YOLA, Nigeria – One by one the uniformed men carrying crude weapons and wearing traditional amulets materialized on the dark street in the northern Nigerian city of Yola.
Then, after midnight, their commander issued orders and the 30 men dispersed on foot to set up roadblocks and flag down vehicles. They shone flashlights at frightened drivers who squirmed to show identification papers. When the operation was over, two hours later, at least five suspicious men were detained and later turned over to the police.
These civilian volunteers — a motley crew that includes carpenters, metal workers, teachers and even some students — call themselves the Vigilante Group of Nigeria, hunters of Islamic extremists and other bandits who have turned parts of Nigeria's north into a war zone. The group, which works closely with local authorities, is believed to have made cities like Yola, capital of the northeastern state of Adamawa, more secure in the months leading up to the presidential election, including the counting taking place Sunday.
"Forget about the police," said Mustapha Bashar, top commander of the Adamawa branch of the group, beaming from the back of a car. "Right now, we are doing their work. We are the only security personnel who are carrying out these patrols at night."
Bashar has a network of 10,000 vigilantes across Adamawa, even including spies working undercover in markets, he said, describing a formal organization with a hierarchy of leadership. Fighters stood erect before Bashar and saluted him.
Boko Haram continues to wreak havoc in a deadly campaign that has killed over 27,000 people and displaced over 1.7 million in the predominantly Muslim north. This was a major campaign issue in the election, as voters in the north demand an end to a security crisis that has traumatized millions of Nigerians.
President Muhammadu Buhari was voted into office in 2015 on a promise to defeat Boko Haram, but the extremists have continued to inflict violence and a second group has formed, calling itself the Islamic State West Africa Province. That group claimed an attack in Maiduguri shortly before voting started Saturday.
The insurgency also has inspired the work of vigilantes armed with machetes, knives, sticks, and homemade guns that resemble assault rifles. In their coffee brown uniforms, complete with shoulder epaulets, these Boko Haram hunters also have "fortified themselves" with traditional charms they believe offer protection against an ambush, said Mohammed Kabir, a statistics lecturer at a federal polytechnic who commands one of several units of the group in Yola.
"Most of our people are hardened," he said, feeling the tip of an arrow that he said had been smeared with poison that could kill a man instantly. "We carry out arrests the police cannot make. There are places the police are afraid to go."
Patrolling the town later, Kabir and his men didn't encounter any police, and they arrested three young men believed to be under the influence of narcotics. Two others taken into custody couldn't explain why they were out so late. Another man said he was returning from treatment at a local hospital, produced documents to prove it and was escorted home.
Although Boko Haram attacks are rare in Yola, hometown of the opposition candidate Abubakar, many remain wary of the danger posed by the extremist group whose guerrilla tactics have strained the armed forces. Nigeria's army has faced pointed questions over the years over its failure to end the Boko Haram scourge despite heaving defense spending.
Transparency International charged in 2017 that military corruption worsened the Boko Haram conflict as defense officials sought to profit from fraudulent arms contracts. Nigeria's current vice president, Yemi Osinbajo, alleged last year that the country lost $15 billion in corrupt arms procurement deals during previous administrations.
Buhari's government is not immune to similar charges.
Members of the Yola vigilante group noted that although huge sums of money had been spent — the National Assembly approved a record $147 million for election security — not a single coin had entered the group's coffers. The voluntary group, which operates on donations and owns no patrol vehicles, has written many times to the Adamawa governor requesting four cars, according to commanders Bashar and Kabir.
"It's like we don't exist," said Kabir, who joined the group in 2014 following a Boko Haram attack in the town of Mubi that forced his family to flee into Cameroon before relocating to Yola. "There is zero assistance from the government."
Adamawa Governor Jibrilla Bindow didn't respond to questions about the vigilantes' concerns.
Abubakar Aliyu, a senior officer with the Nigerian Security and Civil Defense Corps in Yola, said the self-defense group had become an important component of the security apparatus keeping Adamawa state safe for all residents.
"The police can't do this work alone," he said, his colleagues nodding in agreement. "The vigilantes know the terrain well. They work hand in hand with the police."
The civilian patrols have gained the trust of some in Yola, a hardscrabble city of some 400,000 whose streets are dominated by the yellow tricycles offering public transport.
"We trust them because we know all of them," said student Zakiyu Abdullahi. "I feel better and I feel safe when I meet them at night. They are, one way or the other, trying to ensure that society is safe."
The group has intercepted many people believed to be dangerous over the years, including a man caught outside the palace of the local emir in 2016, said Ammar Khalil, who has served in patrols since 2013. Khalil said he was proud "to suffer for (his) country," recalling that the Boko Haram suspect he helped to apprehend was handed over to the police.
"We don't judge any cases in our office," he said. "We take these people to the police and it is for them to act."
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