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Nigeria's Self-Styled Warriors: Meet the Vigilante Army Taking on the World's Deadliest Terror Group

VICE News met a commander of the Civilian JTF, a vigilante group formed in 2013 who have been instrumental in fighting Boko Haram militants and protecting Nigerian civilians from army abuses.

by Sally Hayden
Apr 28 2016, 5:15pm

Imagen por Sally Hayden/VICE News

The vigilante commander scrolled excitedly through the photos on his phone, sent to him through a WhatsApp group named "Sector Three." On the screen were shots of young women's bodies, lying lifeless on their backs on a sandy ground with their clothes torn off. Belts of explosives were visible around their waists.

"This morning at Jimini [village], around 5.20am, four suicide bombers came in. Our boys intercepted them," Abba Aji Kalli explained, pride evident in his voice. "Two [of the women] blew themselves up and two of them were put down by our members. So we didn't have any casualties, none dead, except the suicide bombers."

"They were coming out from the Sambisa Forest, they are coming to attack villagers," Kalli continued. "Ahead of that there is not any village, so anybody who was coming from there, we had to be cautious of them. [The volunteers] cautioned them, telling them to stop and then the bombs went off."

Kalli, 51, is a sector commander in the Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF), a paramilitary vigilante group boasting 26,000 mostly volunteers who formed in 2013 in northeast Nigeria with the express aim of defeating Boko Haram — the Islamic militant group currently ranked as the deadliest terrorist group in the world — responsible for kidnapping thousands of women and children, killing tens of thousands of Nigerians, and displacing more than 2 million since 2009.

Abba Aji Kalli, sector commander in the Civilian JTF. (Photo by Sally Hayden/VICE News)

The CJTF — who work in conjunction with the Nigerian military — is the largest collection of locals operating with the express intention of ending the seven-year insurgency that has destroyed homes and torn families apart.

We spoke sitting in a car in Maiduguri, the birthplace of Boko Haram and the capital of Borno State, one of the three northeastern states worst affected by the conflict. Nearby 10 CJTF members were bracing the 110 degree temperatures to man a checkpoint at the entrance to a camp for internally displaced people (IDPs). Their presence was reassuring. In January this year, 86 people were killed in another camp after two female suicide bombers managed to make it inside before detonating their explosives.

Maiduguri — a city of one million residents and more than one million displaced people — has become something of a crossroads for all those involved in the fight against Boko Haram, with members of the Nigerian military, the police, and civil defense corps all active, as well as the UK and US advisors and marines who have decamped to the northeast to help them.

* * *

The CJTF was formed in June 2013 as a response to two threats: the destruction caused by Boko Haram insurgents, and the mass murders and human rights abuses carried out by the Nigerian military as they haphazardly hunted for them.

Groups of youths began patrolling streets, armed with an array of weapons including machetes, bows and arrows, clubs, and daggers. They stormed homes of known and suspected Boko Haram members, "hacking them to death or manhandling and then handing them over to the military," the NGO International Crisis Group said in a 2014 report.

The group quickly became larger and more structured, with the help of the military which organized CJTF members into units operating in designated areas.

The vigilantes were instrumental in helping drive Boko Haram out of Maiduguri in 2013 — which the military had repeatedly tried and failed to do — and stopping killings and bombings in the city, though reportedly also committed their own human rights abuses in the process.

Now, the group's estimated 26,000 members serve various different functions, from manning security checkpoints and guarding entrances to rural villages, to aiding with operations carried out in Boko Haram-controlled territory.

They also act as the eyes and ears of the military, feeding them local intelligence about Boko Haram members. This first-hand knowledge is what makes the CJTF so successful, claimed Kalli. "The military is a stranger in the town," he said. "We know the terrain very well so we will give them important information. Then sometimes we'll be on the front showing them where the insurgents are. We have sources everywhere."

He claimed that three years after the CJTF was formed, the military are no longer killing civilians. "Now with the CJTF we tell them what to do, we show them who is really Boko Haram. Even at this time now if they catch [a] Boko Haram [member] they will take him to prison. After interrogation they will take him to court."

The CJTF have also been accused of participating in military atrocities, however. Amnesty International released video footage in 2014 showing members of the group and soldiers slitting throats of detainees and dumping them in a mass grave, demonstrating how all sides in Nigeria's conflict were committing appalling crimes "with abandon," it said.

Related: Boko Haram's War on Women: Abductees Speak of Systematic Rape, Suicide

However residents of Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State and the birthplace of Boko Haram, are unequivocal in their praise for the group.

"It was really hell here," one Maiduguri inhabitant told VICE News. "We were under 24 hour curfew, then a 12 hour curfew. The military were mistreating everyone. They killed many people."

The resident — who didn't want to be named — said the CJTF had made life much easier for Maiduguri residents. "Before that everyone was a suspect. The thinking was 'You must know something, and we'll pressure you until you tell us.'"

