The Hunters of Jaji and the Joint Task Force

Photos and text by Collin Mayfield. Opinions expressed are the author’s own and do not reflect Atlas News. This reportage was made possible through the financial support of Qilo Tactical. If you support my work, please consider purchasing from Qilo. 

Jaji, Nigeria. Bashir Garba fires a musket near Jaji. Bashir Garba fired his musket on the outskirts of Jaji, a village about 20 minutes north of Kaduna Town. White smoke filled the air before dissipating into the trees. Scooping with a bottle cap, he poured gunpowder down the barrel. Scraps from a plastic bag were used as wadding and he skipped loading shot. Bashir used his teeth to tear open a percussion cap, homemade from crushed match heads rolled into paper scraps, before affixing it under the musket’s hammer. 

The experienced hunter refused to shoulder the sketchy musket and instead held it far from his body like an oversized pistol. The musket was built from found objects, and the barrel was only held in place by two hose clamps and some copper wire. Several times the hammer failed to ignite the percussion cap so Bashir kept recocking the gun. But the musket fired most times, and fortunately without a catastrophic failure.

Bashir put the shotgun’s barrel in his mouth and blew inside. His moist, relatively cool breath killed any remaining embers. It was then safe to add more gunpowder, so Bashir loaded and shot the musket again, and then again.

Nigerian Minutemen

Abubakar’s hometown Jaji is a rural community, and like most rural areas it has bands of local hunters. The men prey for bushmeat with traditional bladed weapons and the odd gun. Their game consists of animals like monkeys, rats, rams, and gazelles. Aside from gaining subsistence for their families, the hunters are Jaji’s initial defense against attacks.

Hunters in Jaji pose with their knives.

The military and police are too overstretched to quickly respond to bandits and insurgents in rural areas so hunters organized self-defense militias. Most of Jaji’s hunters volunteer as part of the Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF or JTF) – a decentralized paramilitary that supplements law enforcement. Most hunters in Nigeria’s north and Middle Belt are JTF members. Conversely, most JTF members are hunters.

JTF units started forming in the early 2010s to fill gaps in the army during Borno State’s ongoing Jihadist insurgency. Boko Haram and the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) hide in rural Borno. 

The JTF assists the army by acting as scouts and supplementary fighters while using weapons borrowed from the military. Success in Borno State inspired the creation of other JTF units across Nigeria. These minutemen are first to respond, giving the armed forces time to respond.

Although facing bandits with heavy machine guns, the JTF and hunters are handicapped by Nigeria’s restrictive gun laws. The best firearms available are registered bolt-action rifles, pump-action shotguns, or double-barreled shotguns, however, few can afford armory-built guns.

Most gun owners instead use homemade black powder muskets called Dane guns. These long-barrelled flintlocks were originally traded by Scandinavian slavers and traders. The muskets, recreated by indigenous blacksmiths and updated with the invention of percussion caps, are mostly used as shotguns. Everyone I met called them den guns. 

Jaji’s hunters only showed off one musket. Nevertheless, each man wanted his turn posing with their singular musket. Abubakar posed with it too.

Few fighters have firearms. Most carry two weapons: a wooden club called a gora, used primarily for defense but also for whacking an opponent, and a bladed weapon. The blades are sometimes cutlasses, called takobi, or more common sickle-like weapons called gariyos. The gariyo hooks an opponent’s neck or chops at limbs. Other men carry broad axes. Most hunters forge their weapons from rebar. Blacksmithing is a common skill in West Africa.

Hunters in Jaji pose with their traditional weapons.
A JTF member holds a gora and takobi in Kaduna Town.

Although mostly used for hunting, these antiquated weapons are often used against bandits. Jaji resident Kamal Dan Zuru and his hunting party encountered bandits near Birnin Gwari, Kaduna State. According to Kamal, the roughly 300 bandits thought the 62 hunters were attacking. Bandits fired at hunters with AKs and PKMs. Hunters shot back with muskets, while others postured with gariyos and takobis. Kamal peppered bandits with his den gun, hastily reloading before the hunters retreated. Dozens were wounded on both sides and 20 hunters were killed. The presumably fewer bandit casualties are unknown.

Kamal Dan Zuru holds a den gun similar to the one he fought bandits with.

Kaduna Town’s Joint Task Force

In Kaduna Town Abubakar introduced me to his friend Sani Haruna, a tailor and part-time JTF soldier, who invited us to the Unit Six building. Within the simple, single-room building were seven JTF members. The barefoot men sat on benches against the unit building’s walls. The unpaid volunteers all joined with a desire to defend their community.

Banditry is the main threat in rural areas like Jaji, but there are street gangs in Kaduna Town. Indiscriminate violence made the city unlivable. Competing neighborhood gangs mug citizens, and rob or destroy their homes and stores. Sometimes gangs kidnap or rape people. Those who defend themselves are stabbed or gashed, sometimes killed.

“We have gangster wars. Gangsters who are only concerned about drugs and fame and money – money they steal!” exclaimed JTF State Chairman Shehu (Shiekh) Usman Dantudu. “Sometimes in a neighborhood, in one day, we may find up to ten people dead because gangs fought each other. Just to dominate that area!”

Kaduna’s overwhelmed, and sometimes corrupt, police proved unable to respond. Some neighborhoods today have only about five police officers for upwards of 5000 residents. Police often don’t live in the neighborhoods they patrol, so they struggle to identify gang members who run into different neighborhoods. 

