The Truth About The Bakassi Boys
In recent months there has been an increasing number of negative reports, initiated by Human Rights Watch, concerning a small vigilante organization, the Bakassi Boys, operating in eastern Nigeria.
In or about April 2002, the international human rights monitoring organization posted a news release on various Nigerian Internet newsgroups decrying and equating the activities of the Bakassi Boys with well-known political vigilante group, OPC of western Nigeria. The BBC followed with a story based on this news release on its website. The news was picked up by other, mostly relatively small, outlets. Since then periodic reports damning the Bakassi appear quoting Human Rights Watch.
The Bakassi Boys first came to media and public attention more than four years ago following its formation. However, this is the first time that such pointedly negative news about the group is coming from a non-Nigerian source.
When they first came into being, commentary about the Bakassi in the Nigerian media was mostly positive and they received broad public approval. The little international attention they received came from among the Nigerian diaspora, where as usual they had their supporters and detractors. Among the latter is this author who made the common mistake of equating the Bakassi Boys to other decidedly political extrajudicial outfits like the western (Yoruba) Odua Peoples Congress (OPC) or the northern (Hausa-Fulani) Arewa Peoples Congress (APC).
What alarmed me at the time was that the Bakassi Boys was being brought under the patronage of the state governors. I had assumed it was a politically motivated outfit like vigilantes in other parts of the country. My opposition to the extension of governors' patronage was in principle, given that vigilante groups, as a rule, operated without the guidance of established laws. And often they work in defiance of such laws, especially when their inspiration is political.
In September 2001, I had the opportunity to visit Nigeria and learned firsthand the real situation there. The Bakassi, as it happens, continues to enjoy wide public support. I saw at least two different movies, there are more than a dozen such movies, depicting them as heroes. Calendars and almanacs telling the saga of Bakassi exploits hang in offices and homes of many Easterners. To this day, many Eastern Nigerians remain traumatized by the events and state of society that led to the emergence of the vigilante group. One young mother of three told how, at the worst time, she feared to go out on the street even in daylight. People stayed indoors and bared their doors and windows. Such was the fearful state of things in the East before the Bakassi came to clean up the crime and stem the lawlessness, to the relief and gratitude of all. Even policemen were happy the Bakassi came into the scene and the two groups worked out an amicable arrangement for operation.
Before the Bakassi Boys, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, there was lawlessness and high crime in Eastern Nigeria. This was mainly due to the existence of a small number of influential men who sponsored the criminals. One of the most notorious of these men was a rasputinic character, Eddy Okeke, pastor and founder of a local 'Christian' cult. Okeke claimed the ability to heal many ills, make acolytes rich and give them power over things temporal and spiritual. He was also reputed to be a friend and adviser to most of the men in power at the federal level. Okeke and his followers were known for high living. They publicly beat up those that opposed them. This included government officials and policemen. Taking them to court was a pointless affair. They were invariably set free by fearful judges. Serious opponents often wound up dead or seriously maimed. His charms were supposed to protect users from even bullets. Ambitious men of all sorts -- criminals, politicians, careerists in government and private practice -- sought out Eddy and his charms. Even the military men who were state governors in the east at the time did not dare cross Eddy or they would find themselves out of power.
As a result of all this crime grew and lawlessness prevailed. Eddy's men marauded, stealing and extorting from people. Not even small children or young adults were safe. People were disappearing, kidnapped, killed and used in ritual rites to make practitioners even more powerful and invincible. The most invincible, of course, was Eddy Okeke himself.
Among the working class, the most vulnerable were the traders and merchants, people whose fortunes were tied up in their trading goods. These goods had become the target of armed robbers. The police, of course, were unable to help. And so the traders decided to help themselves and the Bakassi Boys was born.
Psychologically, fear of Okeke and his occult powers was very real and at the beginning the Bakassi Boys suffered setbacks against their opponents. To counteract that they had to present themselves as having more power than their opponents. Gradually, they began to succeed. That success was sealed after the capture and public execution of the 'invincible' Okeke. After that communities in the east began to request the vigilante's help in dealing with any number of criminal menace.
The Bakassi are well aware of the inherent dangers of their situation and have therefore set themselves strict guidelines for personal conduct and action. For instance, they believe that no member of the group can be involved in criminal activity. They do not accept bribes and will deal mercilessly with any of their own who falls foul of these guidelines.
Yes, they are ruthless with criminals. They have been known to cut off limbs and burn people (Eddy himself was said to have been disemboweled before being killed). That is the method of the Bakassi Boys. But the group is not political. They have no agenda beyond ensuring peace and order in civil society. It is not their method to run rampage harassing motorists as some writers have tried to show. That goes against the very reason for their existence. When they travel, they do so in a convoy of vehicles, and any acts of exuberance they display will without doubt be with or on their own property.
It is true that in some states in eastern Nigeria, namely Abia and Anambra states, the group has received support from the government. This is a mark of their popularity and perceived usefulness. Government oversight has had the added benefit of further taming the Bakassi organization.
The current spate of negative press against them comes at a time when Nigerians are getting ready for a new round of elections. It appears, therefore, that the bad press is politically motivated, and there is ample evidence to bear this out.
In other parts of the country, avowedly political vigilante groups have been silenced, at least for the moment. But because of its apolitical nature, the Bakassi Boys was spared the same kind of treatment -- banning orders etc., -- meted out to the OPC, for instance, by the police. Since the bad press began, however, there have been reports of clashes with, and raids by, the police of Bakassi offices in Abia and Anambra states. These police actions seem aimed at emasculating the Bakassi Boys before the 2003 elections.
An August 11 report posted on Niajanet claims that 'President Obasanjo has expressed fears the group could be transformed into private armies during next years governors' elections...' Hence the need to bring them down before they can be so used.
It needs repeating that what led to the rise of the Bakassi Boys in the first place was corruption of society through influence peddling. The powers that be in the 1980s and '90s were keen to extend their control to every level of society. But they did not go about it merely through legally constituted means. They had resorted to thuggery, and in doing so, sowed the seeds of chaos and lawlessness. It took the rise of the unorthodox Bakassi Boys to rid the East of that menace. Pity that these heroes during a society's moment of need are now being demonized. All the more so because the campaign to destroy the Bakassi Boys is instigated and propagated by a single minded international NGO careless of the social crucible that brought about the group's existence and mindless of what this means to the people whose lives are affected.