A governor in Nigeria is recruiting 10,000 hunters to try to accomplish what the army has been unable to do: defeat Boko Haram militants.
A Nigerian hunter (Photo by Mohammed Chiroma)
MAIDUGURI, NIGERIA — The new governor of Nigeria’s Borno State is turning to a non-traditional approach to fight terrorism: local hunters.
In October, Babagana Zulum, the governor of Borno — a state in northeastern Nigeria that’s home to approximately five million residents — called for the recruitment of 10,000 local hunters to fight the militant Islamic group Boko Haram.
Nigerian federal officials, previously opposed the initiative, increasingly support the move as the security situation in northeast Nigeria deteriorates. Nigeria has spent more than $9 billion fighting Boko Haram without success, notwithstanding multiple claims by Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari to the contrary.
Boko Haram first emerged as an Islamic school in 2002. Over the course of a decade, the group radicalized into the largest terrorist organization in northeast Nigeria, eventually spreading across the country’s borders into Cameroon, Chad and Niger.
The group has attacked religious and political organizations, police and military targets as well as villages and towns. It is known for looting, killing and abducting women and children, and forcibly conscripting men and boys. Internationally, Boko Haram is best known for its abduction of 200 schoolgirls in 2014 and the “Bring Back Our Girls” media storm that followed.
Hunters know the terrain.
The Nigerian Army has managed to significantly reduce the amount of territory held by Boko Haram, but the group still conducts daily attacks against locals, forcing the displacement of more than one million civilians and creating a humanitarian crisis across the region. The Nigerian Army is underfunded, under resourced and spread thin.
Governor Zulum, who was elected in March 2019, started recruiting hunters in October. Isa Gusau, the governor’s spokesman, said Zulum has decided to “aggressively combine conventional and unconventional approaches to addressing the Boko Haram crisis.”
The hunters are believed to have the most intimate knowledge of Boko Haram’s territory — the Sambisa Forest and the greater Lake Chad region — and thus have the potential to address a blind spot of a tired and overstretched military.
Detailed plans to arm the hunters are currently unclear, but many are arriving in the Borno capital of Maiduguri with their own weapons. “I know they are hunters because they walk around carrying their homemade muskets,” said Mohammad Chiroma, a photographer in Maidugur.
Many Borno residents are excited about the prospect of using hunters to defeat Boko Haram. People believe the hunters will be effective, Chiroma said. Plus, many hunters have already been informally offering advice to the army for years, he added.
Questions remain about the long-term consequences.
In recent weeks, Chiroma has spoken with hunters who have been armed by the state with pump-action weapons and have started to receive a salary from the government. They are paid the equivalent of roughly US$80 per month.
In October, the Associated Press reported that the hunters carry with them charms that are believed by some to make them immune from the dangers of battle. “Part of the mystique of hunters is that there are charms or other aspects of magic that protects them from harm,” said John Campbell, senior fellow for African Policy Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, D.C.
While enlisting hunters seems likely to bolster the army’s fighting power, important questions remain about how an army-civilian partnership will work — and its long-term consequences. It is not clear, for example, how the fighters will be monitored, who will be held responsible if they commit human rights abuses, or what the army’s definition of success looks like.
Nigeria is outsourcing its responsibility to protect.
“Most observers are uneasy about the notion of armed vigilantes that are not subject to direct government control,” Campbell said. “Once the fighting is over, what do they do? Do they slide into criminal behavior, or do they go on to support some other kind of insurgency?”
Chitra Nagarajan, a human rights researcher working in Maiduguri, believes the decision to engage local hunters is tantamount to the state outsourcing its responsibility to protect, while providing little oversight of the process.
“The government planning to give them [civilians] more power in this way is really indicative of the state’s failure and inability to protect its civilians,” Nagarajan said. “The answer should not be giving civilians arms and making them party to the conflict and getting people to fight, but actually strengthening the already existing security forces in order to do that.”
“Nigeria is well known for dramatic announcements, and whether or not they will hire 10,000 hunters or not, I am a bit skeptical,” Campbell said. “I think arming civilians is not a particularly good idea, but frankly, it is difficult to see how the struggle against Boko Haram could continue without them.”
Tara Heidger is a freelance journalist based in New York City. She recently graduated from Columbia University with a dual Master of Science in Urban Planning and International Affairs. She is currently a Dalla Lana journalism fellow at the University of Toronto.