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Is the Nigerian Government's Offer of Amnesty to Boko Haram a Realistic Solution to Terrorism?

Ifiok Sampson, a sociopolitical analyst and commentator, writes from Lagos on issues surrounding terrorism in Nigeria.

The government's offer of amnesty through Operation Safe Corridor

In 2016, shortly after taking over the reins of power in 2015, the Buhari government announced amnesty to members of the Jihadist terror group, Boko Haram, who would be willing to lay down their arms in surrender to the state under the Operation Safe Corridor program. The program, a counterinsurgency approach, aims at taking surrendered or captured low-risk fighters through a process of de-radicalization, rehabilitation, and subsequent reintegration into society. Since its launch, the government says it has rehabilitated and reintegrated 1800 ex-terrorists into society in three batches.

Since it launched the program, the government has had to contend with widespread stiff opposition and a barrage of condemnation and criticisms from the majority of Nigerians. The reasons for the strong opposition and dissent are not farfetched. For one, there is no guarantee, whatsoever, that these ex-fighters are genuinely repentant. Nigerians fear that they might re-join the terror group sooner or later to continue their reign of terror on hapless fellow Nigerians.

But the government would not budge as it released the last batch of 601 ex-fighters as recent July this year into the society.

Despite the fears expressed from different quarters, several experts in terrorist conflicts, such as the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, insist that a purely military approach would neither defeat a terror group nor resolve the ensuing problem. They advocate the adoption of an all-inclusive method, involving some level of de-radicalization and reintegration processes.

De-radicalization entails attempting to convince persons who hold extreme and violent religious or political ideologies to change their minds and adopt more moderate and non-violent views. The approach feeds from the supposition that it is possible to engage such persons in a manner that reduces the risk of them going back to committing the offenses they used to before the de-radicalization process.

Countries all over the world, which have had to deal with violent fundamentalist groups, have had to adopt the de-radicalization process, in one form or another, to tackle the menace. For instance, Niger, Cameroun, and Chad have also adopted their version of the process to deal with the Boko Haram insurgency. Somalia set up the Serendi Rehabilitation Centre in Mogadishu to rehabilitate 'low-risk' former members of Al-Shabaab. Northern Ireland adopted the Early Release Scheme to facilitate the conditional release of convicted former terrorists under the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 to sustain the country's peace process. Colombia co-opted former fighters of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia into the government's 'Collective Reincorportaion' peacebuilding program.

However, the answer to the question of whether these de-radicalization programs do work is often subjective because measuring their success at reforming terrorists is not easy as there are no clear-cut parameters for it. The result depends on what metrics one chooses to use for the measurement.

A cross-section of ex-Boko Haram combatants graduate from Operation Safe Corridor

A cross-section of ex-Boko Haram combatants graduate from Operation Safe Corridor

Since it launched the program, the government has had to contend with widespread stiff opposition and a barrage of condemnation and criticisms from the majority of Nigerians. The reasons for the strong opposition and dissent are not farfetched. For one, there is no guarantee, whatsoever, that these ex-fighters are genuinely repentant. Nigerians fear that they might re-join the terror group sooner or later to continue their reign of terror on hapless fellow Nigerians.

Background History of Terrorism in Northern Nigeria

Terrorism in Nigeria, which has its hotbed in the northern part of the country, owes its foundation to Islamic fundamentalist and extremist ideologies. It feeds from the Jihadist ideology that teaches that Muslims should regard people who do not share their faith as infidels that must be subjugated and dominated on all fronts, especially politically and economically.

Centuries before the advent of full-blown terrorism in the country in 2011, the activities of Islamic extremists and jihadists had often created tension between adherents of the two major religions in the country—Islam, and Christianity—sometimes leading to violent confrontations, resulting in many deaths and destruction. In the 16th Century, Fulani Islamic fundamentalists prosecuted a Jihad in northern Nigeria, which led to their conquest of a large part of the region.

Northern Nigeria has not known peace since the emergence of Boko Haram. An orgy of bestial brutality, mindless bloodshed, and deaths has engulfed the region ever since. According to statistics from CFR and UNHCR, about 38,000 persons lost their lives to terrorist attacks. The violence has so far displaced 2.5 million persons have from their ancestral homes in the Lake Chad region.

A total of 244,000 persons have become refugees in their own country, taking shelter in squalid conditions in internally displaced person's camps. Other armed groups have joined Boko Haram to unleash a reign of terror on unarmed citizens in the region. Notable among these armed groups are Fulani militants, locally referred to as Fulani herdsmen and Fulani bandits. There are also splinter groups from Boko Haram.

While Boko Haram rules the northeast, one arm of the Fulani militants operates in the North Central region of the country. It makes incursions into other parts of the country. The other arm holds sway in the northwest region. With all these groups launching regular well-coordinated attacks on the northern region, the conflict has assumed a frightening proportion both in scope and frequency of attacks.

Northern Nigeria has not known peace since the emergence of Boko Haram. An orgy of bestial brutality, mindless bloodshed, and deaths has engulfed the region ever since. According to statistics from CFR and UNHCR, about 38,000 persons lost their lives to terrorist attacks. The violence has so far displaced 2.5 million persons have from their ancestral homes in the Lake Chad region.

