MAIDUGURI, Nigeria—Many people in northern Nigeria, frustrated by a five-year insurgency and what they call a
lack of military protection, are ordering rudimentary bulletproof clothing, buying homemade muskets and organizing ragtag militias.
The move toward self protection—born of years of suicide attacks, shooting rampages and mass abductions of girls and boys—underscores what limited
headway the military has made against Boko Haram, the brutal Islamist insurgency whose war against the government has left more than 14,000 people dead in the past three years, according to New York's Council on Foreign Relations.
Deep into the countryside, the black Boko Haram flag flies over a growing sweep of villages, many of them
In April, the group claimed responsibility for kidnapping
more than 200 schoolgirls the night before their final exams, and on Tuesday, local vigilantes said Islamist
militants abducted some 90 more people from northeastern villages. The girls remain missing, despite the presence of U.S. drones, a British spy plane, and Chinese satellites.
Their failure thus far to help rescue the girls has reinforced a belief among ordinary people that they alone can defeat Boko Haram.
So residents here are assembling their own armies. Three closely linked vigilante groups have taken root
here over the past year. They count more than 11,000 members between them. At first, they were equipped with sticks, machetes and table legs. Now they are scaling up, procuring locally made barrel-loaded shotguns cobbled together from car parts and scrap wood. For the first time in recent memory, vendors say there is a shortage of them.
In Maiduguri, Maina Bulama, a 74-year-old bean farmer, stitches thick leather amulets into tank tops customers wear beneath their shirts in the northeastern town. He learned the trade from his father and grandfather, who like him sewed Islamic prayers into the product to curry divine favor. In recent months, customers have arrived in swelling numbers.
"I can't even tell you the number of people I've given these to," said Mr. Bulama.
Officials fret that throwing more arms at the problem will only make it bigger, deepening instability in a country that recently surpassed South Africa as the continent's largest economy.
"This is what we are trying to avoid as much as possible," says Kashim Shettima, governor of Borno, Nigeria's most violent state. In time, he fears, armed militias and vigilante groups could "end up becoming the
Frankenstein monster that will consume us." Nigeria's military spokesman didn't respond to repeated requests to comment. In a statement last year, the military—which has said it is stretched thin policing so many conflicts, criminal movements and rebellions around the country—expressed concern that vigilante groups could be "used to settle scores or witch-hunt perceived enemies."
Kulwa Mesage, a vigilante who bought his musket for roughly $24, says he is saving up for a $175 foreign-made shotgun. "We prefer the pump action," he says.
Nigeria sits along what weapon trackers consider one of the world's busiest highways for arms trafficking, the Sahel. The hardware trafficked here includes homemade pistols, stolen military assault rifles and truck-mounted machine guns likely looted from Libya's inventory after the fall of Col. Moammar Gadhafi.
That abundance of weaponry explains how Boko Haram-once a forest-dwelling group armed with curved swords- assembled one of Africa's biggest arsenals in just a few years.
Today, Boko Haram boasts rocket-propelled grenades, night-vision goggles, armored personnel carriers, plus satellite phones—all brandished in their propaganda videos. Nigerian troops say they communicate by cellphones over patchy networks and some say they lack ammunition.
The army has made moves to curb the gun proliferation, especially in Maiduguri. In recent years, troops here have seized unlicensed firearms and detained craftsmen who make them.
But the feeling of insecurity stretches far beyond Nigeria's north. In the grasslands across the middle of the country, a little-noticed ring of cattle thieves has killed more than 500 herdsmen and taken 60,000 cows
in the past 18 months, the country's cattle-breeding association says. Markets in those areas now do brisk business swapping cows for AK-47s, it says.
In the south, gunmen frequently kidnap prominent Nigerians for ransom, prompting village chief Anthony Ijele, among others, to buy his own shotgun. "Guns have been used to stabilize American society and it is that stability that we want in Nigeria," he says.
Ibrahim Mohammad used to manufacture single-barrel muskets from steering columns and chunks of wood. Then soldiers took him to jail for 30 days, the same crowded, dark prison where they hold Boko Haram suspects. Since his release, he says he has limited his work to repairing weapons: "One has to be very careful." Out in the countryside, Boko Haram has delivered an even-more-brutal sort of gun control: It has decapitated gunsmiths in the rifle-making village of Damboa. The treasurer of a gunsmith's guild, Mustapha Kabuke, understood that as Boko Haram's attempt to send a stop-work message.
But Mr. Kabuke is 90 and has been making guns for eight decades. He simply moved his guild to a nearby
village. On a recent day, his five apprentices were busy assembling their latest pair of muskets. Business has been nonstop since vigilantes starting sprouting up. The old man keeps prices low—$50 a musket—"so that every person will have a gun to defend himself."