Vigilante violence and human rights abuses by vigilante groups have become increasingly serious problems in Nigeria in recent years. Despite repeated government promises to tackle crime and to reform and expand the police force, the rate of armed robbery and other violent crime in Nigeria remains extremely high. The public maintains a profound distrust of the police, who are seen as ineffective, corrupt and often complicit in crime. In various parts of the country, especially in the large cities, people have felt so frustrated and powerless in the face of the inability of the police to ensure security that they have taken the law into their own hands and formed vigilante groups. In some states, these vigilante groups have been officially endorsed by state governments, and have been used not only to fight crime, but also to target political opponents. They have been responsible for serious human rights abuses, including scores of summary executions, torture, and arbitrary detentions for extended periods.
Among the more notorious of these vigilante groups are the Bakassi Boys, active in several states in the south-east of Nigeria. Initially created by traders to fight rampant crime in the large market towns of Aba, in Abia State, then in Onitsha, in Anambra State, the Bakassi Boys have since extended their operations across other parts of Abia, Anambra, and Imo states, with the active support of state governments. In Anambra State, they have been legally recognized, through a special law adopted in August 2000. The methods the Bakassi Boys have used to carry out their "mission" have been extremely brutal, ruthless, and arbitrary. Scores of people have been extrajudicially executed or mutilated in public by the Bakassi Boys; hundreds of others have been tortured and detained in their "cells." Few people appear to question the legality of their actions; large sections of the public, the media and some politicians have applauded them on the basis that they have "succeeded" in bringing down crime levels in the areas where they operate. Likewise, few people have challenged the Bakassi Boys' claim that all those they target are known criminals; most have preferred to turn a blind eye to the fact that many of their victims may be innocent and that even those who are guilty have a basic right to due process.
On the part of the public and politicians alike, there appears to be a general acceptance of the idea that only violence can combat violence, and an alarming tolerance of these groups, who are permitted to operate with near total impunity. Encouragement of vigilante violence is contributing to the ongoing brutalization of society and is perpetuating lawlessness and crime, while pretending to fight it. Through the actions of the Bakassi Boys, in the cities where they operate, armed robbery has been partially replaced, or displaced, by another, more insidious but equally brutal form of violence, which, furthermore, is sanctioned by the authorities. In the words of a man who was detained and tortured by the Bakassi Boys in Onitsha, "the peace we have now is the peace of a graveyard."
Researchers from Human Rights Watch and the Lagos-based Centre for Law Enforcement Education (CLEEN), a Nigerian non-governmental organization, visited the south-eastern Nigerian states of Enugu, Anambra, Imo, and Abia in October 2001 and spoke to a wide range of people there, including victims of abuses by the Bakassi Boys, human rights activists, lawyers, police authorities, and the vigilante leaders themselves. Unfortunately, the governors of the states where the Bakassi Boys are active did not grant us a meeting, despite our numerous requests to meet them. Many of the victims of torture and other abuses by the Bakassi Boys testified at great risk to themselves; some of their names are therefore withheld in this report to ensure their protection. Others, however, wanted their case to be publicized to demonstrate the brutality of the Bakassi Boys and the impunity that protects them.
Research by Human Rights Watch and CLEEN confirmed that in addition to targeting real or suspected criminals, the Bakassi Boys are increasingly being used for other purposes. Deviating from their original crime-fighting "mission," the Bakassi Boys have been called in to settle personal scores between individuals and to intimidate and attempt to eliminate perceived political opponents of state governors. They have murdered and tortured with impunity, under the protection of state authorities. In Anambra State, in particular, they have carried out grave human rights abuses with the active support of the state government and individuals close to the government, some of whom are alleged to have been personally involved in cases of unlawful detention, torture, and killing. In several cases documented by Human Rights Watch and CLEEN, there was close and regular communication between vigilante leaders and Anambra State government officials, and evidence that the Bakassi Boys took their instructions directly from the state government. In one case, for example, the Bakassi Boys forced their way into the house of a man they abducted and later killed, announcing: "We are Bakassi Boys. It's a government order."1 In another, a man who was abducted by the Bakassi Boys was told by one of them: "The government wants you to die."2 In some of the rare cases where members of the Bakassi Boys have been arrested, state government officials have intervened to ensure that they were released within a short time and were not tried with any criminal offence.
There are fears that in the period leading up to elections in Nigeria in 2003, the Bakassi Boys, as well as vigilante groups in other parts of the country, may increasingly become a convenient tool for politically-motivated violence and could be used by powerful local politicians to silence voices of opposition. Tensions between the police and the Bakassi Boys are also likely to increase during this period if state governors intensify the deployment of the Bakassi Boys against their opponents. The police remain a national institution, accountable to the federal government, not to state governments. Many state governors across Nigeria have been calling for the creation of state police forces-a demand that has been strongly resisted by the federal government. In the meantime, state governors in the south-east are using the Bakassi Boys as a substitute for their own police force, with the advantages of being able to deploy them and use them as they please, with no structures or mechanisms to regulate them, and no accountability.
