A Boko Haram assault team was routed by vigilante counter-attacks yesterday, injecting a new element into the long-running terrorist campaign. In the most recent incident, more than 200 insurgents were killed in an organized defense by residents of Rann, which is located in Borno, the Nigerian state where most of the insurgent attacks have been focused. This was the second attempt by the fundamentalist Islamist organization to invade the town, coming several months after the previous attack was repulsed.
(The name of the town has been widely misreported in the media. According to local sources, the town is indeed called Rann, and it is the “county seat” for the Kala Balge local government unit, akin to an American county, which is located in the north-eastern section of the Borno state.)
More than 300 insurgents attempted to take the town by storm during the early morning hours, arriving on more than 70 motorcycles, two Hilux trucks and an armoured personnel carrier. Some reports characterized the battle as an entrapment by the villagers. Others indicate that the insurgents entered the village, killed some residents and put several buildings to the torch before they were repulsed by villagers with spears, swords and knives who apparently descended upon the attackers from hidden positions where they were lying in wait for the expected attack. Some reports indicate that the fighting went on for several hours and was largely hand-to-hand, close-quarters combat. No reports have yet indicated the number of killed or wounded among the villagers but there are claims that at least 10 insurgents were captured.
The vigilante phenomenon is a relatively new development in Nigeria, suggesting that indigenous vigilantes groups are taking the law into their own hands. The vigilantes, along with private security forces, are launching pre-emptive counter-attacks against members of the terrorist organization, which has been trying to carve its own country out of parts of northeastern Nigeria, Cameroon, and Niger since Boko Haram was founded in 2002.
The implications of vigilantism, in turn, suggest that the days of the administration of Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan may be numbered as a direct result of its failure to take concerted action against the rebels. Boko Haram’s military tactics consist mainly of launching random assaults in strength against undefended hamlets and villages, pillaging them, and exfiltrating into the countryside where, once dispersed, they are virtually impossible to find. They maintain no fixed strongholds of their own, and frequently move their bases of operations to avoid detection by the Nigerian security forces.
Even with the best intentions and the most modern equipment, Nigeria’s military would face a demographic situation that favors the insurgents over government forces, but the Nigerian army has neither the good will of the people, nor the equipment to pull off successful maneuvers. The most populous country in Africa, Nigeria’s 130 million people rank ninth in African population density, with its people divided between 74 large urban centers with populations of 100,000 or more and a widely dispersed network of villages and hamlets that are difficult to police or protect. The country’s largest city, Lagos, has a population of more than 8 million, and there are five more cities with populations in excess of one million residents. Altogether, the country has a total urban population of 36.6 million. This gives Nigeria a rural population of more than 93 million, or approximately 72 percent of the total population.
Under these conditions, smaller communities, convinced that the Nigerian Army’s ineffectiveness against the rebels has been exacerbated by political considerations, are now taking matters into their own hands. Officials are often reluctant to act because tie insurgents have a long history of assassinating public office holders who move too boldly against them. The people in the towns have no other choice to but defend themselves.
The underpaid and frequently mutinous Nigerian military, which has a long record of civil rights abuses of its own, suffers from a combination of poor morale, inadequate training and outdated equipment that cannot be updated because of the country’s history of human rights violations have resulted in widespread bans against selling them such equipment. Numerous military coups have resulted in long periods during which the country was ruled by military juntas, to the point where Nigerian citizens distrust their military as much as they fear the Boko Haram.
American drones are now involved in the search for the missing children but, in the U.S., the Leahy Amendment actually prohibits the United States from providing military aid to governments accused of civil rights violations. While not as oppressive as previous administrations, Goodluck Jonathan’s administration has not yet done enough to become eligible for that aid, making it difficult for the Obama administration to do much to help the missing Nigerian children.
Vigilantism often signals the breakdown of a distant and seemingly disinterested national government. In this case, vigilantism may be the first step toward autonomous self-rule, a clear statement that the communities involved do not want to be ruled by the rebel cult, but do not want lip service from President Jonathan’s administration either. By arming themselves to repel attacks by Boko Haram predator teams, the people of northeastern Nigeria may be serving notice that they are tired than waiting for their national government to act, which might lead them a rebellion of their own, a frequent occurrence in Nigeria’s post-colonial history.
By Alan M. Milner
Look for me on Twitter:@alanmilner