In the "Bakassi era," residents of Abia, Anambra and Imo may be sleeping with their eyes closed, but at what cost? Armed robbers may have been swiftly dealt with or chased out of some states, but scores of innocent people have also fallen alongside the criminals. Residents of these states are living under a new reign of terror, with one form of violence substituted for another. The violence of the Bakassi Boys is, additionally, an organized form of violence and one that is sanctioned or sponsored by state governments.
The activities of the Bakassi Boys have added a layer of fear and violence to a society already terrorized by armed robbery and decades of abuse by the security forces. They have created a situation where violence has become an acceptable part of daily life and has lost its capacity to shock. In the words of a lawyer in Onitsha, "people seem to have lost touch with their humanity when it comes to the Bakassi because they have lived with violent robbery for so long."131
The spectacle of public executions by the Bakassi Boys, and the absence of any generalized condemnation of these atrocities, is likely to have long-term effects on the population, particularly on children growing up in this climate of tolerance of violence. Children often witness with their own eyes the executions and other atrocities committed by the Bakassi Boys. A man from Onitsha told how young children sometimes play games where they pretend to be Bakassi Boys. Brutality has been glorified as the Bakassi Boys have deliberately performed acts of gratuitous violence in public, mutilating and burning the bodies of their victims, leaving their bodies in the street and preventing people from burying them, to maximize the humiliation and boast of their successes. The more famous the victims, the more publicity the Bakassi Boys have sought around their capture, and the more gruesome their methods of execution. A lawyer in Onitsha told Human Rights Watch and CLEEN: "In June 2000, OTA killed a notorious armed robber. They captured him and beheaded him. They used the skull for a warrior dance in front of the primary school, opposite Onitsha General Hospital. Children were terrified. The skull was left there for three days on the street."132
The way in which the Bakassi Boys, with the support of parts of the media, have surrounded themselves with an aura of invincibility has fed into this climate of opinion in which vigilante violence has been "elevated" above and somehow distinguished from other forms of violent crime. People seem prepared to put up with the excesses of the Bakassi Boys, however violent, rather than risk a return to the situation where armed robbers ruled the cities. It is as if the violence of the Bakassi Boys is not considered as real violence.
In addition, the actions of the Bakassi Boys are likely to generate further violence. Although many people are afraid or unwilling to challenge the Bakassi Boys, some are gradually reaching a stage where they are no longer prepared to tolerate their excesses and are beginning to look for avenues of revenge. Official encouragement of vigilante groups has contributed directly to this spiral of violence. By supporting the Bakassi Boys and allowing them to get away with the most serious abuses, government authorities are effectively telling the population that it is acceptable to use violence to achieve any ends. The projection of the Bakassi Boys as heroes, coupled with the certainty that they can carry out abuses with impunity, have emboldened some observers, especially other youths who end up believing that they too could get away with such excesses-leading to expressions of frustration when their elders or occasionally the police try to prevent them. Unless this attitude is changed immediately, there may be a complete breakdown of law and order, which not even the federal government, and certainly not the police, will be able to contain. The government must consider and take responsibility for the long-term consequences of allowing groups like the Bakassi Boys to continue operating.
The need for urgent action is particularly acute in view of the forthcoming elections in Nigeria in 2003. As demonstrated above, there have already been indications that the Bakassi Boys are being used to target political opponents. With elections further raising the stakes, the Bakassi Boys will come into their own as a ready-made tool for political repression. There is an urgent need for the federal government to resolve this issue and install clear structures for accountability for the police, to ensure that they are responsive to local demands for effective action against criminals but that they cannot be deployed for private or political purposes which lead to human rights abuses.
President Obasanjo has made several welcome statements condemning pre-election violence and expressing concern about the warning signs. For example, in February 2002, he held a three-day retreat for political leaders and others on the subject of pre-election violence, urging all those concerned to refrain from such violence and to ensure that elections are free and fair. To turn these promises into reality, he will need to pay particular attention to the situation in the south-east of Nigeria, among other areas, and dismantle the vigilante groups which will almost certainly be used for these ends.
Human Rights Watch and CLEEN recognize that the high level of violent crime in Nigeria poses a serious problem which requires carefully thought-out solutions, and that results will not be immediate. However, the problem is not a new one and the current government has had several years to start addressing it. It should implement without delay the promised reforms of the police force, to ensure that the police can play a positive role in ensuring peaceful elections and more broadly, in resuming their normal law and order functions across the country as soon as possible. To ensure maximum effectiveness for these reforms, and to ensure that vigilante groups like the Bakassi Boys become completely redundant, the government should work in close partnership with civil society and with local communities to produce effective and publicly acceptable solutions for tackling crime.
131 Human Rights Watch/CLEEN interview, Onitsha, October 12, 2001.
132 Human Rights Watch/CLEEN interview, Onitsha, October 12, 2001.