Insecurity and Vigilante Violence in Nigeria
Photo Credit: New Nigerian Newspapers
By Alvin Cheng-Hin Lim

Insecurity and Vigilante Violence in Nigeria

Jul. 18, 2017  |     |  0 comments

While international news coverage about security issues in Nigeria have primarily focused on the Boko Haram insurgency in the northeastern states and militancy in the oil-rich Niger Delta, insecurity in the country is manifest in many other forms, including violent crime and vigilante violence. One current instance of a cycle of criminal and vigilante violence is the crime wave of the Badoo Gang in Lagos which has in turn triggered a wave of reprisal killings by vigilante groups. The first crime attributed to the gang occurred last year with the rape and murder of a schoolteacher, whose “skull was smashed with a stone.” The word “Badoo” which was written on a wall at the crime scene gave the name to the group which the Nigerian public has come to believe to be responsible for this and the subsequent string of similar killings.


The gruesome signature of the robbery homicides attributed to the Badoo Gang is its members’ use of “bricks and mortars in smashing the skulls of their victims,” as well as their alleged use of black magic which allows them to “mysteriously appear and disappear during attacks.” The residents of the increasingly paranoid local communities which have suffered attacks attributed to the Badoo Gang believe that its murder victims have had their blood or even body parts harvested for sale to occult practitioners of black magic. According to one such rumor, handkerchiefs soaked in the blood of the victims have been sold to “ritualists who use it for money and power charms … Each handkerchief costs 500,000 naira (US$1,600). This explains why Badoo usually wipe out an entire family in order to make more money.” As Daniel Smith (2001) points out, such rumors which connect occult violence with the quest for wealth are a long-standing trope in the Nigerian popular imagination, and he cites the following rumor which was spread by locals following the 1996 riots in Owerri, which like the current violence over the Badoo Gang, also involved allegations of ritualistic killings:


“A young man in a neighboring village was said to have died in his uncle’s house. He died vomiting money. The uncle, people said, had hired a juju man (a sorcerer or witchdoctor) to help him get rich. The juju man instructed the uncle to give one of his family members a special medicine. If a family member ingested the medicine and the man observed the prescribed rituals, he would become rich, the juju man promised. The man picked a nephew who lived with him and locked the boy in a room, feeding him food that included the juju man’s medicine. The man was not told that his nephew would die or exactly how he would become rich. The man was horrified when his nephew died, and he realized he could do nothing to stop the corpse from vomiting money” (p. 818).


The failure of the police to stop the spate of killings attributed to the Badoo Gang has led the affected communities to resort to vigilante violence, or what Nigerian commentators have termed “jungle justice.” Local police have accused these vigilantes of having killed at least 10 persons — including innocent civilians — in the past month, and have appealed to vigilante groups and concerned civilians to hand over suspected gang members to the authorities instead of simply lynching them. However, the state of insecurity has bred distrust of the police in the local communities, and paranoid rumors have circulated of arrested Badoo gang members being freed by the police on the orders of “rich and influential” persons, further exacerbating the public’s sense of insecurity.

The state of lawlessness exposed by the Badoo Gang’s robbery homicides and the resulting vigilante violence threatens the Nigerian government’s ongoing efforts to attract foreign investment and wean the economy away from its current reliance on oil.

One such victim of vigilante violence was Chinedu Paul, a comedian, who, along with two car mechanics, was burned to death by vigilantes after he had the misfortune of having his car break down in a neighborhood troubled by fears of the Badoo Gang. Thanks to the paranoia propagated by the spread of rumors, in these affected neighborhoods “many residents have bought cutlasses and other weapons out of desperation to fight the gang … People are angry, and it does not seem they are ready to hand over suspects to the police.”


