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Traditional Nigerian hunters, one armed with bow and arrows
Image: Reuters/Joe Penney

Bows and arrows against Boko Haram

Abdul-Raheem Hassan and Stefanie Duckstein / sh
November 25, 2014

While Islamist terror group Boko Haram uses automatic weapons and tanks against the population of Nigeria, civil defense groups armed with simple weapons are determined to defend their country.


"We can become invisible – and then we fight them at close quarters, face to face," Yusuf said. He is a hunter who lives in the northern Nigerian state of Adamawa. Yusuf is not his real name, he does not want to be recognized. He is a Nigerian civilian fighting against Boko Haram. "Our prayers protect us against their weapons. Soldiers only have weapons. We have other means of luring Boko Haram into a trap," Yusuf told DW. He and his companions know the area well, they know where they can hide, and then emerge to take the Boko Haram fighters by surprise. That was the strategy they used to expel Boko Haram from the town of Mubi.

Yusuf used to hunt wild animals in the bush. But as the attacks by Boko Haram became more frequent and more brutal, he volunteered to join the guerilla war against the group. "A real hunter wears amulets," Yusuf said. "They take away our fear. We also wear clothing that is woven in a traditional way and is specially made for hunters." Strengthened by their belief that only God can decide over life and death in battle,Yusuf and his companions go to war.

An amulet wrapped around the body of a man wearing a traditional hunting robe
Traditional clothing and amulet worn by a Nigerian hunterImage: DW/Hassan

Stronger than the army?

"What's interesting about the rise of these vigilante groups is the fact that they typically don't fall along sectarian lines. It's an almost spontaneous response by local communities to the failure of the police and military to maintain order,"Hilary Matfess, a political scientist at John Hopkins University's School of Advanced Studies in Washington D.C., told DW.

The Nigerian security forces have now launched large-scale operations in a bid to counter the Boko Haram insurgency. According to Nigerian media, 20 percent of the budget is currently being used for defense purposes. However, many soldiers complain that much of the money does not reach the right places. "What we see in a lot of conflicts with Boko Haram is that the Nigerian military is overwhelmed militarily and flees," Matfess said, adding that the police force was often "predatory towards civilians rather than acting as a source of stability." She says this is also a reason for the growth of civil defense groups.

But can a civilian group armed only with simple hunting weapons be more successful in the fight against a terror group than an entire army? In order to understand this, one must take a closer look at the Nigerian security apparatus, Mattfes says. "You have the military that is not particularly well trained or well funded. The police force in Nigeria is actually the country's largest employer. One of the latest estimates is that the police force employes nearly 400,000 people. It is difficult to train and properly arm a force of that size."

Angriff von Boko Haram im nordöstlichen Stadt Konduga nahe Maiduguri / Nigeria
Nigerian soldiers display an armored vehicle captured from Boko HaramImage: dpa

Call for financial support

Of course, says another hunter from Mubi, the army does have a certain amount of modern weapons, whereas "we use hunting weapons made by our local smiths. Some have a bayonet attached." Nigerian newspapers print photos of hunters who, armed only with bows and arrows, protect their villages against Boko Haram attacks. These are effective tactics, the hunter says, since "the animals we usually hunt and kill are also stronger than we are."

Idris Abdullahi lives in Gombi in Adamawa state and applauds the hunters' initiative. "Right from the start, they supported the fight against Boko Haram. They know who belongs to Boko Haram in their villages," he said. Abdullahi thinks the military can play an important role but "in order to be really successful, above all in the forests, the vigilantes and hunters have the advantage of knowing the territory better, every inch of it."

The army and government are happy that the vigilantes have joined the fight as they have succeeded where the army has so far failed. Civil defense groups have liberated Mubi, Hong, Gombi and Maiha – all in Adamawa state – from Boko Haram. The residents of these towns have felt increasingly abandoned by the authorities and they trust the local hunters. "The hunters should receive more support, be it from the government or from wealthy people," said Bilkisu Aliyu Adam, who lives in Gombi. He argues that financial support should be forthcoming since anyone who takes up the fight against Boko Haram has little time or resources left to look after his family.

A group of Nigerian policemen
Many Nigerians no longer trust the policeImage: imago/Xinhua
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