Kano and Maiduguri, the biggest cities in predominantly Muslim Northern Nigeria, are drought-prone and sprawling outposts, filled with concrete roadblocks and teenage boys with machetes and bows and arrows. Frequent attacks by the militant Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram have killed thousands and displaced many more in this region. This Tuesday, two female suicide bombers killed thirty people in Maiduguri. Now, bands of individuals, organized by the state or by their own sheer will, are trying to create order from the chaos.
The Hisbah, or Islamic police, enforce Shariah law, destroying bottles of beer and going on drug busts with officers of the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency. Members of a local traffic unit rely on a broken windows theory of policing, “arresting” goats that roam the streets and charging owners to secure their release.
Meanwhile, a vigilante group mainly hangs out and waits, their members complaining of lack of support, but they are also ready to go out on patrol. These men in uniforms are doing what they can to make things better — a futile task in the face of an enemy like Boko Haram.
On the way to a drug bust, a convoy of trucks with both NDLEA and Hisbah officers barrels out of the compound at top speed, but then stops for gas. Sirens blaring, they are on their way again, until they have to stop for kids crossing the road. And potholes. And goats. Everywhere, men and young boys sprint in the opposite direction. By the time they arrive at the supposed drug den, there has been plenty of time for the criminals to flee. The Hisbah officers collect some weed and light muscle relaxants and pat each other on the back.
Not far away, the Kano State Roads and Traffic Agency is out on the beat as well, pouncing without warning. At one bust, the officers yell out “Take Cover! Take Cover!” as they surround three goats. When one gets away, area residents cheer.
With the vigilantes in Maiduguri, there is no raiding but there is posing. My main contact, Mohammed Abas Kgava, still contacts me regularly months later, sending texts about villages being burned and needing supplies. I photograph Mohammed’s many men, and when it’s time to take his portrait, he dives down into a bed of lily pad greens and holds up his pistol.
Law and order is fleeting in the North – the government is at best nominally in control, and occasionally, Boko Haram is completely in control. They can’t stop the terrorists, but they can stop the goats.
* * *
Glenna Gordon is a New York based photographer working on longterm personal projects, editorial assignments, and other commissions in Africa and elsewhere.