Why the problem lingers and appears intractable

The government's lack of sincerity of purpose in prosecuting the war on terror

In 2014, when the military under the command of the former Chief Army Staff (COAS), Lieutenant General Azubuike Ihejirika, launched relentless attacks on Boko Haram terrorists, leading to the death of many of them, some prominent voices from northern Nigeria protested the military action. Incidentally, the current President, Muhammadu Buhari, who was then aspiring to become president, was one of them. He accused the government of the then President Goodluck Jonathan of declaring war on the North.

The northern leaders went further to threaten legal action against the COAS and the government at The Hague for human rights violations.

Buhari famously accused President Jonathan of not treating Boko Haram insurgency the same war he treated militancy in the Niger Delta region of the country. He averred that when youths from the oil-rich Niger Delta region of the country took up arms against the state, the government granted them amnesty and pampered them but refused to extend the same treatment to Boko Haram.

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But in making such assertion, Buhari conveniently chose to forget that the fundamental causes of both armed struggles are diametrically different. While Boko Haram is fighting to establish an Islamic state run by sharia law, the militants in the Nigeria Delta revolted to call the government's attention to the poverty and degradation of the region's land and seas. They wanted the federal government to pay attention to the plights of their area, which generates the largest chunk of the nation's wealth.

Ironically, Buhari rode to power on the assurance of bringing a permanent end to the menace of terrorism. Nigerians felt that as a no-nonsense retired Army General, he had both the courage and the wherewithal to deliver on that promise. More so, when the preceding administration had attempted to negotiate a peace deal with the insurgents, the group had insisted that Buhari must be on the government's delegation, or they would not be part of the peace deal. Buhari bluntly rejected the government's appeal to help with the peace talks, forcing it to collapse.

For the fact that the insurgents had demonstrated such trust in him, Nigerians were willing to entrust him with power in the hope that the Jihadists would listen to his appeal to lay down their arms and end the conflict.

However, as soon as Buhari got into office, he launched Operation Safe Corridor, a program meant to de-radicalize, rehabilitate, and reintegrate repentant Boko Haram terrorists back into the society. Many Nigerians felt that the move was more like a plan to fulfill the Buhari's long-held desire to replicate what the previous government did with the Niger Delta militancy with the Boko Haram insurgency, rather than a concrete plan to end the terrorism menace.

The government is playing politics with the counterterrorism operation

Meanwhile, despite overwhelming evidence pointing to the worsening state of the security situation in the country, especially in the northern part, top officials of the Buhari administration keep making statements that translate to playing politics with the counterterrorism operations.

The administration's Minister of Information, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, first infamously declared that the government had 'technically defeated' the terror group, even when it was evident that the group was waxing stronger and even more sophisticated in their savage attacks on the citizens. The administration has maintained that inaccurate narrative ever since.

The government has been working very hard to change the narrative around the crisis. It says that the conflict is not ethnoreligious, but mere criminality. Some time ago, the Senior Special Assistant to the President on Media and Publicity, Mal. Garuba Shehu, in a statement on the incessant bloodlettings in Southern Kaduna, attributed them to "an evil combination of politically-motivated banditry, revenge killings, and mutual violence by criminal gangs acting on ethnic and religious grounds."

However, one of the northern state governors in whose domain the Fulani militants have been carrying out what could easily pass for genocide or ethnic cleansing would readily take the prize of infamy for being at the vanguard of propagating the government's revisionist narrative.

In 2016, the Kaduna State Governor, Mal. Nasir el-Rufai admitted on national television that he sought out and paid off leaders of the Fulani militants to stop the bloodlettings in Southern Kaduna. He is now adamantly insisting that the atrocious attacks in the area are merely activities of criminal elements, which the media wrongly but deliberately report with ethnic and religious hues.

Sadly, even leaders of the security agencies, whose primary responsibility is to prosecute the counterterrorism operations, have joined the politicians to declare the terror war won prematurely.

The Chief of Army Staff, Lieutenant General Tukur Buratai, on different occasions, has insisted that the security agencies have recorded 'great successes' in the war despite evidence to the contrary.

Meanwhile, each time the government makes such a declaration, the insurgents would respond with brutal attacks to prove that they are yet in operation.

The government's failure to track down and apprehend the big local financiers of the terrorists

For the many years in which the terror way has gone on, the federal government has failed to track down, arrest and prosecute the local financiers of terror groups in the country. That is perhaps one of the most important reasons why the terror war lingers.

Because the terrorists have unhindered access to funds, it is difficult to defeat them. These groups also get their funding from terror-sponsoring nations abroad, especially now that some of them, like Boko Haram, have formed alliances with foreign terror groups. The international standard practice to win the war on terror is to identify the terrorists' sources of funding and block them. The Nigerian government's failure to do that has only helped to prolong the war.

That is one of the situations that call into question the intelligence-gathering techniques and capabilities of the nation's security agencies.

The government's failure to block the terrorist's access to arms and ammunition and military hardware

The government's failure to identify and block the terrorist's access to sophisticated weapons and military hardware is another reason why the war lingers.

For a crisis that has lingered for over a decade, it is reasonable to expect that the nation's intelligence community would have been able to uncover the terrorists' sources of military hardware and the means and channels by which these weapons get into their hands. Such knowledge should have helped them map out strategies to block such channels to stop the inflow of weapons to the insurgents. But that has not been the case, unfortunately.

Nigeria's air, land, and sea borders remain as porous as ever even when the nation is fighting a deadly enemy who gets weapons through these borders. The porous nature of these borders makes it so easy for the terrorists to take delivery of their dangerous cargoes in a manner that tempts one to think that access to weapons is the least of their worries, especially considering the caliber of weapons at their disposal.