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Monday, 20 May, 2002, 16:04 GMT 17:04 UK
Gang rule in Nigeria
Onitsha market, under the control of the Bakassi Boys
Many traders have welcomed the Bakassi Boys

Human rights campaigners have called on the Nigerian Government to disband state-sponsored vigilantes operating in eastern Nigeria.

In a report published on Monday, the US-based Human Rights Watch says that the vigilantes, known as the Bakassi Boys, have carried out scores of extra-judicial killings as well as hundreds of cases of torture and arbitrary detention.

It is good because they catch the criminals, then kill them and burn them

Local trader
The report also warns that these groups are being used as a tool for politically-motivated violence in the run up to national elections.

Although the Bakassi Boys operate in three states across south-eastern Nigeria, it is their activities in Anambra State that has caused most concern.

There, they have been adopted by the state government as a crime fighting force - funded and officially sanctioned under a law passed by the state parliament two years ago.

They work independently from the police force in the state, and do not as a rule hand suspects over to them, a fact confirmed by the Abdul Bello, the Anambra state police commissioner.

"To the extent that they do not submit themselves to the control of Nigerian police force, they are not working with us," said Mr Bello.

And as for what they do with those they apprehend, Mr Bello said: "You had better ask them, because I don't know what they do. And that is where we part ways."

But there is no doubt that the activities of the Bakassi Boys, despite their methods, are popular among many of the traders in the sprawling town of Onitsha, home to one of the largest markets in West Africa, with an appalling reputation for armed crime.

In a world where the police had effectively abandoned law enforcement, the arrival of the vigilantes was very welcome.

"All that the police do is take bribes," one market woman tells me.

"When you tell them a crime has happened, they just run away."

These traders are people living day to day with theft and violent crime.

"Before the Bakassi Boys came, there were many problems with thieves and armed robbers. Now it is much better," says one shopkeeper.

But few have any doubts about the vigilante's tactics, and another man tells me: "It is good because they catch the criminals, then kill them and burn them".

Climate of fear

At the entrance to the headquarters of Bakassi Boys in Onitsha, two cars bear the vigilante logo on their bonnets: a skull and cross bones crudely painted in red.

By the door a young man in dark glasses sits on a bench studying his reflection in a highly polished machete.

Bakassi Boys car
The Bakassi Boys have a fearful reputation

Gun cartridge cases litter the ground.

Up a narrow staircase and into a darkened office, the local Bakassi commander, simply known as Okpompi tells me how his men work closely with the local police, how they hand over all criminals they catch, and how they possess no weapons.

Once these formalities have been dealt with, we discuss the guns I can see hidden behind the sofa, the man I saw tied up and being beaten when I had arrived unannounced the previous day and, most revealingly, the methods they use to extract confessions from the suspects they catch.

'Supernatural powers'

The Bakassi Boys have a reputation for possessing powerful magic powers.

The objects I see around the room all bear witness to the use of fetishes and juju in their daily work.

Bakassi commander Okpompi
Bakassi Boys say they work within the law

There are also crucifixes on the walls.

"Our powers come from God", Okpompi tells me.

"We are all Christians working with the power of the Almighty."

Hanging from the door is a carving of a shrunken human head, on the desk are a range of small wooden coffins containing devices to determine the guilt or innocence of suspects - but they are sacred and must not be opened in my presence.

"We don't kill anybody. If anybody tells you the Bakassi Boys kills anybody, it's not true," says Okpompi, "but we do make people confess to their crimes."

The most infamous of their techniques involves a machete, imbued with powerful magic charms.

It is held against the bare chest of a suspect.

If it turns red, the person is guilty.

But only the Bakassi Boys can see the change of colour, and it is for them alone to decide guilt or innocence.

Claims of torture

Their claims that those found guilty are then handed over to the police are not only denied by the police themselves, but also challenged by those who have witnessed the Bakassi Boys activities first hand.

People are afraid to talk, they fear for reprisals

Chief Chike Udenze, businessman
Human Rights Watch researchers have documented testimonies to scores of killings as well as hundreds of accounts of torture and detention.

"They usually use their knives to kill people", businessman, Chief Chike Udenze tells me.

"They then use tyres over their necks, fill them with fuel and shoot into the tyres to set them alight. That is their usual method".

Chief Udenze is not a neutral observer to the activities of the vigilantes.

He is a prominent local politician who accuses the ruling establishment in Anambra state of using the Bakassi Boys to silence opponents such as himself.

"People are afraid to talk, they fear for reprisals," he says.

"But the use of the Bakassi Boys against political opponents could seriously jeopardise the conduct of the upcoming elections."

Crackdown on crime

Not surprisingly this is a view strongly rejected by the government of Anambra state, particularly as the Bakassi Boys are authorised and financed by them.

Anambra state governor Chinwoke Mbadinuju
The authorities turn a blind eye to the Bakassi Boys' excesses

The staunchest supporter of their activities is the governor himself, Chinwoke Mbadinuju who tells me that crime in the state had reached such an appalling level that something had to be done.

"These vigilante boys are there to ensure that the armed robbers that menaced us for all these years were stopped. This had been achieved".

As for the reports of extra-judicial punishments carried out by the Bakassi Boys, the governors answer is measured.

"Definitely it's an exaggeration. There are occupational hazards but these things are an exception to the rule."

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See also:

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