Untold Story: Inside the Civilian JTF’s complicated journey to oust Boko Haram | Ripples Nigeria
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Untold Story: Inside the Civilian JTF’s complicated journey to oust Boko Haram

Untold Story: Inside the Civilian JTF’s complicated journey to oust Boko Haram

Editor’s Note:

This months-long investigation was led by Ripples Nigeria’s Muhammad Al-bashir with the support of locals. Sources include community members and leaders, as well as members of the Civilian JTF. Some of these sources spoke on condition of anonymity given the security threat in a region still contending with a raging insurgency. To this end, we have taken some effort to protect the identity of our sources, including changing names and blurring images, where necessary.

 Background

 In June 2013, the civilian JTF emerged and volunteered to assist the Special and Joint Task Force with the counter-terrorism campaign. The civilian JTF is made up of young and old civilians armed with mundane weapons such as bows and arrows, swords, clubs and daggers that operate under the supervision of civilian JTF sector commanders. The civilian JTF began as a community effort and later as a joint effort with the security forces to help fight Boko Haram. Maiduguri city has gone back to normalcy with the aid of the civilian JTF. Many of the Boko Haram members who feared the civilian JTF have run out of Maiduguri and out of the major towns of the state to villages, and quite a number have travelled to neighbouring countries. The civilian JTF is a necessary tool in combating the Boko Haram menace.

The group emerged to address the intelligence failure of the special task force against Boko Haram in the terrain of north-east region. They are an anti-terrorist group fighting opponents who possess sophisticated weapons of mass destruction. The safety of the civilian JTF depends on the elimination of all the Boko Haram insurgents around. The creation of civilian JTF as part of the mechanisms for combating the menace of Boko Haram terrorism in Nigeria represents a veritable example of citizen-driven communal response to security challenge and an indication of how terrorism can be tackled and prevented.

CAN chairman declared missing after Boko Haram attack

File picture of Boko Haram insurgents

The civilian JTF group exploits their knowledge of the communities to identify suspected Boko Haram members or other suspicious individuals. Civilian JTF members have been successful in stopping many attacks through swift identification of strange faces in their communities and have also helped the security agencies to arrest Boko Haram members. Their success, however, provoked reprisal attacks from the group, leading to huge loss of lives. The north-east state governments now offer financial and logistic support in the form of vehicles and other materials to the civilian JTF in appreciation of its role in checking the activities of the insurgents. The government also offered employment to about 5,000 youths into the civilian JTF after training them on counter-terrorism.

But this civilian-led intervention has not been without its own problems. Members of the CJTF have also been accused acts of violence and abuse.

The investigation covers all issues— the good, the bad and the ugly— surrounding the members of the civilian CJTF and their activities. It traces the history of how the civilian JTF was started and the key players who were responsible for its success and development since its inception and the challenges that have been faced.

 A self-help solution borne of desperation

In 2012, attacks by the insurgents were becoming unbearable. There were people in Maiduguri who knew the boys carrying out the heinous crimes. Some of them were family members, brothers, friends and neighbours. Whenever the insurgents attacked the soldiers, they returned and hid in the community. At first people couldn’t report them because they were afraid for their lives. The insurgents wouldn’t hesitate to kill anyone reporting or exposing them. They had killed innocent people over trifle matters or old malice even before the insurgency. Some of these boys were so brainwashed that they killed their parents and family members. Borno residents were tired and helpless as they watched everything happening, but dare not say anything to law enforcement. The painful part of their silence came whenever the soldiers came for the boys; they took away both the innocent and the guilty, and in most cases, the innocent were always arrested. They could no longer watch in silence, if not the silence would kill them all. They had had enough, so they started co-operating amongst themselves to put an end to the madness. They decided to cooperate with the security men, by pointing the boys out, and in some cases, apprehended the insurgents by themselves and took them to the security men.

Hausari: The birthplace

It all started in an area called Hausari ward of Maiduguri with the current President of the CJTF in the person of Baba Lawan Jaffar. When the youths in other parts of Maiduguri saw how effective his effort had been in helping to ensure peace in that area, they too joined. A lot of youths from different communities joined the hunt. The people in Maiduguri were tired and just wanted peace to return. They had lost so much, they even lost their fear and cowardice, that had been the obstacle to pick up the fight for themselves than waiting for the intervention of people who neither knew the insurgents nor the terrain.

