The Bakassi Boys
13 Sep 2003
Human Rights Watch
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.