The recent graduation of about 600 repentant Boko Haram terrorists and their planned reintegration into society by the Federal Government has again triggered a debate on the appropriateness or otherwise of that move by the government. In this piece, TUNDE AJAJA examines the implications of this for the Nigerian state
The warm reception the Nigerian government accorded repentant Boko Haram terrorists, who have over the years killed thousands of Nigerians, wreaked havoc on the Nigerian state and fought brazenly to shred the sovereignty of this country, is again a matter of serious concern to many Nigerians. This perhaps, is one issue that won’t go away quickly, especially as their co-fighters are still in the North-East, especially Borno State, killing unarmed civilians and Nigerian soldiers alike in droves.
The carnage caused by this dreaded group is (to say the least) terrifying; a situation pushing many Nigerians, including security experts to ask questions about the controversial move by the government.
“It (the rehabilitation and planned reintegration) is a mistake and a very unfortunate circumstance because reality is being stood on its head,” said Ona Ekhomu, a seasoned security expert and analyst. “The perpetrators are getting a soft landing; they are living on government largesse, all in some unproven claims that they have been deradicalized, which we know is not true.
“When somebody commits murder, you keep them in jail for life or you even hang them, yet these people who are beheading others, bombing people, and killing thousands are being given a soft landing. Part of the problem we have is that we don’t have our priorities right.”
Ekhomu, who is the chairman of Trans-World Security Systems Ltd., added, “I totally oppose it and think it’s very inhuman of whoever the policymaker is that came up with the idea they should be rehabilitating those fighters.”
The terrorists, who on their part have shown no mercy on the Nigerian state and its citizens, have not only kidnapped and violated many, including young schoolgirls (turning them to sex slaves and suicide bombers), they have murdered many, beheaded some, executed some openly, burnt some to ashes and turned many children to orphans, wives to widows and men to widowers.
Victims of their virulent attacks have fled for cover in different parts of the country, many are constrained to live a day at a time in camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) while some do not even know if their loved ones are still alive or merely missing, due to the attacks.
For example, on 23 March 2020, the insurgents, some of whom are now being welcomed back into the society they have desecrated, laid an ambush for some Nigerian soldiers and killed about 70 of them in one fell swoop. This is in addition to overrunning military bases and killing troops in several other attacks.
Of the torrent of attacks, the most recent was the attack on the convoy of Governor Babagana Zulum of Borno State and the multiple bombings that killed six persons and left about 27 persons injured a few days ago. Since the insurgency started in 2009, about 100,000 Nigerians are said to have been killed – the number is still rising – while about 2.3 million persons have been displaced.
Meanwhile, with all these, many people have expressed worry that the government is carrying on with the said rehabilitation of the ex-terrorists, in an operation tagged ‘Operation Safe Corridor’. For example, the Chairman, Senate Committee on the Army, Ali Ndume, who represents Borno South Senatorial District, in an interview with BBC Hausa Service on Wednesday, said terrorists never repent. He described the initiative as unacceptable to the people and that government should stop the program forthwith.
He added, “Not that they even apologized to you, they only apologized to the government with the thinking that government has failed and that is why they are being pampered. They (terrorists) are like Kharijites. Many among those released have since run away. They will never repent.” He pointed out that one of the repentant terrorists had disappeared after killing and robbing his father.
Meanwhile, speaking further on the ills of the initiative, Ekhomu, who earned the Certified Protection Officer Instructor from the United States-based International Foundation for Protection Officers, stated that the program was a reflection of misplaced priorities, noting that the country should have learned from what happened to the late leader of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, Ibrahim al-Baghdadi.
He added, “They (the terrorists) have been a great threat to society and they ought to be held. The point is that Operation Safe Corridor is a mistake. It’s a mistake and a bad strategy because they cannot guarantee the outcome or that it would meet the policy objectives. I keep telling them the famous story of (Abu Bakr) al-Baghdadi, who was released in a similar manner by the US military in Iraq. They didn’t know at that time they were releasing a guy who would go on to behead many Americans, Europeans and cause the death of many people.
“Even though al-Baghdadi is in his grave, his hands are still here in the North-East of Nigeria, causing havoc for us. So, what they are doing is recycling the fighters and soldiers would wonder why the government is bringing in these people to fight them again. It’s a nation that fights a war, not the army and that is why we have other institutions. Why can’t the criminal justice system work? You keep them in a place for 6 months and then you turn back and say they are graduating them. What graduation?”
Ekhomu described the program as indefensible, noting that it must have been an initiative of the Boko Haram sympathizers. “Many of the sympathizers have departed from it because they have seen the dangers in this, yet we are still defending it,” he said. “The other day, I saw one very laughable and ridiculous statement that the repentant terrorists have sworn allegiance to the Federal Republic of Nigeria; I laughed and asked if people could be so funny.