Every member of the volunteer group was made to take an oath of conduct, by swearing with the Holy Qur’an; No stealing in the mission, no involvement of politics, no quarrel, not an avenue to settle business rivalry, no pointing an innocent person because you don’t like them, or to get back at people who have hurt you before. Youths in every nook and cranny in Maiduguri formed their own security team. Many insurgents were apprehended and some ran out the capitals to other local government areas. The ones apprehended were handed over to the police or JTF. It was the duty of the security personnel to decide what to do with them. To lock them, or charge them to court. The people only wanted the insurgents to leave their communities because of the losses they had suffered.

Around 2013, the CJTF was formed to support the country’s security forces and to protect communities in north east Nigeria against Boko Haram. Ever since, they have played important roles in protecting communities, identifying insurgents and pushing them back. They have been credited for bringing back some stability and safety to Borno. They serve as a bridge between communities and security forces. They are also seen patrolling in communities, conducting joint patrols alongside the military, sometimes accompanying them to the battlefield. In Maiduguri you see them perform security scans and body searches and run check points. The state governor provided them with security equipment and patrol vans and offices which was divided into various sectors. This has made it easier to investigate reports received from communities, sharing of information with civilians and resolving disputes.

CJTF at one of their check points

Government Intervention and Creation of BOYES

After going to all the local government areas, hunting the Boko Haram members who had fled away from Maiduguri, that was when Maiduguri began to see a ray of peaceful co-existence. The group complained to the State Government to assist some of their members who had no source of livelihood. In 2013, the then government responded by creating Borno Youth Entrepreneur Scheme (BOYES). The administration of Governor Kashim Shettima, registered them as Borno Youth Vanguard in the Borno State House of Assembly and passed a Bill it into law to that effect.

Governor Shettima during the swearing ceremony of the CJTF

The Scheme was categorised into three. Some were trained in skills acquisition like welding and tailoring. And the other two were trained by the Nigerian Army,  and other Department of state Security, DSS, and other security agencies. They are referred to as Security Vanguard which is also known as CJTF and the Borno Neighbourhood Watch, which comprises of 2,900 members. They are paid monthly. Initially they were paid, N10,000 and the Security Vanguard were paid N15,000 monthly by the then administration. The Governor Zulum-led administration increased it to N20,000, a flat rate for all those on the payroll. It is sad to note however, that not every member is on the payroll because the government can’t afford to pay the whole 20,600 members. Those who are not paid are called Volunteer Members and are likely to be included on the payroll, only that the time is not known.

A female CJTF displaying her weapon

The CJTF is very much organised like a paramilitary outfit. The administration department, consist of the secretary, PRO, Financial Secretary and Spokesman. There are different Sectors in different part of Maiduguri and other LGAs which every member belongs to. They have a special force, who were trained for eight months by the former Garrison Commander in the person of Col. Hassan. The Special force is responsible for engaging in battle with the insurgents. And not too long ago, they assigned some of them to serve as RRS (Rapid Respond Squad). Some were also trained by the Police and DSS. Some of the members now work with the DSS.

CJTF set for patrol

‘When we sustain injuries, we pay for our own medical care’

When they have the need to solve personal problems, they contribute among themselves and sometimes they get incentives from NGOS and the government which they all benefit from, whether on payroll or not. Some of these volunteers are free to do other jobs they can lay their hands on.

For the slain members, the families are not left to their fate. The government has been considerate. The Borno State Government has given Golf cars to the first set of members who were slain in battles; they use these cars for commercial purpose which has become a source of income for these families. More than 150 families were given plots of land and 20 families were give houses in the new Dangote Estate.

When we enquired if the CJTF also gets support from the Federal government and other agencies, this is what Baba Shehu (A.K.A Super), the overall second in command of the group, had to say; “We haven’t yet gotten any support from Federal Government. But some organisations like UNDP have trained some of our members in leadership skill and skill acquisition. Another organisation called NERI (Northeast Regional Initiative) sponsored five of us to attend a Course in Ghana. A course in DDR (Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration). And we have NEEM Foundation who enrolled fifty kids of our slain members, into schools.

