VI. THE RESPONSE OF THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT
The federal government has done little to put a stop to the abuses of the Bakassi Boys. It has opted not to interfere in the affairs of state governors, despite evidence of their direct involvement in some of these abuses. The attitude of the federal government towards the Bakassi Boys contrasts with its attitude towards the O'odua People's Congress (OPC) in the south-west, which it officially banned in 1999.128 Part of the explanation for this difference in reaction may lie in the fact that the OPC has a clear political agenda of its own. As such, it is perceived as a greater political threat, unlike the Bakassi Boys who do not constitute or aspire to be a political entity, but rather have been deployed to further the political aims of others. This latter point almost certainly explains why the federal government has been unwilling to take a stronger stand against the Bakassi Boys, or to ban them: in the critical period leading up to elections in 2003, the federal government does not want to antagonize state governors by opposing what has become their strongest popularity booster and their most effective weapon of political repression.
However, on April 10, 2002, it was reported that President Olusegun Obasanjo had sent a bill to the National Assembly, entitled "Prohibition of Certain Associations Act 2002," which would give him the power to dissolve and proscribe militia or quasi-military groups formed for the purposes of furthering political, religious, ethnic, social or cultural interests.129 Efforts by the government to prevent violence by militia or vigilante groups and to regulate their activities would be welcome. However, these reports also raise concerns about potentially sweeping powers that may be granted to the president to outlaw a broad range of organizations, including some who may not use or advocate violence, but who could be outlawed on the basis of their perceived opposition to or criticism of the government.
Some government officials have made critical statements regarding the activities of the Bakassi Boys, but have stopped short of taking action to disband them. Predictably, one of their critics at federal government level has been the minister of police affairs, Stephen Akiga. He told journalists in Umuahia, Aba State: "What you people call vigilante groups are not vigilante groups in any way. Rather, they are militant groups and that is why they are faceless. In the place where I come from, vigilante groups are people known to everybody in the communities and they do not carry arms. The ones you call vigilante groups here carry arms which they use indiscriminately. To me they are terrorists and the law cannot continue to allow that. [...] Security operatives must be people legally trained to do so and all stakeholders in the nation should ensure that only those mandated by law to carry arms should do so."130
The federal government has announced a major reform and expansion of the national police force, including a yearly recruitment of 40, 000 police for five years under its five-year development plan launched in 2000. It has also promised new equipment and has launched a campaign to try to improve the image of the police. However, despite the recruitment of additional police officers, numbers remain dramatically insufficient, working conditions extremely poor, and training seriously inadequate. Morale in the police force became so low that on January 31, 2002, in an unprecedented move, the police went on strike to protest about outstanding salary payments and other conditions of service. The strike was quickly stamped out by the government, who declared it illegal and amounting to mutiny. Several police officers accused of organizing the strike were arrested. However, the federal government has since started addressing some of the issues raised by the striking policemen. For instance, the sum of one billion naira was immediately released to the police authorities to pay for the outstanding allowances of their personnel. The Police Service Commission has promoted 17, 000 superior officers of the force and delegated powers for the promotion of junior ones to the new inspector general of police, Tafa Balogun, who replaced Alhaji Musiliu Smith in March 2002.
128 The OPC is a militia which was initially created to advocate for autonomy for the Yoruba ethnic group. It has since also taken on the functions of a vigilante group, fighting alleged criminals. It continues to operate, despite and since the official ban.
129 See, for example, "Obasanjo seeks power to dissolve ethnic militias," in This Day (Lagos), April 10, 2002, and "Nigeria's Obasanjo seeks power to ban ethnic militia," Agence France Presse, April 10, 2002.
130 "Hard times await Bakassi Boys - Minister," in The Vanguard (Lagos), March 19, 2001.