In southwest Nigeria (Yorubaland), the location of Nigeria’s commercial capital Lagos, there has been a dramatic upsurge in kidnapping, house invasions, and robbery. On January 9, the governors of the six states in the region announced the establishment of Operation Amotekun (“leopard” in the Yoruba language). The apparent goal of Operation Amotekun is to support and supplement the national police service, but not replace it. Initially met with controversy after Abubakar Malami, the attorney general, first declared the group illegal, Amotekun has now been given the green light by Vice President Yemi Osinbajo. (President Muhammadu Buhari was out of the country at the time.) Yoruba traditional rulers, led by the Ooni of Ife, had earlier voiced their support for the initiative.
The creators of the program were explicit that it was meant to support, rather than undermine, the work of federal security services. According to Governor Kayode Fayemi of Ekiti state: “We are not here to undermine the power of the Federal Government of Nigeria, but our primary interest is the security and safety of our people.” Former governor of Lagos State Bola Tinubu compared Operation Amotekun to “Neighbourhood Watch,” a program his administration instituted to pass information along to the police, which also included an early-warning system. But he criticized Amotekun for its use of uniforms and custom vehicles, which give the impression of a defense force. (According to some photos, participants received bright-red pick-up trucks with “Amotekun: Zero Tolerance to Crime” written on the side.) Apparently, funding comes from the state governments. It is not clear whether Amotekun participants will be salaried.
Nigeria has a national police force—a gendarmerie that echoes that of France and francophone states in Africa—but there is no state or local police force. Since the colonial period, there has been concern that local policing could result in ethnic tensions. In theory, if not in practice, national policemen are deployed outside the communities from which they come. However, with the general breakdown of security throughout the country, there is a lively debate over the merits of establishing some sort of local police. This is part of a larger debate on the devolution of more power to state and local governments. There is also recognition that the national police are undertrained, underfunded, and too few in numbers.
According to one report, twenty-three out of Nigeria’s thirty-six states have similar local security outfits. Some are armed, some not, but all apparently operate under the authority of state or local governments, and many seem designed to work with the federal police force. In areas affected by the Boko Haram insurgency, for example, there are local units, some existing under the umbrella of the Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF), and others loosely referred to as “hunters.” These groups are meant to assist the police and security services rather than replace them. CJTF is particularly involved with information gathering, but some members are also armed, often with homemade or locally made guns. Hunters, who tend to know the land well, are known for identifying Boko Haram bases. Participants in the CJTF and hunter groups initially were volunteers. Now at least some receive a small stipend from the Federal and sometimes state governments. In October 2019, the governor of Borno state enlisted the services of thousands of “hunters” to compliment the Nigerian military in the state.
The southwest governors and others are at pains to say that Amotekun is not a regional police force. Yet, in northern Nigeria, CJTF and hunters exercise police functions, at least from time to time. Critics have likened them to vigilantes, too often ill-disciplined, ill-supervised, and accused of taking justice into their own hands. On the other hand, it is generally acknowledged that they have played an important role against Boko Haram. Faced with a security breakdown in their region, the southwest governors likely felt they had little choice but to establish what may prove to be a regional security force.