“You mean a Jihadi guy swore allegiance to Nigeria, how does that work? They don’t care about you or your authorities; they don’t care about your government, neither do they have any regard for them. This is a very bad policy that should never have been brought in. As of Friday, the war had been on for 11 years and 4 days and here we are. It started July 26, 2009, in Bauchi State; is it not enough already? Killing their leader, Mohammed Yusuf, extrajudicially in July 2009 in Maiduguri is the silliest thing they (police) have ever done.
“You never kill the head of an insurgency; you take him alive so he can talk to his guys. We killed Yusuf but we are faced with Abubakar Shekau. Look at where we are.”
Similarly, a security consultant and fellow, Institute of Security, Nigeria, Mr. Chigozie Ubani, said even though he wasn’t privy to what informed the decision to pardon the ex-fighters, they should be serving different jail terms considering what they were reported to have committed. He explained that intelligence should have been extracted from them to strengthen the war against insurgency. “But I doubt, going by what we have if that was done effectively or convincingly,” he said.
He added, “The decision to rehabilitate and reintegrate them into society is flawed, in my own view, but I wouldn’t know what informed it and I wouldn’t have advised that such measures be taken because these guys would hardly repent. They were indoctrinated and most would still believe in whatever led them into fighting the state. So, they couldn’t have been baptized overnight. It is a big risk and that is not good for the nation.”
Speaking on how this affects the soldiers at the front, he said, “When you look at what is going on, the soldiers are fatigued and demoralized. These people (pardoned insurgents) have in the past unleashed a lot of mayhem on these soldiers and you want them to watch you rehabilitate them and reintegrate them into society. So, what were they fighting for in the first place?
“I have said before that it is wrong for these young men to be in the theatre of war continuously for a period of 9 months, and some of them have overstayed there. The whole thing has taken its toll on the Nigerian defense system. They need some measure of therapy to be sane again.”
In the view of Prof Oni Fagboungbe, a psychologist, reintegrating ex-terrorists into the society is like condoning absurdity, as he noted that when people have fought against the country, killed many people and are reintegrated, it could only serve as motivation to do worse things, knowing they could always come back to enjoy amnesty. He stressed that such rehabilitation and reintegration would be better done when the war is over.
He said, “We are fighting insurgents, the war is raging and every day they are getting sophisticated, and at the same time, you are giving the terrorist reinforcement, motivating them to continue. If rehabilitation will be done, it’s usually when war has ended and the enemy has been defeated; that is when you think of things like that. What it implies is that in this country, our major decisions are influenced by ethnic considerations.
“If somebody is doing something obnoxious to the country, and at the same time you are motivating him, how would they stop that behavior? They won’t. In fact, it becomes a double source of motivation for them. The problem is that the system pampers people who do things that are not in the interest of the country. When you are motivating them, they would continue with that behavior.”
He described as inhuman the move to bring back into the society those who have killed thousands of people and committed serious atrocities. “What the government is saying invariably is that it lacks capacity and willpower to deal with the situation,” he added.
Meanwhile, the Coordinator, OPSC, Major General Bamidele Shaffa, had said in February that the aim of the OPSC was to de-radicalize, rehabilitate and reintegrate repentant Boko Haram members. As of February, Shaffa said since the program kicked off in 2016, 280 ex-fighters had so far graduated and been transferred to their respective states for reintegration into the society. And at another graduation a week ago, about 600 ex-fighters were said to have been rehabilitated, bringing the total so far to about 880 graduates.
At the recent graduation, where many of them were clad in attire with the colors of the Nigerian flag – green and white – the government promised them N20,000 each, equipment to carry out their vocations and a promise to pay the rent of their shops.
Last week, Borno State Commissioner for Information, Babakura Jatau, told Sunday PUNCH that the funds and the starter packs were given to the repentant terrorists by the North East Development Commission, noting that only about 10% of the 601 repentant terrorists were actually Boko Haram members while the rest were those who were abducted and became accomplices.
Prior to the controversial granting of amnesty for these ex-terrorists, however, the National Assembly in February 2020 considered a bill that sought to give the repentant terrorists free foreign education, ostensibly at the expense of the stressed Nigerians they had tormented for years.
Section 5(m) of the bill, sponsored by Senator Ibrahim Geidam of Yobe East, read in part, “(The agency shall) implement programs geared towards rehabilitation of beneficiaries, engage the services of offshore and Nigerian institutions in the pursuit of the educational needs of ex-agitators.”
While the senator defended the bill that attracted severe public criticism, it is worthy of note that there has not been any such robust package for the thousands of victims of the attacks. In the various camps, the displaced persons, mostly malnourished, live in very harsh conditions, while the families of some soldiers who died at the battlefield have at several times complained of neglect by the government.
Apart from the entitlement due to the next-of-kin of slain soldiers, the wives of the fallen heroes thereafter relied on the Defence and Police Officers Wives Association, which is merely an association that largely draws its financial strength from members’ contributions.
Meanwhile, Ndume had also pointed out in his interview that instead of spending money on the former fighters, such should be used to train the victims. He stated, “If there is the sincerity of purpose in this, those in the IDPs’ camps should be trained in various trades and vocations so that they could start life again.”