In my last blog post, I touched upon the structure of Nigeria’s formal security system. Surprisingly, everyday security is often provided by informal security groups. Nigeria’s police force has approximately 377,000 officers and a population of 182 million. In other words, for every 482 people in the country, there is one police officer. Because Nigeria’s constitution prohibits the establishment of state or local police, informal security forces fill gaps in formal security.
These forces, commonly referred to as vigilante groups, have a long, pre-colonial history in Nigeria. Vigilante group originally referred to hunter guard or night guard groups. These groups would patrol communities at night under the authority of community leaders. Up until the 1940s, guard groups were outlawed by the colonial administration, but they became more active and prevalent in the latter half of the twentieth century.
Generally speaking, informal security groups maintain law and order and safeguard lives and property in their communities. “Law” often refers not to formal federal or state law, but to customary norms or Sharia law, depending on the community. They often organize along neighborhood, ethnic, or religious cleavages. There is no national legislation regulating vigilante groups, and thus they vary in terms of their structure, operations, and oversight. Though they are not regulated at the national level, many states have passed laws establishing and/or regulating vigilante groups. Although vigilante groups generally provide day-to-day security, some have had a significant role in Nigeria’s fight against terrorism. In Borno state, the Civilian Joint Task Force, which was formed in 2013, assisted Nigerian security forces in identifying and arresting Boko Haram suspects, providing information, and protecting communities against attacks.
The public frequently prefers informal security forces to formal security services. They are generally perceived as more available, trustworthy, and effective than the police. The number of police officers as compared to the size of the population, as well as the concentration of police in more urban areas, makes formal police forces inaccessible for those who live in rural areas. Further, because vigilante groups are community based, they have knowledge of local contexts and information necessary to resolve disputes that police officers usually do not have. Additionally, the Nigeria Police Force has an extensive reputation for corruption and human rights abuses, which deter the public from utilizing the police in emergencies or during disputes. Extortion and bribery by the police are an everyday part of life for Nigerians, and particularly for the poor. Police attempts to extort money are associated with arbitrary arrest and detention, physical and sexual assault, torture, and even death. Informal security groups have been associated with human rights abuses as well, particularly extrajudicial killings of suspected criminals.
Informal security groups appear to be part of Nigeria’s larger system of legal pluralism. Effectively, legal pluralism is the recognition that a single national law is not meaningful or effective for all groups of people. When law is personal (e.g. family law or land law), it has to be relevant to those governed by it. Lack of complementarity between formal legal rules and the norms and customs of customary law can (and has) led to violent conflict. Nigeria consists of many diverse ethnic groups, each with their own cultures, customs, and values, and the state explicitly recognizes customary and Islamic law as part of its legal system. Under Nigeria’s constitution, the judiciary contains appellate courts of customary and Islamic law, and the federal Court of Appeal is constitutionally required to contain at least three justices learned in customary law and at least three justices learned in Islamic personal law.
Although we typically perceive of security as being the exclusive domain of the state, the reality in Nigeria is that the state cannot provide enough security, both in terms of number of officers and the quality of their services. Creating state or local police forces potentially could improve the security situation, as decentralization would remove some forces from the institutionalized culture of corruption at the national level. However, because this is constitutionally prohibited, informal security groups have to supplement the security system. Given that these groups reflect Nigeria’s cultural reality, forming along lines of different legal systems (i.e. ethnic groups that have distinct customary law or predominantly Muslim groups), they enforce the norms of their personal legal systems in addition to providing a security service based on formal criminal law. Therefore, in recognizing these vigilante groups, the Nigerian state appears to be endorsing yet another manifestation of legal pluralism.
This is something that I did not expect to encounter during my research this summer. Unlike many other areas of the law, security is intensely formal. Often it is the one thing that states are highly effective in controlling. Even though many state security services in developing countries act illegally and abusively, they are highly resistant to and repressive of challenges to their authority, making state security forces the only security forces. Although Nigeria’s vigilante groups are not perfect (and some have been accused of committing abuses as well), it is unique to see a state recognize culturally based alternatives in the security sector.