A fed-up populace organized in 2014. Residents formed JTF units to defend against gang wars. Members started patrolling their own neighborhoods, making citizen’s arrests when necessary, and handing detainees to local police.

Kaduna Town’s JTF is distributed through different neighborhoods to react quickly. The nearest unit responds to an emergency. Unit Six falls under the Badarawa-Malali District Development Association, where Shehu Usman Dantudu works as JTF State Chairman. He has led the Badarawa JTF from its 2014 start with just 50 people to its current 30,000 volunteers. “Now we are bigger than the local police,” Dantudu said proudly. 

Shehu Usman Dantudu sits before a uniformed JTF footsoldier.

Gangs raid rivals’ territory while destroying everything and killing anyone present. When a gang comes to an area and attacks, the JTF mobilizes to confront them. Kaduna Town’s volunteers avoid using den guns or other firearms so no civilians are accidentally shot. The JTF fights the gangs with melee weapons.

State Secretary Abdullahi Mohammad Bashir, whose cheeks were symmetrical with three parallel scars slanted toward his nose, sat beside a wooden barrel filled with goras and gariyos. Bashir joined the JTF in 2014, citing his civic duty. “Bandits and terrorism are a threat to our society,” he explained. 

CJTF State Secretary Abdullahi Mohammad Bashir wears a hat showing his membership in the Joint Task Force.

Bashir motioned to one of the gariyos and described a clash between Kaduna JTF and a street gang. 

“With this type of weapon, a [JTF] soldier’s hand was cut like this,” Bashir said while chopping at his left wrist with the other hand. “Cut off. The bad boys attacked the soldier man and they cut off his hand.” Then the JTF captured the attackers and handed them to Kaduna police.

Kaduna Town JTF members have regular jobs when not acting in the JTF; not every volunteer is a hunter. Some members are active or former military or police, such as the current Police Superintendent of Kaduna Town’s Badarawa district Shehu Isman Muazu. 

Badarawa Police Superintendent Shehu Isman Muazu.

JTF members with no military or law enforcement experience, Muazu explained, receive training from the Kaduna Police College. Training improves cohesion between the JTF and the police. The Nigerian Defence Academy, which trains the army, also lectures the militia. 

The JTF also works with the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA), the Department of State Services (DSS), and the Kaduna State Vigilante Group – a similar government-authorized militia.

The JTF also confers with community elders and traditional rulers. Emissaries travel to traditional kingdoms to secure support from local emirs and shehus. While no longer holding legal authority, traditional rulers still command respect and political influence. Some hold JTF positions.

However, Dantudu repeatedly said the JTF strives to be non-partisan. “We are not government officials. If you belong to any political party, once you wear JTF [uniform] you are JTF, and you must be neutral,” he said. “We want people to live in peace and not be harassed. That’s why we refuse to work as government officials. We are a voluntary organization.”

Being removed from state structures has allowed the JTF to police their neighborhoods differently. The armed forces and police are often accused of being punitive and not addressing the causes of crime. 

“The army would come into the communities and begin to beat anybody there, and the police will come and harass you,” Dantudu explained.  

“Just fighting [the gangs] will not solve the problem,” explained Dantudu. “We believe that dialogue and rehabilitation can assist. Bad boys in the communities – they are our own. They live with us. They are our children.” 

Dantudu and other JTF members asked neighborhood Imams and clerics for assistance in reconciling with gang members and reintegrating them into the community. “Delinquent youth” are invited for mediation with elders and clergy. Former gang members regularly hear preaching, and they learn trades such as plumbing, carpentry, salesmanship, or mechanics. Community-led policing and reintegration, where offending youth and JTF members sometimes even know each other, have worked to reduce violence. 

The morning of that March visit, Unit Six received word that a JTF commander named Aeron was killed in a bandit attack the previous night about two hours away in Ungwan Wakili, Kaduna State. 16 other people died and at least two were hospitalized.

According to a Local Government Area (LGA) council chairman in Ungwan Wakili, moveable police checkpoints were removed the prior night – enabling the attack. The Nigerian Daily Post claimed the military also failed to respond despite soldiers being present nearby.

The attack that killed Aeron was most likely retaliation for a Fulani herder’s killing in Ungwan Juju four days before. The Fulani victim was probably killed in retaliation for a Hausa man’s death in Ungwan Juju last February. 

Tit-for-tat ethnic violence ravages Hausa and Fulani communities. Divisions grew as people relocated far from different ethnicities because of “their fear that the other tribes will attack,” explained Dantudu. “Any small crisis and one group will attack the other.” 

Dantudu repeatedly stressed that his JTF units promote ethnic pluralism and coexistence, rejecting ethnic hatred and violent reprisals. The militia maintains cohesion despite being an ethnically-diverse group. 

We don’t do religion in JTF. We don’t do tribalism in JTF,” said Dantudu. We are one big family and we encourage people to live freely. In this neighborhood, you have different tribes, different religions. We must live together now.”

 

Follow more of Collin Mayield’s reporting on his Instagram @Collin_Mayfield. Follow Abubakar’s experiences in the Nigerian Army on his Instagram @Abbakar_Affan. Support reportage like this and stay up to date on merchandise drops by following @QiloTactical.
Collin Mayfield
Collin Mayfieldhttp://linktr.ee/collinmayfield
I am a photojournalist and writer based in Alabama. I focus on conflict, militancy and social movements. I've been on the ground for Black Lives Matter, the Russian Invasion of Ukraine, Puerto Rico's Electricity Crisis and much more.

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