Double-edged Sword: Vigilantes in African Counter-insurgencies

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Thursday September 07, 2017 - 20:16:12 in World News by SomaliUpdate Staff Reporter
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    Double-edged Sword: Vigilantes in African Counter-insurgencies

    NAIROBI — As weak African states face growing insurgencies, they do what weak states tend to do: subcontract certain security functions to non-state actors or vigilante groups, many of which had taken up arms to protect their communities.

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Local hunters known as Vigilantes armed with locally made guns are seen on a pickup truck in Yola city of Adamawa State in Nigeria, on 6 December 2014.| Anadolu Agency photo.
NAIROBI — As weak African states face growing insurgencies, they do what weak states tend to do: subcontract certain security functions to non-state actors or vigilante groups, many of which had taken up arms to protect their communities.
This approach at times is viewed as a necessity, but is often dangerous, particularly in politically fluid and fractious states. The more fragile the state, the more it is dependent on vigilantes, but also the less able it is to police them or prevent abuse of power. The more successful the vigilante group against insurgents, the harder it is to demobilise, and the more likely it will become entrenched. As a result of ethnic rivalries and allegiances, community defence groups can morph into predatory, quasi-criminal organisations or enemies of the central state. Yet even when risks outweigh benefits, African leaders may not have the luxury of choice. At a minimum, African governments and their international backers should learn from the past, try to prevent abuses, guard against vigilantes’ mission creep and plan how to manage them once the conflict dies down.
By their very nature, vigilante groups carry inherent risk. Typically recruited from local communities, their members likely share the same ethnic or political identity, collective interests and threat perceptions, raising the odds that they will act as local militias – potentially more powerful than state authorities – and pursue narrow ethnic agendas; a short-term necessary evil that could pave the way for longer-term conflict. A solution for states in dire need of backing, vigilantes too often take advantage of their newfound capacity – and compensate for inadequate support and resources – by seeking to maximise their power and wealth through extortion, kidnapping, and other violent abuses.
But there are positive lessons to be learned too. Vigilante groups can be far more effective than state actors in providing local security. They generally enjoy greater legitimacy by virtue of community roots, and can be more efficient in identifying, tracking and combating insurgents thanks to their familiarity with local languages, geography and culture. Successfully managed by state authorities – and international actors – they can enable national leaders to forge lasting political pacts with provincial elites and bolster state legitimacy among local communities. In short, and while African and international policymakers rightfully may be concerned that empowering non-state forces will undermine the state, vigilantes also can serve as valuable intermediaries between local communities and central authorities.
Drawing on four illustrative cases – Sierra Leone, Uganda’s Teso region, South Sudan’s former Western Equatoria State and Nigeria’s north east – this report seeks to shed light on factors that determine vigilantes’ evolution and impact on security and stability with the objective of helping governments and their international partners navigate this dilemma.
Investing in sufficiently generous demobilisation
Among these factors: regime neglect of, or hostility toward such groups (as in South Sudan) can give rise to new rebels, while unbridled state support (as in Sierra Leone) can empower armed groups controlled by strongmen and motivated in part by narrow self-interest. The clearer vigilantes’ objectives and mandate are set in advance, and the greater the oversight by national and local leaders, the state military and local communities, the more effective the group can be and the less likely it will veer away from community defence and counter-insurgency goals. This is more likely to occur in instances where the political interests of the central state and local leaders are roughly aligned (as in Uganda). By contrast, a less defined mandate – one that allows vigilantes to step into local governance roles – can be a recipe for trouble, prolonging the existence of vigilante groups and enlarging their scope, enabling them to consolidate their power and creating greater economic incentives for them to hold on to it. In the longer term, investing in sufficiently generous demobilisation and reintegration programs is key to offering vigilante members viable alternative livelihoods and due recognition. Transitioning selected members to community policing units also could help prevent their reactivation in more hostile guises.
Several broad lessons, each to be applied with due care for local conditions, emerge from the case studies. In particular, African leaders that enlist vigilante groups for counter-insurgency purposes should:
- Engage local leaders with influence over vigilantes with the aim of settling on finite, mutually acceptable objectives within an overarching counter-insurgency strategy, and ensuring they provide political oversight over rank-and-file members;
 
- Be clear upfront with vigilante leaders and foot soldiers as to what they should expect as reward for their efforts and compensation for any losses;
 
- Provide vigilantes with adequate political and material support, including weapons when necessary, with the goal of ensuring they are able to pursue their objectives, thereby reducing the risk of extortion of resources from civilians;
 
Where possible, provide military oversight of, and ensure accountability for vigilantes’ abusive actions;
 
- Put in place upfront a gender-sensitive plan to demobilise vigilantes once the insurgent threat has receded and to help them find work in locally-relevant sectors.
International donors and partners face a similar conundrum. They too should benefit from relatively strong state authorities enjoying a monopoly over the use of violence. But when the state is too weak to confront an insurgency alone, or when the insurgent group doubles up as a terrorist organisation threatening outside interests, the temptation will be great for international actors to support a militia or vigilante group – with or at times without the state’s consent. Those international actors’ interests would be best served by working in concert with state authorities, helping them manage relations with vigilante groups, cautioning against the pitfalls of unfettered support or counterproductive repression. To the extent international players interact with vigilante groups, they should avoid providing direct support, lest they weaken national authorities’ bargaining position. Instead, they should be willing to assist states with resources to better control vigilantes and more effectively demobilise and reintegrate them.
Reliance on vigilante groups often is a faute de mieux solution for states facing a threat they cannot address alone. But as the cases in this report illustrate, there are better and worse ways of doing so, and of ensuring that a short-term expedient not turn into a long-term headache.

- Source: International Crisis Group -


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