For days, frightened residents in small towns between Lagos and Ogun, on Nigeria’s Southwest border with Benin, shared social media posts purporting to originate from violent gangs, threatening to ransack people’s homes.
Rumours swirled that a group of 200 armed robbers were already rampaging through the area. Communities began to form their own vigilante groups, patrolling residential streets armed with machetes and sticks. BBC News reported that on Saturday 11th April, the police received over 300 calls reporting violent crimes, only to find no evidence of any of them when they reached the scene.
“I have not seen a single crime statistic that indicates that somebody was robbed, somebody was kidnapped, somebody was injured,” the Chief of Police told Pulse Nigeria. The entire raid was a hoax, say the police, designed to create confusion and weaken the community – although for what purpose, they haven’t been able to say.
Adding to the confusion, a police spokesman admitted that the police had indeed arrested 142 suspected gang members in Ogun State for “murder, robbery, illegal possession of arms and disturbance of public peace.” Meanwhile, Lagos State governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu has oscillated between claiming The One Million Boys don’t exist at all and claiming the police have successfully “neutralised” them.
Panicked and exhausted, residents are becoming increasingly angry at an official line that appears to be minimising the violence on the ground. Dozens of videos and images have circulated of brutal clashes between vigilantes and men they claim are gang members. Strings of Tweets from the 13th April onwards claimed they could hear robberies or gunfights underway outside.
So why the mixed messages from the authorities? The most likely explanation is the fear that recognising the scale of the threat will trigger unrest in a country already struggling to cope with the effects of the global pandemic.
Locals say attacks by the One Million Boys are not only a real and present danger, but the inevitable outcome of COVID-19 lockdowns that are leaving people hungry and desperate. In Ogun and Lagos, people have even begun calling COVID-19 the “Hunger Virus”.
On 16th April, as hysteria over the One Million Boys threat reached crisis point, it was reported that more people had been killed by security forces suppressing protests than by COVID-19 itself in the two weeks since lockdown was imposed. Unrest has shown little sign of subsiding. On 28th April, 51 construction workers were arrested for protesting the lockdown in Lagos. The suggestion that coronavirus containment efforts could trigger all-out criminal warfare is the last thing President Buhari’s embattled government needs right now.