The rise in vigilante killings across the country is an alarming trend and adds to the abuse Nigerians are subjected to by state and non-state actors. In a recent case, a resident of the Ajah area of Lagos State, identified only as Ezekiel, was tortured to death by a local group, styling itself Digbolukolu Local Security Outfit. In June, vigilantes summarily killed an innocent man in Emuoha, Rivers State. The authorities must stop the killings and exercise effective oversight over local vigilance and neighbourhood watch groups nationwide.
Like the mobs that regularly lynch suspects on flimsy grounds, any vigilante, or night guard that tortures, assaults or kills anyone except in provable self-defence, must be apprehended and subjected to the full wrath of the law.
While local vigilante initiatives and private night guards are necessary, given the epidemic of criminality across the land and the helplessness of the existing security system, the misapplication of deadly force is illegal and counterproductive. It gives ammunition to those who oppose devolved policing.
Volunteers that take the law into their own hands by torturing and summarily executing suspects sabotage their own existence and advertise themselves as no better than the criminals.
According to reports, Ezekiel was accused of stealing a phone at a social gathering. His membership of the vigilante group did not save him; he was beaten, locked up in a guardroom, and starved for two days before he died. Everybody indicted in that incident must be prosecuted.
Some tyrannical vigilantes are exploiting Nigeria’s institutional and security lapses. They detain people illegally, and employ torture to extract forced confessions from their victims. Members of the Emuoha Local Government Vigilante Service, Rivers State, allegedly shot dead a resident, Justice Ogbuehi, while he was assisting his mother in processing cassava at their home.
Around that time, the commander of the Ojoto Community Vigilance Group and two others were arrested by the police in Anambra State over the kidnap and murder of a tricycle operator, Christian Onah. In the same state, a vigilante shot dead a middle-aged man in the Idemili North LGA in March 2023 who was mistaken for a suspected cultist.
In July, two brothers, Abdulmalik Abubakar, and Ibrahim Abdullahi, were shot by some vigilantes in the Bobota/Dabi Kwali area of the Federal Capital Territory because they refused to release their phones for a search.
In March, an official of the Abia State Vigilante Group killed a 27-year-old eatery worker, Izuchuwku Mbakwe, in Umuahia, Abia State. The vigilantes had been invited by an official of the company after accusing the victim of stealing a phone.
Some youths in Bachure, Yola North LGA, Adamawa State, in October 2021, burnt the vigilante office in the community following the extrajudicial killing of a 33-year-old resident, Michael Amoris.
Every Nigerian has the right to life, and to freedom of movement as enshrined in the constitution. No vigilante can declare or enforce a curfew. No one has the right to take another’s life under any pretext. Vigilante justice, says Britannica, occurs in many countries “whenever informally organised groups have attempted to supplement or replace legal procedure or to fill the void.” In Nigeria, they exist primarily because formal state institutions have failed.
Vigilantes, except when repelling an armed attack, legally can only make a “citizen’s arrest” and hand over the suspect to the police. When strangers arrive in a community late, the duty of these guards is to lead them to their destinations safely, not to kill them before daybreak as some have been known to do.
A 2021 study on vigilantism in Nigeria commissioned by the United Nations University’s Center for Policy Research, found that the vigilante groups and anti-crime militias’ ability to suppress violent crime involves “intense brutality, including extra-judicial killings, torture, illegal detention, and sometimes public executions.”
It noted that the vigilantes are “characterised by a profound lack of accountability.” Vigilantes everywhere should be under the strict supervision of local and state government authorities. Errant vigilantes should be swiftly prosecuted.
A self-appointed vigilante, James Fairbanks, who killed a sex offender, Mattieo Condoluci, was sentenced to 70 years imprisonment in 2021 by the Douglas County District Court, Colorado, United States. After killing the victim who was convicted of sex crimes towards children, Fairbanks emailed media stations to say he did not want Condoluci to harm other children. The authorities rejected this.
There must therefore be a well-structured system of accountability in vigilantism. State governments should exercise effective regulation. Vigilantes should be adequately trained to understand their duties and boundaries. They should collaborate closely with the police, who must be immediately informed of any arrest and take custody of suspects.
Any vigilance group not duly registered must be shut down, and any found culpable of human rights violations promptly disbanded. They should not become breeding grounds for criminals. Police in Rivers recently declared members of the Onelga Security Peace Advisory Committee, a vigilance group, as criminals. One of them recently shot a man dead over a girlfriend rivalry, it said.
Vigilantes are necessary because Nigeria’s single policing system has broken down. The 371,000-person Nigeria Police Force is not only insufficient for a population of over 200 million, but over two-thirds of them have been appropriated for private guard duties, while it is under-funded, ill-equipped, rife with indiscipline, oppression, and corruption.
Landlord and resident associations, communities and LGS therefore hire vigilantes. Without effective oversight, some of them perpetrate abuses. Regulation is therefore crucial.
Apart from passing regulatory laws and byelaws at the state and LG levels respectively, poor, complicit policing that pushes people to self-help should be addressed. Suspects handed over to the police are sometimes freed without charges and they return to hunt those behind their arrest. While this does not justify jungle justice, the police must stamp out such habits.
The state governments should form state-wide vigilance agencies, well-funded and equipped state and regional security agencies, and exercise very strict oversight over them. Overzealous vigilantes meting out jungle justice should no longer be tolerated.