Ex-Boko Haram fighters deradicalized, but still unreconciled

Sani Adam
Ibrahim Dubji, a former Boko Haram conscript, sits by his tent house in a camp for displaced people in Maiduguri, Nigeria, on Oct. 27, 2020. Mr. Dubji, banished from his village, has tried to seek forgiveness from his community members with no success.
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For a decade, Nigeria’s military has struggled to stamp out the threat of Boko Haram, the Islamist insurgency that has killed more than 30,000 people. Yet its powers have been significantly clipped, and hundreds of fighters have escaped its forest enclaves.

But what should become of them?

Why We Wrote This

Can radical militants be rehabilitated? Deradicalization is only part of the equation. The rest depends on wounded communities deciding whether to accept them back – and deep, difficult dialogue.

Since 2016, Nigeria has run Operation Safe Corridor, a deradicalization program designed for ex-fighters deemed non-threats. Participants (referred to as “clients”) go through therapy, religious re-education, and literacy and vocational skills training. Hundreds have completed the course, touted as a way to reintegrate repentant fighters. 

Yet it’s vehemently opposed by many citizens, and unclear how many “graduates” have really returned to their communities. Many residents insist they cannot put Boko Haram’s atrocities behind them and heal while living with their attackers, especially as some areas continue to experience attacks.

What is most lacking, critics point out, is support for rehabilitation – especially deep community dialogue.

“Without justice, there can’t be any forgiveness,” says security analyst Audu Bulama Bukarti. And justice, in the eyes of many survivors, has yet to arrive.

When Ibrahim Dubji began the journey home to Gwoza in 2017, he was bubbling over with conflicting emotions.

There was the joy that his daughter was getting married – and the dread of seeing neighbors who had lost loved ones to Boko Haram. Mr. Dubji had fought for the terror sect for years after being conscripted, he says. But in the past few months, he had completed a state-sponsored deradicalization course. He was returning a new man.

The people of Gwoza thought otherwise. At the entrance of the fragile town, devastated from years of raids and brutal attacks, soldiers positioned at the gates arrested and questioned him: Why had he come back? Was he still a fighter? After a night in detention, Mr. Dubji was thrown out of Gwoza, away from his daughter’s wedding, the house he built, and his family.

Why We Wrote This

Can radical militants be rehabilitated? Deradicalization is only part of the equation. The rest depends on wounded communities deciding whether to accept them back – and deep, difficult dialogue.

“They told me I won’t enter even though I provided evidence that I have been cleared,” says a still-stunned Mr. Dubji. He sits on a mat in the camp for people who have been displaced that’s now his home, a city of tents tucked into a corner of Maiduguri, the city at the heart of the insurgency. Mr. Dubji’s face is gaunt, eyes sunken into sockets. “Since I had been cleared I don’t see any reason why they denied me entry to the town.”

Hundreds of former fighters like Mr. Dubji have undergone the government’s course, touted as a way to reintegrate repentant fighters. Yet it’s vehemently opposed by many citizens, and unclear how many “graduates” have really returned to their communities – and how many are floating around northeast Nigeria, unable to go home.

Since 2016, the Nigerian military has run the 16-week course, Operation Safe Corridor (OPSC), in the sleepy northwest city of Gombe, away from the bloodshed farther northeast where Boko Haram factions lay claim. With OPSC, the government hopes to help low-risk defectors live again in the communities they left behind, by teaching them to let go of extremist ideals. The program is also a soft strike at the terror group, an attempt to frustrate recruiting activities and encourage more foot soldiers to surrender.

But to deliver on that promise, critics say, OPSC must reform. Successful reintegration depends on two things: defectors themselves, and the towns being asked to reaccept them, even as they struggle to heal – which will require deep dialogue and cooperation.

“Without justice, there can’t be any forgiveness,” says London-based security analyst Audu Bulama Bukarti, of the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change. And justice, in the eyes of many survivors, has yet to arrive.

From combatants to clients

Over the past decade, Boko Haram’s Islamist insurgency has killed more than 30,000 people and displaced 2.5 million. The Nigerian military has struggled to stamp out the threat, as Boko Haram factions continue to recruit volunteers and capture forced conscripts. But the group’s powers have been significantly clipped over the years, and hundreds of fighters have escaped its forest enclaves.

More than 600 ex-fighters graduated from OPSC by August 2020, with some 2,000 men currently enrolled or being prepped for the course. About 90 child soldiers have been transferred to a separate, shorter deradicalization, rehabilitation, and reintegration program set aside for women and children, run by international organizations including UNICEF.

Once detained, or after turning themselves in, repentant fighters undergo a profiling process and appear before a judicial panel to provide testimonies. The process helps the military determine their level of radicalization.

“Those captured in combat are processed for prosecution, but the ones that have not been ideologically indoctrinated because they were conscripted, they were abducted, are the ones being rehabilitated,” army spokesperson Brig. Gen. Onyema Nwachukwu explained to local media in February. “They call them low-risk combatants. Those do not buy into Boko Haram agenda; they were forced into it. These repentant members have been assisting the military by providing intelligence on Boko Haram activities.”

After being certified non-threats, participants (referred to as “clients”) go through therapy, religious re-education, and literacy and vocational skills training. Mr. Dubji, who learned to make perfumes and soaps, says the last was most important for him. Poverty and a lack of opportunities in the arid region have motivated many men to join groups like Boko Haram. Mr. Dubji’s case is different since he’s a forced conscript, but he says those skills helped him start a small trading business he survives on – though the startup loan that the Borno state government had promised never came.

