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How Vigilante Groups Impact Societies

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A sign near a checkpoint of a vigilante group reads Civilian J.T.F (Joint Task Force) Maiduguri, an area where the Islamist terror group Boko Haram has carried many deadly attacks. Young men and women formed vigilante groups to hunt down these terrorists and have had success. (Photo: AMINU ABUBAKAR/AFP/Getty Images)
A sign near a checkpoint of a vigilante group reads Civilian J.T.F (Joint Task Force) Maiduguri, an area where the Islamist terror group Boko Haram has carried many deadly attacks. Young men and women formed vigilante groups to hunt down these terrorists and have had success. (Photo: AMINU ABUBAKAR/AFP/Getty Images)

When dealing with violent non-state actors, the role of vigilante groups becomes particularly fascinating for both their impact and impediment to peace building.

Clarion’s National Correspondent Shireen Qudosi speaks with Dr. Kingsley Madueke on understanding the niche role such groups play. Dr. Madueke studies ethnic and extremist violence, and is currently in Nigeria doing fieldwork on non-state security groups.

Currently studying vigilantism in one of the most challenged socioeconomic environments in the world, Dr. Madueke looks at the role of vigilante groups and other non-state security groups in tackling inter-group clashes, violent extremism and the rising levels of crime.

Dr. Madueke obtained his Ph.D. from the University of Amsterdam. He also has a master’s and post-graduate degree in conflict managements and peace studies from the University of Jos in Nigeria.

Beyond violent extremism and ethnic violence, he’s an award-winning researcher whose interests also include political instability, radicalization and security in fragile states. He won the David and Helen Kimble Prize for best academic article published in Journal of Modern African Studies in 2018. He was also a Marie Skoldowska-Curie scholar, and his articles have been published in the Journal of Modern African StudiesAfrica Spectrum, Journal of Contemporary African Studies and African Studies Review.

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Clarion: How does a vigilante group fit into a society? 

Dr. Madueke: These groups have significant levels of trust and confidence within their immediate localities. Vigilante groups are usually very confident due to security community support and trust.

Clarion: What draws someone to support or become part of a vigilante group? 

Dr. Madueke: For most individuals, the main reason for joining a vigilante group is to contribute towards communal order and safety. In marginal localities where state presence is minimal or entirely absent, residents rely on vigilante groups to maintain order.

Also, in some of the troubled areas I’m studying, a good number of those that end up in vigilante groups are people who’ve suffered one way or the other, lost loved ones or property. They’re actually victims. This is what sets them apart from a group like Antifa, who would like to see themselves as vigilante.

But this is not to say there’re no individuals with ulterior motives who may use their membership to pursue some personal goals.

Clarion: It would seem to me that vigilante groups have their own morality framework. Would you say that’s true? 

Dr. Madueke: The issue of morality is very complex. Who defines moral conduct? In our case, we look at the question of does the community already have an existing moral code? The vigilantes try as much as possible to work within the perimeter of this moral code. Naturally, there are always bad eggs where vigilante members have been part of gang violence. A major challenge for vigilante leadership is to control this.

Clarion: If they’re standing within the community and moral codes of their society, what makes them vigilante? 

Dr. Madueke: There’s a wealth of literature on vigilante groups in Nigeria and other parts of sub-Sahara Africa. There is also significant scholarly work on vigilante groups in parts of South America and Asia. The way it’s contextualized here in Nigeria is different than in the United States. Here they have a long history — originally, they were civilian efforts to fight crime. The Nigerian context is where you have a huge gap in state security. Vigilante groups seek to address this gap.

Clarion: It would seem them that part of the confidence these groups enjoy is that they’re needed by local communities rather than simply being retaliatory protest groups such as self-described vigilantes in the Western states. 

Dr. Madueke: In Nigeria, there’s a major deficit in terms of policing and security. The national police force is grossly inadequate. Nigeria has a landmass of about 923,763 km² (356, 667 mi2) and a population estimated at 200 million. It is infeasible for a police force with a staff strength of 370, 000 to effectively cover the country.

Vigilante groups have for several decades been part of local communities in Nigeria. They are civilian security networks formed to tackle theft, robbery and gang violence. Responding to social conflicts was not part of their responsibility originally. However, with the recent rise in the frequency and scale of ethnic and religious violence in different parts of country, vigilantes have added “community defense” to their job description.

Nigeria used to be under successive military government rule. In 1999, when Nigeria returned to democratic government, there was an upsurge in group conflict. This put so much strain on state forces that the police and military were inadequate in terms of capacity.

In most cases, the state didn’t have what is required to tackle the security problem. They were overwhelmed. So the communities had to look at how to defend themselves.

Clarion: It’s understandable then how vigilante groups would be seen as heroes to their communities. Are they now a source of support or strain for the state? 

Dr. Madueke: It’s a complex relationship. Even studying it is a very delicate issue. Sometimes in particular context, you have a very cooperative relationship between the vigilantes and the police, and other times there’s confrontation.

For example, in highly polarized settings, the religion or ethnicity of the police commissioner will impact how vigilantes will see them. Predominantly Christian communities prefer to work with security forces led by a Christian just like Muslims prefer security forces led by fellow Muslims. But of course, there are many instances where there is cooperation across religious divides.

Clarion: You’re currently in the field studying this in real time by immersing yourself in the world of vigilantes and other non-state security groups in Nigeria. You’re also set to present your work in Edinburgh in June. Can you tell us more about what questions your research is looking to offer answers to? 

Dr. Madueke: For now, I’m focusing on two research questions: The first question is how do non-state security groups adapt to evolving security landscape particularly in north-central Nigeria. In other words, how do these groups respond to the threats of inter-group conflict, violent extremism and crime? The second question is: Why do some victims of violence become radicalized, whereas others become peace activists?

Clarion: Specifically, how would you say vigilante groups impact peace building?

Dr. Madueke: Vigilante groups play a key role in the security dynamics of their localities. Apart from fighting crime and generally maintaining order, they defend their communities against possible invasion by armed groups from other areas when deadly mass riots erupt.

However, they can also constitute a major hindrance to peace-building efforts. For example, when vigilante groups become politicized, they tend to advance the interests of their political benefactors rather than work for peaceful coexistence.

Thus, their role in peace building is complex, depending on various contextual factors. In highly polarized settings where there is a significant level of segregation and all channels of inter-communal communication have collapsed, vigilante groups easily morph into ethnic militias and contribute to fueling violence.

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