Maiduguri — Young men with machetes manning road blocks is usually a bad sign. In Nigeria's northeastern city of Maiduguri, for years tormented by the Boko Haram insurgency, it actually signifies progress.
Rather than the military's Joint Task Force (JTF), it is these volunteer vigilantes dubbed "Civilian JTF" that are largely credited with pacifying the city over the past year.
Whereas the often blundering and brutal JTF regarded everyone in Maiduguri as a potential Salafist, the community-rooted volunteers - officially the Borno Youth Association for Peace and Justice -actually know who Boko Haram members are. They are the eyes and ears of the security forces watching for infiltration and, though the best of their weapons are antique single-shot "Dane" guns, or the odd shotgun, they are often the first responders to trouble.
"Before, the community was afraid. If you opened your mouth against Boko Haram, that night they would kill you. But Borno State youth are tired of it," Civilian JTF secretary and second-in-command, Abba Tijjani Sadiq, told IRIN. "God lifted us up. No matter you come with a gun, we will pursue you. For now there are no Boko Haram in Maiduguri."
Borno was the birthplace of Jama'atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda'awati wal-Jihad (People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet's Teachings and Jihad), better known as Boko Haram. It was founded in 2002 by cleric Mohamed Yusuf and grew into a popular grassroots movement based on its strict adherence to conservative Islamic values and rejection of the political corruption and venality that has come to epitomize Nigeria.
The execution of Yusuf and a number of his lieutenants in 2009 while in police custody won Boko Haram sympathy, but that popularity has soured as the death toll has soared in the shootings and bombings by the militants of their perceived enemies - the majority of them Muslims. The supposed support from the community was one reason the JTF meted out such indiscriminate punishment.
"The army took us as the enemy and vice-versa. We didn't see them as here to protect us," explained school headmaster Suleiman Ali. "[If there was a Boko Haram attack] they don't come on time, they arrest whoever they see, or open fire, or burn shops and houses in revenge ... The boys [Boko Haram] used to come and hide among us in the community. But later on we saw that couldn't work. You hide them, then later on they can come into your house and kill your father. People were pressed to the wall, we needed to stand, to protect ourselves."
He sees Borno's insecurity as "a failure of government and ourselves" and celebrates the new-found "spirit of self-sufficiency" animating the civilian JTF. What began in just one of the city's 14 wards in June last year has snowballed. "Everybody is a civilian JTF. Whenever we hear gunshots we pick up our axes and cutlasses [machetes] and go and see what's wrong."
The civilian JTF is stood up in all of Borno's 27 Local Government Areas, but it is in the more remote border regions where Boko Haram is strongest, and the communities most at risk.
Nevertheless it was over Maiduguri that a propaganda battle was waged this month. Boko Haram boasted it would celebrate the end of Ramadan in the city's prayer grounds. "We said, 'No way'," Sadiq recounted, and a huge security operation, including a movement ban on all vehicles, made for a subdued but safe holiday period.
"This is what a government hearts and minds campaign should have been from the start," said Abuja-based analyst Husseini Abdu. "But this wasn't the case of a deliberate strategy; luckily the government didn't antagonize them, and the military felt they were useful."
The state government was quick to embrace the civilian JTF. It provided training to 1,700 volunteers last year through a Borno Youth Empowerment Scheme, kitting out the graduates in sky-blue uniforms, providing vehicles, and a monthly stipend of around US$100. It, however, has baulked at the idea of arming them.
The civilian JTF claim they have 45,000 members, led by local businessmen and former civil servants like Sadiq. Their ranks reflect the spectrum of Maiduguri society, from Christians to the unemployed, to former Boko Haram.
Aside from parade ground drilling, the state government has also introduced civics lessons for the young men, previously noted for their eagerness to lynch suspects. "We know we can't take the law into our own hands," said Sadiq. "Now we take [suspects] to the barracks, and the army kills them," he grinned.
Three civilian JTF leaders IRIN spoke to insisted they were solely after Boko Haram (rather than a broader role as a public morals police), and loyal to all the centres of authority in Borno.
These include "our father" President Goodluck Jonathan, the opposition controlled state government, the "royal father" the Shehu of Borno, and the military. Organizationally their structure corresponds to the army's sector commands, and spokesman Bello Dambatta extolled the strength of that relationship, refusing to criticize the JTF's performance. "They tell us that before the end of December Boko Haram will be finished," he added.
Politics and money
Despite the general support and respect the vigilantes have won, there are voices of caution. Once the Boko Haram insurgency ends, the "next challenge could be how do you demobilize the civilian JTF", said Abdu. In a state where the government's own figures put the jobless rate at over 40 percent, there is a risk of history repeating itself.
Few in Maiduguri believe Boko Haram still retains a genuine ideological message - especially under the ruthless current leadership of Abubaker Shekau. Much of Boko Haram's support was generated by fury over the in-discipline of the security forces, and the state government's hurried ban on motorbike taxis to end ride-by shootings - a business that had put a little money in the pocket of so many young men in the city.
Money has been an effective recruiting tool for Boko Haram. "Someone can come and give you a gun and [US$30] to kill someone. You don't have anything in your pocket, you are easily recruited," said Sadiq. "It's all about poverty", and Borno is even worse off now as a result of the insurgency, which has shuttered businesses, driven up prices and closed the borders with Cameroon, Niger and Chad, squeezing the crucial livestock trade.
And then there are Nigeria's upcoming elections in 2015. Polls are always a violent affair, but this is a particularly knife-edge ballot, with Jonathan facing extreme antipathy in the north. There is the possibility that his interests and Boko Haram's may bizarrely coincide with the cancellation of voting in the most insecure areas of the region.
As elsewhere in the world, young men will be hired by the politicians as thugs and enforcers - and deals will be struck with vote influencers. It is a danger that Sadiq is aware of. "When you bring politics into this, it will bring problems for us.
The root of Boko Haram is politics," he said, a reference to an agreement struck with former state governor Ali Modu Sheriff to introduce Shariah law in exchange for Yusuf's political support, which went horribly wrong.
Sheriff's failure to abide by the deal led to the resignation in 2007 of Boko Haram's representative in the government, Commissioner of Religious Affairs Buji Foi.
In the fallout, a group of Boko Haram followers were killed by the police, but the federal government ignored Yusuf's repeated calls for justice. In July 2009 his militants launched coordinated attacks against police stations and government buildings in four northern states, which left over 800 people dead - the beginning of the bloodletting that has continued unabated.
Where does it end? Boko Haram's insurgency is concentrated in the northern states of Borno, Bauchi and Yobe. Human Rights Watch researcher Mausi Segun believes Shekau's strategy is territory where he can build his Islamic caliphate. "He still believes he can take Borno State, that's his goal," she told IRIN. "But this is not about religion, it's all about power."
[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations.]