iron burglary-proofs’ on all doors and windows. In the communities’ that felt more threatened than others the residents opted for doors and windows with, double burglary proofs (inside and outside) and the danger that this posed to the inhabitants in case of fire did not dissuade others from copying the pattern: They also installed multiple gates on the roads and streets leading to the neighborhoods.
In spite of the relatively tight security of most of the communities, especially in the urban areas, armed robbers still raided and gained access to various homes. Increasingly, the mode of entrance became bizarre. Whenever the use of electrical gadgets failed, they resorted to the use of saws and axes to cut the iron rods and bars. Sometimes, they either broke the wall or climb roofs to gain entrance into the living rooms or bedrooms of their targets! The search for more effective security subsequently led to the introduction of today’s Vigilante System in Nigeria.
This security initiative could be .traced to the experiment of Lt. Col. Onne Mohammed who, as the Military Governor of the then Borno State in 1988, established “Operation Damisa” (sunlight) composed of armed soldiers, the Police and Community Vigilante Groups. Damisa was renamed Zaki by Brigadier Buba Marwa when he took over from Mohammed in 1990. As Military Governor of Lagos State in the mid-90s, Marwa introduced “Operation Sweep” which was structurally different but with the same objective.
It should be noted, however, that before .the present experiments, there had been some vigilantism all over the country. It was a situation brought about by internal wars among and between various ethnic and sub-ethnic nationalities as well as between communities over diff rent issues. Agile men and, in some cases, cunning women were mobilize and deployed for surveillance, to serve as gate- keepers’ either to alert their people about any imminent invasion or provide information on ways of securing he communities against external enemies. Many of the pre-colonial communities und it convenient to use “Age grades” youths to’ curtail internal crime and external aggression. Today’s Vigilante System is entirely different as its focus is prevention of armed robbery that has resulted from some systemic collapse.
NIGERIA’S SITUATION: When we reflect on the history f the United States of America, it is possible to conclude that it is the most violent country in the world. Some of what readily come to mind are the demigod known as gunfighters, the bandit-heroes, the settlers and the cowboys who controlled the rough terrains West of the Mississippi River (the “Wild West”) characterized by constant violence of the banditry and, of course; the Mafia which became notorious for modern organized crimes as well as the products of cultural disorientation and economic dislocation who predate all’ over the urban ghettos of that country. The Americans have designed their own solutions which they have been implementing over the years.
A review of what is now prevalent in Nigeria shows that our cities and major towns have become more characterized by violence than could ever have been imagined. From available reports and statistics, no country is presently more prone to armed robbery violence than Nigeria. And in Nigeria itself there is evidence that armed robbery heightened only after the Nigerian Civil War (1970 onward) due to the availability of illegally acquired weapons, demobilization of soldiers without adequate resettlement, rehabilitation and reintegration, and the use of hard drugs which the war itself promoted coupled with the myth of invincibility of some who depended on “juju”. But is the Vigilante System the solution or part of the solution? First, let us review our present condition, the objective situation that has brought about rampant vigilantism
RANGE OF CRIMES: The range of crimes that ushered in the Vigilante is rather wide, they did not start overnight as armed robbery. The earliest experiences of insecurity in neighbourhoods and communities came through pick- pocketing and petty thefts within neighbourhoods. These called for individual alertness and prompted families to monitor their wards. The next stage was the category of crimes committed due to the country’s growing decadence. Since it was possible to sell most items without license and strict regulations, essential items such as the meters supplied to homes and offices by the Electricity Corporation of Nigeria (ECN), now National electricity Power Authority (NEPA), WCs and various house fittings became objects of theft ‘by robbers. For instance, the corrupt mode of supply of such items as meters, coupled with the relatively high demand and the ease with which they were disposed, encouraged the business to thrive. Even at that stage all that potential victims could do as’ possible targets was to be on their guard!
What followed was a,period of vehicle vandalisation. This is a practice that continues till today although with greater sophistication and crudeness, depending upon the degree of accompanying violence. From the various ports at which vehicles are discharged, and the auto-dealers’ garages on to the residential car park of individual owners, vehicles of all categories are subject d to vandalisation. The greater the access of robbers, or their desperation, the greater the possibility of carcasses being made of the vehicles. “Operation Evacuation” or “cleansing” was what actually introduced serious and varied dangerous arms into robbery in Nigerian communities; the objective of the robbers, who were usually well armed, was to force their way into a home, ransack all the rooms and facilities within the premises and cart away all valuable materials. Quite often, a detachment of the robbery gang would take position and stand guard at strategic locations around the building to ensure that nobody would sneak out or enter while the operation lasted.
It was common for the robbers to go with a vehicle or vehicles with which to convey stolen goods to their hideouts or to some would-be buyers who had always served as the facilitating conduit of robbery syndicates. Quite often, too, robbers would compel their victims to hand over the keys to any road-worthy vehicles found within the premises; thus making them part of the operation’s booties. To ensure uninterrupted operation, any land telephone lines are cut, the mobile ones seized and residents are forced into a room or toilet and locked up or compelled to lie on the floor with strict warnings never to raise their heads from that horizontal position or look at the robbers. Failure to comply might lead to the “offender” being shot. It usually took an average of thirty minutes after the departure of the robbers before their victims could be free to go round the house to assess and lament all that had gone.
Some other modes of operation similar to “operation evacuation” are the “Walk- ins”. These take three forms: Many Nigerian families that never experienced armed robbery or heard about the various operations would not consider, it necessary to be “under lock and keys” whenever they were in the house the gates to their premises (if any) would be unlocked and so would be the main doors to the building. An armed robbery gang that had studied the geography of the premises’ would simply walk in and take the occupants as hostages. The other two forms of “Walk- ins” involve the victims’ being trailed from an outing and followed into the premises without suspecting any intrusion or invasion, or the robbers would loiter and seize the opportunity, of someone coming out of the premises to pounce and” force their way for operations.
“Walk-ins” share some characteristics with “Operation Evacuation”. While theft and robbery were usually the primary objective, rape and murder were frequently motivated by ,the circumstances of encounter between the robbers and their victims, especially the extent to which the former became impulsive under the overwhelming influence of hard drugs. Moreover, the various categories were generally preceded by surveillance and periodic ‘monitoring of tendencies within the neighbourhood, as well as the potentials or inclinations of law enforcement’ agents to respond to critical challenges. — TO BE CONCLUDED TOMORROW.
A paper presented by Prof. Tunde Adeniran, KJW, OFR, Nigeria’s former Minister of Education and former Ambassador to the Federal Republic of Germany, at the Development Policy Centre, Ojetunji Aboyade bHouse, Ibadan on Thursday 6th June, 2002.