•Call for adequate monitoring of their activities
By Anayo Okoli, Dennis Agbo, Peter Okutu, Ikechukwu Odu, Chimaobi Nwaiwu & Chinedu Adonu
ENUGU-The practice of having local vigilantes in the states of the South East is a noble idea that was appreciated by the people.
They have been of immense assistance to the government in securing the rural and in some cases, the urban communities. They have been helping the various governments in checking crimes and criminality.
They were established to compliment the services of Nigeria Police which in some communities, are either non-existent or are in short supply of personnel.
But over time, some of the operatives have derailed from their mandate and dabbled into some illegalities, including being engaged by whoever can afford, to torment and harass real and perceived enemies. Some of the governments have noticed this and have been doing their best to check them and even weed the agencies of bad eggs.
For instance, in Enugu State, where it is known as Neighbourhood Watch (vigilante groups), there are over 3000 registered Neighbourhood Watches. They were established based on the laws of Enugu State through which the governor gave a directive that communities in the state should establish the watches.
They were registered and regulated by the state ministry of Human Capital Development and Poverty Reduction. Additionally, there are Neighbourhood Watches in the urban areas which take care of streets and cluster group security in such neighbourhoods.
The duties of the watch groups are defined by the law, but essentially, they are the eyes and the ears of the security agencies, particularly, the police.
They have a slogan “Watch your Neighbour while your Neighbor watches you”. They inform the police of suspected clandestine movements, they have powers to apprehend when the police are not within the vicinity and thereafter hand over to the police for further investigation and action.
However, the operations of the watches have come into scrutiny following reports of abuses of the operation by either the operators, leaders of the community or the traditional rulers. Some of them go outside the law to use their uniforms to act illegally.
There have been cases in some communities where members of the watch allegedly arrested and demanded money for bail while others have been accused of involvement in extrajudicial killings.
Some executive members of the watches are accused of constituting themselves as courts where they arrest, prosecute and pass judgment on their victims contrary to the scope of their operation. Others allegedly demand money for bail of their victims.
In some cases, conflicts arise between the traditional rulers and town union executive over the composition and methods of operation of the neighbourhood watches.
Some of the traditional rulers have been accused of using members of the vigilante as a private army to run their errands and do solely their biddings.
In some cases, the monarchs are accused of using the neighbourhood watches to execute vendetta against perceived opponents or rivals in the community.
In 2017, disagreements among the traditional ruler, leaders and stakeholders of Etiti-Ozalla Autonomous Community in Nkanu West local government area of Enugu State aborted the inauguration of the community’s neighbourhood watch.
In a petition to the local and state governments, the Ozalla leaders of thought prayed for the suspension of the inauguration of the neighbourhood watch on the grounds that the community’s development union neither discussed nor approved the setting up of the neighbourhood watch.
Also, in a similar development, a human Rights group, Civil Rights Realization and Advancement Network, CRRAN, had had cause to complain about some illegalities being perpetrated by the members in the state Neighbourhood Watch.
According to the Executive Director of the group, Mr Olu Omotayo “residents of most of these communities maintained that the resistance were based on the fact that most of the armed Neighbourhood Watch members have now constituted themselves as a terror to innocent citizens; arresting innocent citizens at will, detaining them and extorting money before releasing them on bail.
“Most of the elders in some of the communities visited like Umulokpa in Uzo-Uwani Local Government Area and Imufu Community in Enugu-Ezike, Igboeze North Local Government Area, said that the continuous and persistent infringement of citizens’ fundamental rights by these untrained armed men has pitched them against their respective traditional rulers who hand-picked youths of questionable character (who are loyal to them), to constitute the neighbourhood watch.”
Former Commission for Human Capital Development and Poverty Reduction in Enugu State, Hon. Obinna Mbaeke suggested that to strengthen the Neighbourhood Watches for better efficiency, some of the laws establishing the watches need to be amended such as the provision for composition of the executives.
“Again, some of these neighbourhood watches are not well funded and when you don’t fund them, there are tendencies for abuse, to go outside their mandate to make money for whatever course they engage in, but if the funding is enshrined in the law to make it mandatory for contributory funding, all these problems would be reduced,” Mbaeke suggested.
According to him, the neighbourhood watches have achieved a lot since their establishment in different parts of the state. “You see, most of these successes recorded by the police were as a result of information given to them by the neighbourhood watches.
Police cannot work without them; all those achievements recorded by police were due to effectiveness of neighbourhood watches.
“Neighbourhood watches sometimes help police in prosecution, because when they send offenders to police, they follow police to the courts to give oral evidence of the offence committed by the suspects.”
Also, in Nsukka area of the state, the same complaints of abuse of power is rampant. Granted that this security arrangement has helped to check criminality at communities to a reasonable extent, however, some officers of the security architecture have become power-drunk and embarked on flagrant violations of the fundamental human rights of the people, which is against the initial intention of its establishment.
For instance, the Ogrute Central Neighbourhood Watch group in Igbo-Eze North Local Government Area of Enugu State was alleged to have taken the nature of a court of law and installed a shrine were suspects take oath of innocence or otherwise during the adjudication of cases.
Sometimes, suspects are remanded in their custody pending when settlement agreement, most of which are in monetary form is reached.
Also, an officer of th e said watch station, identified, one Chinedu, who was alleged to have sodomized a young girl he arrested in the night and he had been walking scot-free ever since, even though he is feared to be living with Human Immuno Deficiency Virus, HIV.
