This article is part of the World Economic Forum's Geostrategy platform

Vigilante groups, often formed initially to protect their communities, have had some success when hired by weak African states to tackle insurgencies; but this has also proved to be a dangerous tactic on the part of governments, particularly in politically fractious states.

An analysis by the International Crisis Group, Double-edged Sword: Vigilantes in African Counter-insurgencies, concludes that it is vital that African states, which subcontract vigilante groups in this way, have clear objectives and mandates, and invest in disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration programmes.

The authors note that many, often fragile, African states have little choice but to recruit vigilantes to counter insurgents, and that the weaker the government’s hold on power, the more reliant it is on these groups. Yet, these are the very states that are least able to police these unofficial organisations, or prevent them abusing their power.

The greater the success a vigilante group has in combating insurgents, the more difficult the task of demobilising them, and the more likely it is they will become entrenched in a country, says the report.

The authors examine four illustrative cases in which vigilantes have been used to tackle insurgents – Sierra Leone, Uganda’s Teso region, South Sudan’s former Western Equatoria State, and Nigeria’s north east. Their aim was to uncover the factors that determine the rise of vigilantes, and these groups’ longer-term effects on security and stability.

By their very nature, vigilante groups carry inherent risk: “As a result of ethnic rivalries and allegiances, community defence groups can morph into predatory, quasi-criminal organisations or enemies of the central state,” the authors write.

However, even when the risk of recruiting these groups outweighs the benefits, many African leaders do not have the luxury of choice: a lack of resources means they are forced to used them. But, at a minimum, “African governments and their international backers should learn from the past, try to prevent abuses, guard against vigilantes’ mission creep and plan how to manage them once the conflict dies down.”

Shared identity

Vigilante members are usually recruited from local communities. Their members are likely to share the same ethnic or political identities, collective interests and threat perceptions. This raises the likelihood of them acting as local militias – potentially more powerful than state authorities – and pursuing narrow ethnic agendas. The report describes the groups as a short-term necessary evil, and one that can potentially pave the way for longer-term conflict.

Researchers found that the groups too often take advantage of their newfound power, and compensate for inadequate support and resources through extortion, kidnapping, and other violence.

There is therefore a danger in neglecting such groups, or of being hostile towards them (as in South Sudan); this can give rise to new groups of rebels. While unbridled state support (as in Sierra Leone) can embolden armed groups controlled by strongmen and motivated in part by narrow self-interest.

Positive lessons

However, the authors also highlight positive lessons.

For one, vigilante groups can be highly effective in providing local security, far more so than the state. They also often have greater legitimacy in their communities because of members’ local roots, and they can be more effective in identifying, tracking and combating insurgents because of their knowledge of the local language, geography and culture.

When managed well by the state and involved international bodies, vigilantes can help national leaders “forge lasting political pacts with provincial elites and bolster state legitimacy among local communities.”

In short, says the report, “while African and international policymakers may be concerned that empowering non-state forces will undermine the state, vigilantes also can serve as valuable intermediaries between local communities and central authorities.”

The effectiveness of such groups, and the key to controlling them, depends on objectives and oversight. “The clearer vigilantes’ objectives and mandates are set in advance, and the greater the oversight by national and local leaders, the state military and local communities, the more effective the group can be and the less likely it will veer away from community defence and counter-insurgency goals,” the authors conclude.

All this is more likely to happen in cases where the political interests of the central government and those of local leaders are roughly aligned, as in Uganda.

In contrast, a less well-defined mandate, which allows groups of take up local governance roles, can lead to problems by extending their existence, enlarging their scope, and allowing them to consolidate their power.

Disbanding

Longer term, the report advises, it is important that investment is made in generous demobilisation and reintegration programmes; this is key to offering members of groups alternative livelihoods as well as due recognition.

It also recommends moving selected vigilante-group members to take up roles in community policing.

The researchers list a number of lessons from their case studies that they believe can be applied more widely, if adapted to local conditions.

They recommend that African states that enlist vigilante groups should:

Engage local leaders with influence over vigilantes, so as to establish finite, mutually acceptable objectives within a comprehensive counter-insurgency strategy, and ensure they provide political oversight of rank-and-file members of the group.

Be clear with vigilante leaders and foot soldiers about what they can expect as reward for their efforts and compensation for any losses;

Provide groups with adequate political and material support, including weapons when necessary. The aim should be to ensure vigilantes are equipped to pursue their objectives, and so lessen the risk of extortion of resources from civilians;

Where possible, provide military oversight of, and ensure accountability for vigilantes’ abusive actions;

Put in place upfront a gender-sensitive plan to demobilise vigilantes once the insurgent threat has lessened, and to help them find work locally.

International donors and partners face a similar challenge in dealing with these groups, the report says.

“They should benefit from relatively strong state authorities enjoying a monopoly over the use of violence. But when the state is too weak to confront an insurgency alone, or when the insurgent group doubles up as a terrorist organisation threatening outside interests, the temptation will be great for international actors to support a militia or vigilante group – with or at times without the state’s consent.”

However, international actors’ best interests are best served by working with state authorities to help them manage relations with vigilantes, and also to caution “against the pitfalls of unfettered support or counterproductive repression.”

The report recommends that, “To the extent international players interact with vigilante groups, they should avoid providing direct support, lest they weaken national authorities’ bargaining positions.”

Instead, they should assist states to control vigilantes and effectively demobilise and reintegrate them.The authors conclude that for states facing an insurgent problem, which they cannot manage alone, there is no alternative to relying on vigilante groups. But, as the cases highlighted in the report show, there are good and bad ways of managing these groups, and of ensuring that “a short-term expedient not turn into a long-term headache.”