She said there were insurgents everywhere: she even went to secondary school with a boy who ended up joining Boko Haram. "He was always stubborn. He dropped out," she recalled. At the time Boko Haram were offering as much as 150,000 naira ($753) as payment for killing someone. "Imagine the offer of 150,000 naira to someone who has never even owned 20,000 naira ($100)."

* * *

"Any vigilante group in the northeast has at some stage been referred to as the Civilian JTF," Faisal Wando, a former program officer in the Nigerian government's Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) program, told VICE News while speaking in a hotel in Nigeria's capital city Abuja. A measure of the haphazard nature of the response to Boko Haram in the northeast is the confusion over who is actually associated with each organization: there are suspicions that regular thieves and murderers are being labeled as Boko Haram members when they commit crimes, just as community groups and many of the local hunters who have been co-opted to help the Nigerian army are being named as CJTF.

Kalli's count says there are currently 26,000 enrolled members — 200 of whom are women. Anyone could just go up to a checkpoint and ask to join, Kalli said, though they would then be evaluated. Motivations to apply vary, but many are victims of some kind, either personally impacted by the abuses of Boko Haram or those of the military forces that were supposed to be protecting them. One woman joined after her husband was killed by a suicide bomber; a son signed up when his parents were murdered. Some volunteers have other jobs while many are unemployed, but everyone is on call 24 hours a day, Kalli claimed.

The group operates with a military-style command structure, with a president, vice-president, secretary, state coordinators. Each of Borno State's local government areas now has its own commander, while Maiduguri city is split into 10 sectors, each with one leader in charge.

Kalli assured me that all CJTF members are over 18, but looking around Maiduguri that claim didn't hold up. Skinny boys who couldn't be older than 16 were using handheld metal detectors to scan visitors at the Sandakyarimi government camp for internally displaced people. Several Borno State residents told VICE News they personally knew members who were as young as 14.

Back in Nigerian capital city Abuja, local NGO Education Must Continue advocate Heriju Gadzama said his organization recently helped relocate a 17-year-old girl who had joined a vigilante group in Borno State. When they met her "she was holding a rifle alongside her dad," he said, adding that she laughed when asked why she was fighting, responding with "I'd rather die with my gun than be taken away [by Boko Haram]."

Civilian JTF members pose outside the entrance to a camp for those displaced by Boko Haram in Maiduguri, northeast Nigeria. (Photo by Sally Hayden/VICE News)

About 1,850 CJTF members have had proper military training through a state government program known as the Borno Youth Empowerment Scheme. Members that have undertaken the training are paid a 15,000 naira ($75) monthly allowance by the government and get a coveted blue uniform, though trained and untrained CJTF members play the same roles. Politicians have praised CJTF members for their "zeal and commitment" towards achieving peace. However, this scheme is plagued by some controversy: one former government employee told VICE News he had heard reports CJTF commanders are skimming money from enrolled recruits to spend on cars and multiple wives.

All members, trained and untrained, carry arms — the procurement and provision of which has also been haphazard.

"We started with cutlasses and sticks," Kalli told VICE News. "Later on we saw the enemy had sophisticated weapons so we started using dead people's guns from actions. [We] locally made some guns, but others were given to [us] by the military. Otherwise we cannot go into the bush to the war front."

Related: As Video of Chibok Girls Gives New Hope, We Speak to Survivors of Boko Haram

Kalli said he wanted VICE News to report very clearly that Boko Haram is not a religious organization. "Boko Haram is just a cult, because there is not any religion — either the Christianity or Muslim — that teaches you to kill somebody or force somebody to follow you. So automatically what they are doing is completely a cult organization."

"It's a cult," the commander continued. "They've turned their minds. They're using charms."

"You see Boko Haram don't have any mission," Kalli said. "If you [ask] me the past regime [led by Goodluck Jonathan — voted out of power in April 2015] sponsored Boko Haram, because they didn't protect the people of this country, they didn't do security outreach, because if the [government had acted on] personal information that we passed to them, by this time Boko Haram would have become history."

* * *

More than a year since a long-awaited offensive was launched by the Nigerian army against Boko Haram, which so far has resulted in the insurgents losing control of 17 of 19 previously occupied local government areas, conditions are greatly improving inside Maiduguri. However, the safety situation outside the city remains hard to assess. "What is rumour, what is to make us sleep, and what is true?" one Nigerian NGO worker wondered. The night before VICE News met Kalli two people were burned alive in a truck on a main road outside the city.

Other kidnappings and killings continue too; in early April 12 women were abducted while fetching water — the vigilantes with them fled when confronted by Boko Haram fighters. In an attack on the village of Dalori in late January, at least 86 people were killed, their charred bodies discovered afterwards.

In some ways, the state's capital is returning to normal, though a curfew of 9pm still exists for all residents, and Borno State number plates still seem aggressive in their irony: the slogan "home of peace" emblazoned on each one.

Neem trees line the streets. Burned pieces of plastic bags cover much of the ground. Children, many of them internally displaced, sift through rubbish for something they can salvage. Dozens of girls in turquoise hijabs flow out of one of the few still-open local schools, while hooped barbed wire lines the tops of walls around the mini-mansions and compounds of the more wealthy.