BabaShehu and his team during one of their operation outside Maiduguri

He agonised over a lack of access to medical treatment. “Sometimes we get injuries from our operations and we have no option than to use our personal savings to treat ourselves. What we need most is access to free medical care for our members and maintenance of our patrol vans. The state government has tried enough in giving us support. We would like other agencies and organisations to help us in ways they can”, he said.

A CJTF member who was also interviewed, told us about a bullet in his knee. He said he rather leave the bullet in his leg than to get it wrongly operated since he doesn’t have the money for operation.

CJTF member showing his leg with a bullet lodged in

He and the others called attention to their painful experiences, arguing that, though there were some bad eggs among them, they were sacrificing so much for the people and should not be ignored. They said their sacrifices and efforts to restore peace should not be forgotten by the people and those in authority. They called for a focus on the good, and frowned on the seeming fixation on the bad surrounding their operations.

‘The CJTF has outlived its usefulness’

Over time, the CJTF members’ style of operation kept changing for the worse. Drifting from the code of conduct, they caused harm to the civilians rather than safeguarding them. Some members have become very over-zealous in their way of operations and too quick to abuse powers given to them. The CJTF’s image became badly damaged following a rise in alleged cases of sexual harassment, theft, abuses, exploitation and extortion of money, intimidation and bully of civilians. People who saw them as heroes are now scared of them and don’t want to interact with them anymore. These developments leave civilians complaining and calling for a ban of the group. Respondents spoke about how the CJTF are losing it as they have become less concerned about protecting civilians and safeguarding communities, compared to how they started in the early days.

‘We’ve become their new victims’

According to a District Head who pleaded anonymity, “At the beginning, they were motivated by patriotism. Everyone was fed up with wave of insecurity and the difficult life we were being subjected to, that’s how the group decided to sacrifice their lives to face the worse that may happen by fighting the insurgents with rods and sticks.  That’s how the name Yan-gora was attributed to them. We praised them for acting voluntarily and sacrificing their lives to protect our communities without seeking any reward or any payment. They were responsible for the peace we are experiencing and enjoying today in Borno state capital and many LGA headquarter towns. It’s surprising now that they have less risk to face and are being paid, yet they are becoming more relaxed and not working with much focus as before. It’s very sad, we that were being protected have become their new victims. If I must say, they have outlived their usefulness.”

‘They are no more going after the insurgents’

A business man in Monday Market, explained why he thinks the CJTF should be dissolved His reason was that they had changed from the way they started operation, they are no more the heroes they used to be. He said, “I suggest if they won’t be abolished, they should be reformed. There are retired Police officers and soldiers who are indigenes of Borno State who can retrain them very well to follow a code of ethics and discipline.  They are no more going after the insurgents. Even if we do still need them in our communities, it is not as much as we needed them before. I once had a bitter experience with them. We were in a rickshaw, stuck in a traffic, we were stopped even when it was our turn to move. They did all these to create an easy pass for a man in a luxury car. After creating a way for him, they rushed to him and he had no choice than to give them money, that is what they were after and that’s why they choose to control the traffic for (monetary) interests rather than to serve civilians.”

 ‘Yes, we take drugs, but so do members of formal security agencies’

CJTF members have repeatedly been accused of trading drugs and also have a reported history of drug abuse. From their appearance and how they act, one almost doesn’t need to ask, it’s obvious seeing them very ‘high’, misbehaving and reeking of fumes from all they smoke. According to a respondent in Gwange, “It has become a normal thing to see a CJTF trading drugs or hanging around those who sell it. When you go to places like Tashan Bama there are always there selling drugs.”

Another respondent who resides in 303 Estate said, “When you go to Tashan Bama motor park, there is a CJTF member who is always high. You will be left to wonder if they really know their job. Sometimes you see them hijacking the job of the NURTW just to get money from bus drivers.”