OPSC’S funding information is not public; an email requesting funding details from the program director, Maj. Gen. Bamidele Shafa, as well as other information about OPSC received no response. In February 2020, the legislature announced a bill to establish a national agency devoted to rehabilitation, though there has been no further deliberation.

Funds for survivors

But OPSC has received major backlash, on everything from its existence to its administration. Many Nigerians say the program diverts much-needed funds to people who do not deserve them amid a recession. Politicians from the states worst-hit by Boko Haram have voiced their displeasure, and there is heavy pressure from civil organizations to abandon the bill and divert funds to survivors.

Sani Adam
Mohammed Buba Dada, a businessman from Gwoza, a village that saw several attacks from Boko Haram terrorists, says the government should resettle former fighters far from his community. Mr. Dada lost his older brother in an attack and is still looking for his cousin.

Nigeria’s northeast, the site of most fighting, faces a looming food crisis, and is home to many of the country’s poorest and least literate communities. Many residents insist they cannot put Boko Haram’s atrocities behind them and heal while living with their attackers, especially as some areas continue to experience attacks.

“Bringing them [ex-fighters] here is very wrong,” says Mohammed Buba Dada, a Gwoza businessman. “They are the set of people that burned our homes, they are the reasons we left our community, and they are the people still being used to kill our relatives, our mothers, our children, our wives, our sons. It’s a good thing the government empowers them, but one thing that’s not fair is bringing them to stay at our side again.”

Gwoza, near the border with Cameroon, is particularly devastated. In 2014, when the sect claimed the area as the headquarters of its caliphate, fighters slaughtered hundreds of people in the public abattoir. Mr. Dada’s brother was killed and his cousin is still missing. The military claims Gwoza is now safe, but many stay back in Maiduguri camps, still fearing attacks – the same camps housing some ex-fighters like Mr. Dubji.

The government has not been transparent enough about the program, muddling an already tense situation, some analysts say. “There are issues around financial transparency and accountability and there’s the lack of an explicit curriculum on what’s to be done at each stage or how to measure impact,” says Mr. Bukarti, a northeasterner himself and one of few outsiders to step foot in the Gombe camp. “You don’t have a scientific way to determine if they are ripe for integration.”

There are also questions about some of the men painted as ex-fighters, points out Murtala Abdullahi, another security analyst from the region, and Mr. Bukarti. Local observers speculate that participants could include some of the thousands of men whom rights groups accuse the Nigerian army of randomly arresting and torturing in the first years of the insurgency.

Others point out that stigma and poverty could drive defectors back to Boko Haram. As for Mr. Dubji, he has no plans to return. What he wants is forgiveness and acceptance. But it may be too late.

“The way they killed and slaughtered people in our community, it’s like they’ll never become like normal humans again,” says Abdullahi Abdullahi, a trader in Maiduguri (not related to the security analyst). “What I will tell the government to do is extend the time of [deradicalization]. Creating another place for them is the best idea. They killed our loved ones. I don’t think we will accept them again in our community.”

Justice, then forgiveness

Yet some observers insist OPSC is crucial and has achieved some level of success. Mr. Bukarti doubts any graduates have fully reintegrated, but affirms that the program can combat extremist ideologies, noting that men he spoke to on his visit in 2018 were eager to read and speak to him in English – the kind of secular Western education that Boko Haram kills for.

Save for continued detentions – or outright extrajudicial killings, for which human rights organizations have hounded the Nigerian military – there are few other options for “solving” the problem of thousands of ex-fighters, analysts say.

“A lot of the pushback we are seeing is very emotional, but what is the security implication of neglecting such people [ex-fighters] who are probably dealing with psychological issues?” asks Tanwa Ashiru, founder of Bulwark Intelligence, which provides defense and security services.

What is most lacking, critics point out, is support for rehabilitation – especially community engagement. Many victims continue to face attacks and languish in camps, without a clear process or funds to help restart their lives. OPSC may re-tune minds, but it fails at reintegration because there’s no agency tasked with preparing communities, Mr. Bukarti points out.

“You need to rehabilitate members of communities, restore livelihoods, and then start discussing with communities if they want some traditional form of justice, forgiveness, and reconciliation mechanism facilitated by government,” he says. “Displaced victims tell me, ‘The government feels Boko Haram are better than us. We have lost everything we have and Boko Haram is given preferential treatment. They are better than us economically. They have been psychologically treated while no one has treated us.’”

Appeasing communities, all three analysts say, will take the military eliminating Boko Haram, firstly. It will take clear communication on the program’s risks, costs, and effectiveness. And it will take counseling, dialogue, and community-focused sentencing to ensure they feel justice is meted out. Survivors care little about evidence in courts, or the fact that ex-fighters probably played minor roles in Boko Haram.

Gacaca courts, used after the Rwandan genocide, may offer lessons, although they faced their own criticisms. Based on traditional models of restorative justice, the courts – whose judges did not need legal training – would oversee confession, assign sanctions, and often prescribe community-based reparations. Ex-Boko Haram fighters could also be sentenced to community service, Mr. Bukarti suggests, such as rebuilding destroyed schools and houses.

Ultimately, if communities don’t want ex-fighters, they should be resettled elsewhere, Ms. Ashiru says.

“There’s a lot of psychological hurt so you can’t do things haphazardly,” she says. “Before bringing these guys back there must be psychological help and you need to seek the community’s blessings. It’s one issue our governments have; they’re not too keen on listening.”

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