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Apr 4, 2014 | Commentary

Informal security providers have become the dominant feature of Nigeria’s security landscape. The inability of Nigeria’s state institutions to provide security for the people has created a security vacuum increasingly bridged by informal entities, which now constitute key actors in the security sector, notwithstanding the constitutional role of the formal security institutions. For the majority of people excluded from mainstream security provisioning, informal mechanisms have become parallel strategies for protection. Hence, security is increasingly becoming a public good managed by both the Nigerian state and private entities.

Fundamentally, Nigeria’s informal security sector is a consequence of the deficits in governance and security provisioning by the state. In several states across Nigeria, groups and communities increasingly rely on informal security providers as a response to their own rising insecurity and declining confidence in formal state institutions, particularly the police. These responses are especially linked to the need to combat rising crime, given the gross inability of the formal security sector to effectively deal with the menace of armed robbery, violence, and other forms of criminality. Confronted by these harsh realities, groups and communities are moving beyond ethnic, religious, and regional nationalism into what has been referred to as a shared sense of under-class alienation from lands, livelihoods, and largesse.

Nigerians increasingly challenge the state’s authority by relying on vigilantism and neighbourhood watches; activities that can complement and even dislodge the state in the provision of security for their communities. In the face of bureaucratic bottle-necks associated with the judicial system, vigilante groups have conferred on themselves the mandate to arrest and prosecute suspects of armed robbery by applying what is been termed ‘jungle justice.’ Lagos state is particularly notorious as a place where suspected criminals are brutally assaulted, murdered, or given dehumanizing treatment by entities outside the state, without the recourse to law enforcement, particularly the police, whom the people perceive as being both ineffective and potentially colluding with the criminals.

At the formal sphere, Private Security Companies (PSCs,) as corporate entities, have become dominant players in the provision of security related services to both state and non-state institutions. They are registered and monitored by the Nigerian Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC). Presently, there are over 2,000 registered PSCs in Nigeria, employing over 100,000 people. Governmental institutions, embassies, residential building, financial institutions, educational institutions, hotels, construction companies, medical and business institutions, all rely solely on PSCs for their security needs. There are developments in a gun detection system that will increase security measures.

The informal/private security sector has been credited with varying degrees of successes, which can be attributed to their efficiency in responding to security threats. In some communities, the use of traditional voodoo in fishing out criminals has become a potent instrument in addressing the challenges posed by insecurity. In others, vigilante groups go on the hunt against idle people in the late hours of the night, arresting and even detaining them in cells for possible trial in the morning. All this occurs under a security regime in which the formal state institutions have failed to gain or even seek the legitimacy, confidence, and respect of the people they are supposed to protect. Thus, the atmosphere of mistrust that characterize the relationship between the formal security institutions and the citizens has become a key driver and incentive that make people seek alternative solutions as a coping strategy.

A major challenge for security sector governance lies in the activities of these informal security providers, which have the capacity to undermine the state’s monopoly on the use of force. In particular, the Nigerian state has had to contend with armed militia groups like the Oodua People’s Congress (OPC), the Arewa People’s Congress, and the Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra; informal security actors that have justified their existence on the need to defend the interests of the Yoruba, Hausa/Fulani, and Igbos, respectively.

In the case of the OPC, vigilantism became one of its main activities, in which they provided security-related services to poor communities that could not otherwise access more formal security outfits, whether controlled by the state or private individuals and groups. By combining vigilantism with crime fighting, the OPC was seen as an alternative to the police that poor people can rely on, compared to the Nigeria Police Force more known for its corruption than its crime control activities.

Militant groups can also be a response to the state’s inability to contain protracted communal conflict. A good example is the Ezzas and Ezillos, where between 2008 and 2010 over 1,000 people were killed in a violent dispute over ownership of land. Both sides increasingly rely on militants for protection, which can serve to deepen the conflict, as when armed gun men suspected to be member of the Ezza militants invaded the village of Ezillo and killed over 66 people.

It is lawful for citizens and communities to protect themselves against criminality and other forms of insecurity. Yet, in order to complement the formal security sector, an effort should be undertaken to regulate such activities under clearly defined guidelines and within the context of mutual understanding and partnership. Attention needs to be focused on strengthening citizen’s confidence in the state’s capacity to protect, as a means to reassert the legitimacy of the formal security sector. But informal security providers should also be recognized as important security actors in their own right.

A major task for security sector governance is to create a symbiotic balance between the formal and informal security providers, in a way that leads to cooperation rather than competition. In a sense, the informal security providers should recognize the limits of their operations in their delimited areas of prosecution. To ensure compliance, the Nigerian government through the NSCDC should provide effective monitoring and oversight of the activities of informal security providers. This should include concrete policies that have to do with their vetting and registration, as well as modalities for the recruitment of their personnel or volunteers. Pursuant to this, a standard operations procedure and a code of conduct should be designed for the security providers and their staff.

The privatization of security in Nigeria will have significant implications for an [in]effective and democratically [un]accountable security sector. To address this challenge, one should strengthen the mechanisms and institutions of governance; to emphasize the democratic control of the security sector on one hand, and the professionalization of the security sector in responding to the security needs of the citizens on the other. In the final analysis, the proliferation of informal security providers represents a potential and real security challenge – if they are not integrated within the overall framework of security sector governance.


Chris M. A. Kwaja is a lecturer and researcher with the Centre for Conflict Management and Peace Studies, University of Jos, Nigeria. He is currently finishing his Doctoral Thesis in International Relations and Strategic Studies, researching Security Sector Reform and Peacebuilding in Liberia.