When confronted about drug abuse among the members of the group, the commander responded thus: “The case of drug abuse is very common in every enforcement agency not just within CJTF. I am not saying it’s something to overlook. During our training in camps, we invited the NDLEA to give counselling to our members who were into drug addiction in the past. There are those who are still on it, I cannot deny that. Lectures and sensitization programmes are still ongoing. Some are still getting this counselling program. And Alhamdulillah many are staying away from it”.

 ‘They use their uniform to commit crimes, harm and oppress people’

There have been outcries about some members of the CJTF committing rights abuses against civilians. Crimes like rape, torture, abuse of the uniform, extortion, and theft, including diversion of humanitarian aid, have been levelled against them.

A respondent said, “There is no code of conduct in their recent style of operation, they are always exercising their power in a wrong way. There is this sad incident that happened to a teenage boy who disrespected them somehow, and they beat him until the boy lost consciousness”.

A Civil Servant said, “Initially, they were a blessing to the state, they know who is who, some of the insurgents are their friends, family and neighbours, they know the hideout of the insurgents, so it was easier for them to identify them and they have been a great deal of help in curtailing the menace of the insurgency. Unlike the military. After the heat of the insurgency was down, they became reluctant. Some of them go into hard drugs, according to people, if you want to get rid of fear you have to get high.  I have heard cases where they gang up with thieves to steal, especially during a serious theft problem at Fori. They use their uniform to commit crimes, harm and oppress people. As CJTF they feel they are now above the law which is very bad.”

 

Albashir and a respondent

CJTF accused of extortion and torture during enforcement of COVID-19 lockdown

Another respondent said, “The CJTF now see themselves as soldier men, they are always very rude when addressing civilians and the feeling they will do you harm is always felt in their motives. During the recent Covid-19 lockdown, they maltreated people even on relaxed days, they allow the people they know to roam about but if they don’t know you they will torture you and collect money from you. They made money from motorist and tricycle forgetting that we were all suffering from the effect of the lockdown. They have gone out of control and prone to abuses as a high number of drug addicts have infiltrated the group.”

‘We have bad policemen and soldiers as well, no need to disband CJTF’

A District Head from Jere, said. “There’s no way all of them will adhere to the rules, also not every one of them is bad. The problem of misconduct is always in every organisation, that doesn’t mean it should be dissolved. we have bad policemen as well as bad soldiers. Does that mean they should be dissolved? What has to be done is to control their excesses, instead of talking about abolishing the group. People easily forgot that this same scheme is created to reduce unemployment. Imagine these members were left unassisted after sacrificing their lives, the menace is going to be worst as most of them will either join the insurgents or become thieves or criminals terrorizing our communities. Is it not the problem of jobless youths that brought the web of insecurity in the first instance?”

A district head explaining why the call for the ban of CJTF is not necessary

‘Let us not forget their sacrifices’

Adam Babagana (not real name) who lives both in Maiduguri and Damboa, was able explain why the CJTF are a valuable asset to the state. He said, “I don’t think the CJTF are losing their glory. The CJTF are still useful, if one really knows why CJTF was created, I don’t think anyone will say they are not useful anymore. Personally, I don’t believe they are losing their usefulness, because we don’t know how much effort they put to ensure our safety. I won’t say there are no bad eggs among them which is very common in every group. There are those who abuse the power given to them, especially those who reside within Maiduguri. For example, if you have any issue with someone that knows one or two CJTF members. They will come and embarrass you without trying to hear your side of the story, or root of the matter. As for those with bad conduct.  I think it’s because they lack any form of education and poor social interaction, but if they are well counseled they will improve.

“It’s a wrong move to dissolve the group because we still need them in our communities, especially in local Government areas. A couple of weeks while I was in Damboa, about five CJTF died while escorting motorist from Damboa to Maiduguri. What really amazes me is that they have seen how their members have died, but they are still motivated. These are the kind of stories we don’t get to hear or see because we are always focused on the bad things about them and painfully ignoring the sacrifice they make to ensure our safety. Recently, still in Damboa, I met one of their gallant members, who I was opportuned to interact with, he showed me pictures and videos of his bravery and success stories. Pictures of him detonating bombs. Their sacrifice is beyond one’s thinking. Only God can reward their efforts. I very surprised and impressed with the way they are working, they are very well coordinated, they are doing a wonderful job. May God continue to bless them and protect our dear state and the country at large.”

