Tsafe, Nigeria – It was a sunny afternoon in March. Abdulrahman Yusuf was quiet as he lit a cigarette and drew heavily, puffing twice before passing it to a colleague. The stern eyes of the 17-year-old vigilante told a story of a child who had had to become a man earlier than he should have.
In his penultimate year of high school, Yusuf voluntarily joined a vigilante group to face criminal gangs in his hometown of Tsafe, Zamfara, northwest Nigeria. It was a mission of revenge after a close friend died in an attack by one of the gangs, locally known as bandits, in a nearby village.
An estimated 12,000 people have died and hundreds of thousands more displaced across the northwestern states of Sokoto, Kebbi, Zamfara, Katsina and Kaduna since the conflict escalated in 2011, according to [PDF] the Centre for Democracy and Development, an Abuja-based policy and advocacy think-tank.
Experts say the perpetrators are mostly ethnic Fulani herders who claim to have initially taken to banditry to protest mistreatment and marginalisation of the group in the predominantly Hausa area. Some say the bandits are terrorists, while others say they could be even worse, having no unified chain of command.
The criminal gangs have taken advantage of the porous borders to ferry in sophisticated arms and mastermind a roster of criminality that includes cattle rustling, looting and extorting from villages as well as kidnapping for ransom.
A volunteer force
Nigeria’s security agencies, acutely understaffed because of conflicts elsewhere in the country, are unable to adequately deal with the insecurity.
For example, authorities in Katsina, one of the worst-hit states in the region, say less than 3,000 police personnel serve its estimated 5.8 million residents. This translates to 52 police officers for every 100,000 residents – four times lower than the global recommended average. The story is
Unsurprisingly, many, including teenagers like Yusuf, have taken to their own devices to safeguard themselves and their communities.
As vigilantes (or Yansakai, Hausa for volunteer force), they perform strategic duties like repelling attacks, rescuing kidnapped victims, arresting criminals, and sometimes participating in joint security operations with the police and army.
“For me, even if I am going to die, I wouldn’t care much because it is a sacrifice I have to endure,” Yusuf told Al Jazeera. “We are helping our people and contributing [our] own quota to the society.”
Commander of the group, Dayabu Baushe, 52, who leads more than 20 young boys in his unit, told Al Jazeera he holds weekly training sessions where the boys brush up their skills at aiming shots, running and taking cover.
In Zamfara, there are 4,200 community guards, drawn from ex-servicemen, vigilantes and volunteers, funded by the state government on a monthly stipend of 10,000 naira ($24). This arrangement, however, does not cover all vigilante groups in the state. Most of their activities are majorly financed through donations from the public.
“We contribute money to buy our weapons. If the government can support us, we know the hideout of bandits and we can go there without fear. We are ready to sacrifice our lives in this work and are not afraid to die.”