The aftermath of the first rain of 2016 in Maiduguri, Borno State. (Photo by Sally Hayden/VICE News)

Street sellers show off lemons, water melons, and Irish potatoes — considered a delicacy here. Private fuel stations are abandoned — the petrol price has risen too high for many locals.

In the "custom" area of the city every day is market day. Stalls and minivans are stacked up against each other. Beeping is a constant, and the occasional argument breaks out between car drivers, taxi drivers, cyclists, or pedestrians.

Military checkpoints are common — men wearing khaki and sunglasses peer into cars, occasionally taking objection to a smile or a friendly nod, though usually they will wave you quickly through.

* * *

The return to normal life in their Maiduguri base and notable military successes against Boko Haram mean the CJTF is facing new challenges — such as accepting the Nigerian military's "Operation Safe Corridor," a rehabilitation program for ex-Boko Haram militants. In early April, spokesperson Brigadier General Rabe Abubakar told the BBC 800 Boko Haram fighters who recently surrendered would be put in camps and taught new skills as part of a deradicalization initiative.

"The most important thing for us is to have them rehabilitated. Since they have shown remorse and come on board, I think it is our duty to ensure that we help them to become very productive members of this great country," Abubakar said.

Kalli wasn't keen on this idea. "Let me throw that question back to you," he responded when asked about deradicalization programs. "If you were in my shoes, somebody came, you didn't know him, destroyed your family, burned your house, killed your brother or your mother or your sister, and the government find him, and he will come back to the same community, how would you feel? Would you allow him to stay?"

"To me, Boko Haram will never repair, [...] we have no sympathy for them. If someone is Boko Haram we should clear them off, off the land."

He reiterated: "To me they're the enemy. If we see them we will wipe them off because they are enemy."

A busy street in Maiduguri, Borno State, northeast Nigeria. (Photo by Sally Hayden/VICE News)

Another, perhaps greater concern is what will happen to the ten thousands of CJTF members when Boko Haram are finally defeated. Could this group of largely unemployed young men, desensitized to violence and used to having a feeling of power and purpose, pose a threat for the future of the region?

"The federal government needs to develop a coherent policy for dealing with the vigilantes," said the ICG report. "If the government fails to deal with this issue, militias could spread across the country, triggering more violence and further damaging the rule of law."

Competition for security jobs is fierce. Last week, the Nigerian police service commission revealed that 705,352 people applied for 10,000 available jobs in the Nigerian police force. Many of the current volunteers aren't educated enough to be taken in by the military or police anyway.

"We have a lot of achievements that we have recorded," Kalli said, explaining that he and the other commanders are pushing the state government to offer an employment program and "engage" the state's youth. "We are appealing to the government to come up with a scheme where they will be given entrepreneur training and they will give them capital so that they will be on their own."

Those calls are apparently being heard: Two weeks ago the Borno State government announced it had created a blue print for youth integration that would particularly target the CJTF, involving setting up an agency tasked with creating jobs and liaising with the army to have "a large chunk of them recruited into the army."

It claimed up to a thousand would be hired as state fire fighters, while members with higher education would be given jobs in the civil service.

Civilian JTF members at a checkpoint outside an IDP camp in Maiduguri, Borno State. (Photo by Sally Hayden/VICE News)

However, with infrastructure largely demolished and the local economy decimated it is uncertain how successful this will be. Kalli echoed this when he said it will take 50 years for the region to recover from the devastation that's been caused. "Boko Haram have done what they aimed to do: to destroy the northeast because we lost many people. Economically we are totally collapsed."

"If the government give employment to the youths, give them something to eat, I do not think we will get any insurgency in the future," he said. "If the government is taking good care of its people — educationally, employment, health, and what have you — then the crime will reduce."

"The international community should help us," Kalli continued. "The NGOs... they are here in Maiduguri, they are helping the poor. So with the help of the international community [and] the government of Mohammadu Buhari, they are doing their best, but we need the international community to move in so that we can help the people to go back on track."

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In the longer term, the region will also have to face up to underlying causes of the conflict — including questions around where Boko Haram's resources and support came from, and how northern Nigerians could be convinced to fight for them. Many have blamed the Nigerian government for neglecting the northeast for decades, pointing out that the extrajudicial killings and other abuses by security forces fostered a strong sense of resentment — but Kalli was adamant that westerners needed to take a share of the blame. "To me the superpowers... are responsible for terrorism in the whole world. If America, Britain, Germany or whatever stopped selling the arms they have, terrorism would not exist."

Violence was far worse in the Middle East after the West got involved in the Iraq war, he said, and the same was happening in Nigeria. "Most of the weapons that Boko Haram are using [...] are from Libya's axis," he said. "Where are Boko Haram getting their munitions? From the west."

The CJTF was a "child of necessity," said Kalli. "We are pushed to the wall. Because we are not safe in the hands of Boko Haram and we are not safe in the hands of security."

Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd

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