During an interview with Adam Babagana

‘We’re not perfect’, CJTF admits to abusing innocent citizens

In an interview with Baba Shehu, we asked him how the organisation was responding to cases where innocent civilians were being abused and harmed by its members. He explained, “I will have to be honest with you, these things do happen. We are admitting because when we continue to deny them, they will only get worse. You see we too are humans. We are not perfect. Nobody is hundred percent. Amongst us we have bad members. And we have been working hard to fish them out. People of Borno have gone through enough. We won’t let anyone, not even our member to impose hardship on anyone. We have given out our numbers and our head office address to the public to report any abuse from our members or from any person. We believe no one is above the law. Once you are suspected of these crimes we will take action by arresting the individual and handing him to the police to take it from there. We have couple times, arrested people who have been abusing people disguising as our members by wearing our uniform. After arresting these persons, we only found out that it’s a case of impersonation. We always hand them over to the GRA police division. I want you to also know that we are very cautious about the conducts of our members. We won’t allow anyone give us a bad image. We recently arrested one of our members. Who was guilty of extortion and other crimes that involved abuse of innocent civilians. We warned him first which didn’t work, so we suspended and later dismissed him. But before that we turned him to the police headquarters to face court charges.”

 CJTF stealing from vulnerable children

In the recent enrollment of orphans, IDP and vulnerable kids into the Ultra-Modern Mega Schools within the state, CJTF members were deployed to control the crowd and maintain order. Instead of making it an easy exercise for both enrollment of personnel and the kids, they succeeded in frustrating the process making it take longer than planned. They were seen selling the acknowledgement card which was without doubt stolen from the kids waiting in queue for their turn. These cards were issued free to vulnerable families who cannot afford to educate their kids. In some instances, they took bribe to make the process for a child easier and faster. I closely observed as they gave preferential treatment to their kids and the kids of those they know. It was a deliberate act to make it difficult for others they don’t care about, so that they could use it as a means to extort money from those who got tired of waiting for the turn of their kids. It was obvious the CJTF didn’t want the exercise to end because they were enjoying the illegal business it offered them. Everyone was fed up with their way of operation to the point that parents started fighting them and accusing them of being insincere. There was a protest and quarrel as those who paid couldn’t get what they paid for. They collected money and this made it difficult to control the people who had paid and hadn’t gotten what they paid for. Pandemonium erupted and the enrollment personnel could not concentrate; they suspended the work on that very day. The exercise became impossible until the chairman of the project replaced them with the police.

Al-bashir outside by the queue at one of Bulumkutu’s Mega Schools

 ‘CJTF practices nepotism’

According to a woman in Bulumkutu, “The CJTF are not good people they are only useful when you know them personally, I had a bitter experience during the enrollment of our children into the Mega school here in Bulumkutu, they were responsible for controlling the crowd. But they were always favoring the children of their neighbors and friends. All the children were in queue but they kept putting the children they know in front of those they don’t know. This is how our children stayed longer in the queue and as a result made me and my children keep going to the school for days until they were enrolled. Some parents decided to pay the CJTF to help their children while others who could not take it started protesting and fighting them. Also, the acknowledgement card that were freely issued to families who can’t afford to educate their children were stolen from the kids and sold to others who were not lucky to get the cards when they were first issued. They made the process of the enrollment exercise so difficult for both the children and the staff enrolling them because it had become business for them. The project was taking longer until they were replaced by policemen and in just two days the enrollment was completed successfully.”

Enrollment at Bakassi IDP camp

Al-bashir at another of Bulumkutu’s Mega School

 CJTF killing unarmed civilians

Another group calling for the banning for the CJTF is the association of Napep Riders. It was somewhat strange that a group which is also seen as a nuisance is calling for the ban of another group. Well, it didn’t just come from nowhere. The call for the ban of the CJTF from the group came after an unfortunate incident that involved the death of a Napep rider. He was said to have been shot by one of the CJTF members at a check point in Damboa Road at about 12am during curfew, while on high speed. This very area is considered a RED neighbourhood; it sees a lot of fighting involving insurgents trying to infiltrate Maiduguri.  He was shot after he was asked to stop but refused. The CJTF said they thought he was an insurgent because he refused to stop.