A chemist, Chibueze Urama from Umu-Idoko, Ogrute, also in Igbo-Eze North Council Area was also allegedly clubbed to death by vigilante group from neighbouring Aji community for buying stolen items from a suspected thief from the aforementioned community.
While the hapless chemist’s life was snuffed out untimely, the suspect is still walking scot-free. The same Aji vigilante group allegedly also killed a secondary school final year student from Isiugwu, a neighbouring village.
At Amogbo Obukpa in Nsukka Local Government Area of the state, a resident of the community who identified himself as Emmanuel Obute, said officers of the watch group aid indigenous suspects to evade justice while they severely punish those who are not inborn.
While these residents of the various communities appreciate the good work being done by neighbourhood watch groups in the state, they call for the monitoring of some of their activities so that the purposes for which they were formed would not be thwarted.
A member of one of the vigilante said: “I must confess, neighbourhood watchgroups are not doing the right thing we were thought to do during our training. Today, what they are doing is entirely different from what we are supposed to be doing.
Neighbourhood watch at initial time was dedicated and determined to fight insecurity in the community. But they are committing a lot of impunity now.”
Also, a community leader, Alexander Ugwuanyi, condemned some acts of some members of the neighbourhood watch and even accused them of not responding to distress calls.
Ugwuanyi said that the group had failed the community, stressing that crime has been on increase in the community.
“A lot of motorcycle has been missing; burglary has been talk of the day. You find it difficult to see them fighting crime, rather they bring cultists and criminals in the community.
“If you call them when robbery is going on, they will not come but if you pay them to arrest someone who owes you, they will response. They are not doing what they were sent to do”, he said.
In Anambra State, the story is not different either. The President General of Onitsha South Shop Owners Traders Association of Nigeria, OSSOTAN, Chief Eric Uwaoma agreed that some local vigilante operatives are derailing in their security jobs but noted that Anambra State government is not giving such operatives any breathing space.
According to him, “some of the markets under me have their vigilante operatives guarding the markets but the reports we are getting is that some of the operatives usually left the market they are guarding to involve themselves in extortion of the traders and their customers.
“Information reaching most of us, market leaders, is that every evening and after traders and customers have finished for the day and gone home, these dubious vigilante operatives would be collecting N200 and above from the traders and their customers.”
“We are not happy about the development, almost all the traders are not happy with them on such act coming from the vigilante operatives, most of whom are not employed by government and markets, but by private businessmen including Petrol Stations.
We are also using this opportunity to urge the people employing them to call them to order, their action is an embarrassment to government, because many people think that every vigilante operative you see is employed by the government.
“Anambra State government is not happy with any act of embarrassment by vigilante operatives. We have received some letters from the state government through the Commissioner for Commerce Trade and Wealth
Creation that those involved in extortion and other illegal activities should be arrested for prosecution. Sometimes you arrest and hand over to Police and the next moment they are seen on the road, walking freely.
That is the problem facing us. “We are ready to logical prosecution of any vigilante operative we arrest on illegal duty, but the law enforcement agents we hand them over to are not helping the matters. I am personally against any kind of extortion in any of the markets within my jurisdiction.”
“However, for those guarding the markets, they are doing well to ensure that cases of stealing in the markets, or breaking of peoples shops is eradicated in the state because the state government is seriously monitoring those it employed, that is why we have peace in the markets, but those ones operating outside the markets are scaring away our customers coming from outside the state with their illegal activities of extortion.”
“There are others who display dagger and other dangerous weapons on their waist to intimidate and harass people to submission; you see them on the roads from Sokoto road to Niger Bridge Head. You will see them mounting roadblocks, they are extortionist, they are not employed by Anambra State government, their activities are illegal”, Uwaoma said.
In Abia, though the popular Bakassi Boys are doing well in assisting the police to provide security, their illegal activities are abound. They have on many occasions been accused of getting involving in intimidation, harassment, and in extreme case, extra judicial killing.
In Imo State, though the story is similar, the Chairman Nwafor street extension in Orji community in Owerri North Local Government Area, Imo State, George Eze, who said they were forced to set up a neighbourhood watch, to end the continued robbery, cultism activities causing harm on residents of the area, explained that their own neighbourhood watch has brought them relief, safety and improved the security challenges they have been encountering.
“We appointed the members of the neighbourhood watch they operate within the Orji community; they operate in the night and day. They take care of the security measures of the environment. The see, alert and say something and they will communicate to the police.”
In Ebonyi State, the Neighbourhood Watch security outfit in Ebonyi State, which was made prominent by the present administration of Governor David Umahi is known for complementing the efforts other security agencies.
Members operate at both the Urban and Rural areas to ensure proper policing of the State as they undergo periodic trainings, suitable for their job description.
Even though there had been rumours about some of their illegal activities in the state, there had not been proofs to ascertain such development. What they do essentially, is to arrest suspects and hand them over to the Police for necessary action.
According to the Commissioner for Border Peace and Internal Security, Mr Stanley Emegha: “We have Neighbourhood Watch security outfit that are well trained. We train them every three months and we can all attest that they are doing fine.
“You cannot compare the crime rate in this place with any other place. We are very serious with what we are doing and we mean it as a business, unlike every other place.
“We have a Consultant who is a professional in Security and we are coming up with too many other measures which many other states may not want to abide by”.