In this critical period, it is essential that the federal government take prompt action -already long overdue-to avoid an escalation of violence and to restore respect for the established law enforcement agencies. In the longer-term, tolerance or, worse still, official, active endorsement of vigilante violence will encourage sectors of the public to continue taking the law into their own hands and will undermine any attempt to improve the conduct and effectiveness of the security forces and of the justice system as a whole.
Human Rights Watch and CLEEN believe that law enforcement duties, in any country, should be undertaken by official law enforcement agencies, and that efforts should be concentrated on ensuring that these agencies are able to work efficiently, with adequate training and resources, and without violating human rights. The existence of a clear legal framework is essential to ensure that all law enforcement agencies work within the rule of law and that they are accountable, within official structures and mechanisms, in order to prevent abuses and miscarriages of justice.
Self-appointed vigilante groups should never be a substitute for law enforcement agencies. Under certain circumstances, members of the general public may cooperate with and support the police in controlling crime. However, if there is citizen participation in schemes such as "neighborhood watches," this participation should be regulated by law and there should be adequate procedures to ensure accountability and to prevent abuse.3 Sections 12 and 14(1) of the Nigerian Criminal Procedure Act (CPA) provide for arrest by private persons. Section 12 states: "Any private person may arrest any person in a state who in his view commits an indictable offence, or whom he reasonably suspects of having committed an offence [...]". However, section 14(1) adds: "Any private person arresting any other person without a warrant shall without unnecessary delay make over the person so arrested to a police officer, or in the absence of a police officer shall take such person to the nearest police station." Detention and prosecution should only be undertaken by agencies officially and legally empowered to do so. If, as in the case of Nigeria, these agencies have proved themselves unable to carry out these functions effectively, the government should take measures to reform them and improve their relations with communities, to enable them to perform their tasks properly.
The application of customary law in Nigeria provides a parallel context in which scope for vigilante action may have been interpreted differently. In the past, communities across Nigeria have had powers to enforce customary law. Although customary law, under the Traditional Rulers' Edict, is technically confined to civil rather than criminal matters, there has been a blurring of this distinction in theory and in practice, especially with regard to offences such as petty theft. The lack of clarity regarding the application of customary law, as well as varying interpretations of parallel judicial codes, has created sufficient ambiguities for vigilante action to be steadily extended.
Nigeria is a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The extrajudicial killings and torture by the Bakassi Boys, and the tolerance of these abuses by state government authorities, are clearly in breach of articles 6 and 7 of the ICCPR. Article 6 states: "Every human being has the inherent right to life. This right shall be protected by law. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life." Article 7 states: "No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment." Nigeria is also a state party to the U.N. Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, article 1 of which, in its definition of torture, refers to pain or suffering "inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity." Article 2 requires each state party to "take effective legislative, administrative, judicial or other measures to prevent acts of torture in any territory under its jurisdiction."
Similarly, the arrests and detention by the Bakassi Boys amount to a breach of article 9 of the ICCPR which states: "Everyone has the right to liberty and security of person. No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest or detention. No one shall be deprived of his liberty except on such grounds and in accordance with such procedure as are established by law. Anyone who is arrested shall be informed, at the time of arrest, of the reasons for his arrest and shall be promptly informed of any charges against him. [...] Anyone who is deprived of his liberty by arrest or detention shall be entitled to take proceedings before a court, in order that court may decide without delay on the lawfulness of his detention and order his release if the detention is not lawful." The actions of the Bakassi Boys, often carried out with the support of state authorities, also disregard basic due process guarantees enshrined in article 14 of the ICCPR, which states: "Everyone charged with a criminal offence shall have the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law." Similar provisions are included both in the Nigerian constitution and in the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights, which has been incorporated into Nigerian domestic law.
As government officials, all state governors in Nigeria have a responsibility to ensure that human rights are protected in their states, and that law enforcement agencies, as well other groups to whom they delegate law enforcement functions, respect human rights at all times, in accordance with international standards, including the U.N. Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials. Governors in those states where the Bakassi Boys operate have clearly failed to fulfill these responsibilities. Many of the recommendations in this report are addressed to both state governments and the federal government, who need to work together to investigate and prevent human rights abuses by vigilante groups. However, in view of the direct implication of state governments in the activities of the Bakassi Boys, and their obvious reluctance to take action to control them, the onus for preventing further vigilante violence in the south-east now rests primarily with the federal government. In addition to taking ultimate responsibility for these abuses which have been tolerated or sanctioned by state authorities, the federal government has to take responsibility for the longer-term consequences of allowing such a situation to develop, some of which are described in this report. Political considerations, such as not wishing to antagonize state politicians in the run-up to elections in 2003, should not prevent the government from taking the following measures as a matter of urgency.
1 See details of the killing of Prophet Eddie Okeke in Section IV,1,a below.
2 See details of the arrest and torture of Ifeanyi Ibegbu, in Section IV,1,c below.
3 In addition to vigilante groups such as the Bakassi Boys, some local neighborhood watch groups in various parts of Nigeria have also been responsible for abuses and excesses.