A respondent who resides along Damboa Road said, “They are very reckless in their operations, how can we expect people who are always high to protect sane people. Not too long ago they killed a rickshaw rider which led to a violent protest between them and the Napep riders here on Damboa Road. It was very unfortunate and disheartening. The ones who are assigned to protect us are now the ones killing us. From the insurgent to another insurgent in uniforms.”

We asked Baba Shehu about what led to this unfortunate incident and how he planned to put his boys under control. He said, “The clash between our members and Napep riders was an unfortunate incident. As you see, Maiduguri is surrounded by trenches and at night when light is seen around these trenches, it’s a sign Boko Haram members are close by. That very unfortunate night, a Napep Rider at the time of curfew was seen riding roughly, the CJTF members on patrol that night signalled to him to slow down and stop but the rider refused. That area is very sensitive and dangerous because many times CJTF have been attacked and killed by suicide bombers. When the rider was stopped and he refused to stop. One of our members fired. We later arrested him for shooting at a civilian, but he was only trying to defend his life and that of his colleagues. When we heard of the incident we rushed the victim to the hospital where he later died. We conducted our investigation the boy wasn’t a real Napap rider, he was of one these boys who borrow Napep to go for a wild ride, a riding test. The next morning the Napep Riders Association, on hearing the sad news, decided to embark on a violent protest alongside those who have hatred for us, those people whose family members we have apprehended. They went to Damboa Road where the unfortunate incident occurred to destroy our properties. There was another case where they wanted to burn down the Dandal police station. We had to swing into action to make sure this didn’t happen. In the process of ensuring peace, we won’t let violence be our method of operations”.

 

CJTF during the unrest at Damboa Road

 CJTF’s controversial participation in elections

People in Maiduguri were confused about the involvement of the CJTF in politics. They were seen being very active in the 2019 general elections, showing support for the All Progressives Congress (APC), which employed them. Other parties were very unhappy and considered it to be a case of the ruling party using the group as their political thugs to do their dirty job of rigging the election. A respondent complained, thus: “They are now more of political thugs rather than focused on protecting civilians. Now, they are seen as more focused on making money. They are always trying to please the government who employed them.

Another respondent, said “The annoying part is how they are more interested in money as a result, they are careless about security matters and become very much involved in politics, especially, the role they played in the last (2019) election.”

We asked Babashehu Abdulgani what he had to say about their participation in the recent 2019 elections, where the CJTF members were seen very active in politics and associated with politicians, and if this was also part of the function of the CJTF.

Babashehu responded, “We are not a political organisation. We do not participate in politics. Our main objective is to ensure peace in the state. The police commissioner made a press conference about this at the time of campaigns to make sure things like this don’t happen.

‘As Nigerians, we too have equal right to vote’

“We do not just go about following politicians. We respond only when there’s a written request from any party requesting an escort or security cover from us. Parties who didn’t request from us may think we are doing so on our own. And as Nigerians, we too have as much as equal right as every Nigerian, the right to vote. So, seeing us at the poll doesn’t mean we are abusing the uniform by involving in election malpractices. For instance, when the Attorney General who was also a gubernatorial candidate, was returning to Maiduguri, we were there to give an escort that’s because we received a written request to escort him. That doesn’t mean we are campaigning for him. And most times people request our presence in marriage ceremonies to maintain decorum and we gladly provide them with their request.

‘Any civilian who doesn’t trust us is likely a member of Boko Haram’

In our interview with Babashehu, we also asked if they still expect the civilians to put their trust in the CJTF to protect them and this is what he had to say; Any civilian who doesn’t trust or like our operations is likely to be Boko Haram members or a person whose relatives we have apprehended as an insurgent. Right now, there are people who have written petitions against us. There’s this case of a man who accused us of kidnapping his brother. When investigation was carried out it was discovered that his brother had been locked up in the barracks for aiding Boko Haram members. You see that is the reason why when we apprehend a suspect, we hand them over to law enforcement to decide their fate”.

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