Such cycles of criminal and vigilante violence are not new phenomena in Nigeria. Daniel Smith (2004) reminds us that “violent vigilante groups emerged in many parts of the country in the late 1990s and operated with widespread popular support” due to “concerns about violent crime” and other “perceived failures of government” (p. 429). The emergence in 1998 of the vigilante group known as the Bakassi Boys stands as a cautionary example of the danger posed by such groups. By the time they were disbanded in 2002 following their murder of a prominent lawyer and critic of their human rights abuses, the Bakassi Boys had grown into a “regional vigilante force” that “operated in several cities in three states across southeastern Nigeria” (pp. 431-432). During their period in operation, human rights groups estimate the Bakassi Boys had committed over a thousand extrajudicial killings, including a “mass public execution” of “more than 30 alleged criminals” in 2001. Local politicians had tolerated and even encouraged these vigilantes due to their popular support, but eventually this popular support was eroded when “stories began to circulate that they acted as thugs for their political patrons, that they could be hired to intervene in local disputes, and that they abused their status to extort money from the public” (pp. 442-447).


The popular support for vigilante groups like the Bakassi Boys is a direct response to the predatory behavior of the Nigerian police and military. Writing about the security checkpoints which are common across Nigeria, Daniel Smith (2004) notes that “most people interpreted these checkpoints as a means for police and soldiers to extract money from the public,” and stories abound of “people who had been shot, beaten, or harassed in confrontations with the police or the military at roadside checkpoints” (pp. 436-437). Such abuses at security checkpoints still occur. During the 3 years when I was teaching in Nigeria, the Nigerian military’s Joint Task Force (JTF) was sent to defend the northeastern states from the Boko Haram insurgency. As I wrote of that period: “After a state of emergency was imposed on Adamawa state in 2013, I personally experienced such checkpoints as a passenger on the faculty bus, particularly on the highway between Jimeta and Yola, where the university is located. At these checkpoints, I would witness on a daily basis the JTF soldiers extorting ‘water money’ from our driver and the drivers of the other vehicles on the road” (Lim, 2016, p. 95).


The state of lawlessness exposed by the Badoo Gang’s robbery homicides and the resulting vigilante violence threatens the Nigerian government’s ongoing efforts to attract foreign investment and wean the economy away from its current reliance on oil. Earlier this year, China pledged investments worth “USD 40 billion in Nigeria, on top of China’s USD 45 billion in existing investments in the country.” Without the guarantee of security, such investments may be short-lived. If a breakdown in law and order means that investors are not able to ensure their personal safety, the safety of their employees, or the security of their property, these investors may choose to cut their losses and transfer their investments to more secure locations. While such disinvestment could exacerbate Nigeria’s economic crisis, the worsened economic situation could in turn exacerbate Nigeria’s social anomie and deepen the state of insecurity in the country. A negative feedback loop such as this would be extremely difficult to escape from, and could plunge the country into a political crisis.




131 Badoo suspects, cultists nab in Ikorodu. (2017, July 12). Vanguard.


Fears of skull-crushing cult run rampant after horrific Nigerian church killings. (2017, July 12). AFP.


Fick, M. (2017, March 1). Nigeria economy suffers first annual contraction in 25 years. Financial Times.


Folarin, S. and Hanafi, A. (2017, July 4). Badoo: Lagos comedian lynched as residents, landlords buy more weapons. Punch.


Lim, A. C. H. (2016). An African village in perspective: Life on the edge of the Boko Haram. In A. L. Rappa (Ed.), The Village and Its Discontents: Meaning and Criticism in Late Modernity (pp. 87-109). Singapore: World Scientific.


Lim, A. C. H. (2017, January 18). China’s USD 40 billion investment in Nigeria. IPP Review.


Smith, D. J. (2001). Ritual killing, 419, and fast wealth: Inequality and the popular imagination in Southeastern Nigeria. American Ethnologist, 28(4), 803-826.


Smith, D. J. (2004). The Bakassi Boys: Vigilantism, violence, and political imagination in Nigeria. Cultural Anthropology, 19(3), 429-455.


Tayo, A. O. (2017, July 6). Ikorodu residents speak to Pulse on their daily nightmare.


The rise of Badoo and the failure of community policing. (2017, July 3). The Whistler.

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