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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.

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.

The government not giving priority attention to the welfare of soldiers at the frontlines

The issue of poor welfare for soldiers at the theatres of operations across the North has been a protracted issue that predates the Buhari administration. Unfortunately, it has persisted to date. On several occasions, soldiers on the front lines have posted videos of themselves lamenting the deplorable conditions at the frontlines online for Nigerians to see. Such situations demoralize the troops, making them unwilling to give their all in the terror war.

The government negotiating with the terrorists

Nigerian authorities at the state and federal levels have at one point or the other negotiated with the terrorists. Governor Nasir el-Rufai of Kaduna State, early in his first term in office, paid off the leaders of armed Fulani militants to stop the attacks in Southern Kaduna. Governor Aminu Masari of Sokoto State and other governors of the northwest states negotiated with Fulani bandits to stop attacks in their domains. The federal government has, on several occasions, held talks with the terror group, Boko Haram, for different reasons.

In all of these negotiations, large sums of money change hands from the government to the terrorists. That is more so because most of the time, the government negotiates from a position of weakness. The government negotiates when the momentum in the battle is with the terrorists. The terrorists, therefore, come to the negotiation table with impossible demands from the government before they cede little ground to it.

The terrorists get the money and retool to unleash even greater horror on hapless citizens.

Another batch of ex-Boko Haram fighters graduate from Operation Safe Corridor

Another batch of ex-Boko Haram fighters graduate from Operation Safe Corridor

That is because the northern Muslims have a strong preference for the religious cum cultural Almajiri education system over formal or western education. In this system, parents send away their young boys between the ages of 5 and 10 to distant towns to live under the tutelage of Islamic scholars known as Mallams. That is perhaps one of the most fundamental enablers of terrorism in northern Nigeria. It was this system that bred the likes of Abubakar Shekau, the leader of the Boko Haram sect.

The government recruiting civilians to fight the terrorists

The federal government's decision to recruit local civilians to fight against the insurgents may prove counterproductive with dire consequences in the long run, even though it might appear to be yielding some level of success in the present. Recruitment into the armed forces follows a rigorous process of training before the recruits can bear arms on the battlefield. There are good reasons for that.

The local civilians that the government recruits to fight against the terrorists do not have the privilege of undergoing any proper military training before they bear arms. That can be a disaster in the making. An untrained man who carries a gun could become a problem to the very community he is required to protect. For one, he may feel that he has the ultimate power to lord it over other residents and become a nuisance to them.

Again, If he is has a criminal mind, he might use the arms to commit crimes. More so, it is very doubtful if the government has thought of preparing these civilian fighters for the aftereffects of a protracted military campaign on their minds.

I feel the government should find better ways to get the collaboration of locals in terror war than engage them to fight the terrorists directly.

Sabotage within the security establishment

There have been several reports in the local media about the existence of moles within the security establishment. Some unscrupulous elements within the officers and the rank and file of the Nigerian Army are sympathetic to the terrorist's cause.

Residents of the communities tell of instances where soldiers escort Fulani Muslim co-residents out just before a terrorist attack.

In a widely publicized incident that occurred in May 2014, some soldiers of the 7 Division of the Nigerian Army in Borno State opened fire on a vehicle conveying Maj. Gen. Ahmadu Mohammed, the General Officer Commanding (GOC) of the Division. The mutinous soldiers had just survived an ambush in which many of their colleagues died.

The soldiers had earlier pleaded to be allowed to return to Maiduguri the following day after a successful operation against the terrorists. But their commander insisted they travel the same night. They ran into a terrorist's ambush midway into the night journey and lost many of the colleagues in the ensuing gunfight. They blamed the commander for the death of their colleagues on the suspicion that someone betrayed them to the enemy. A military court-martial later sentenced 12 of the soldiers to death.

Many more mutinies, similar in circumstances to the one mentioned here, have happened.

The insurgents have sympathizers among locals in the communities they attack

We cannot also rule out the connivance of some locals with the terrorists.

One reason why terrorism initially thrived was that the terrorists readily found sympathizers and collaborators among locals in the communities. Stories abound about how locals spied for the terrorists before attacks.

The reason for such an evil alliance, again, is not unconnected with religious intolerance and extremism. When Boko Haram started and expounded its fundamentalist religious ideologies, it enjoyed the sympathy and support of some Muslims who felt its war was against Christians.

But when Boko Haram terrorists started detonating bombs all over the place, it dawned on everyone that bombs would not identify people by their religious inclinations before ripping them apart. Sadly, the terrorists still enjoy the sympathy of a few hardened elements to date.

Easy access to arms through Nigeria's porous borders

The nation's borders, especially those around the northern region, are very porous. That makes access to arms easy. That easy access to these arms contributes a whole lot to make the insecurity problem intractable. These arms originate from war-torn and highly-militarized Libya and get into the arms of terror gangs through Nigeria's porous borders.

Corruption in the top hierarchy of the security agencies

There are strong reasons to believe that many top-ranking officers of the armed forces are exploiting the conflict for financial gains. They divert monies voted for the procurement of equipment and the welfare of the fighting troops into their private pockets. These profiteers would want the conflicts to continue.

It is the sad reality of the nation's counterterrorism operation. The terror war has become a multimillion naira venture for the top hierarchy of the military. This top brass of the armed forces now owns choice properties in choice locations around the globe.

In July 2019, local media reported that five soldiers from the northwest theater of operation absconded with N400 million in cash. The soldiers were supposed to escort the money to Abuja on behalf of their boss, Maj. Gen. Hakeem Oladapo Otiki, who was the General Officer Commanding (GOC), 8 Division of the Nigerian Army based in Sokoto.

The reports further disclosed that the same set of soldiers had run similar errands for GOC in the past before that instance. Gen. Otiki was leading the counterterrorism operation in the northwest at the time. A General Court Martial found the former GOC guilty of stealing and dismissed him from the Nigerian Army.

The high level of illiteracy among the teeming population of northern Nigerian youths

Northern Nigeria has the highest rate of illiteracy in the whole country. But then again, the high level of illiteracy is a self-inflicted problem. That is because the northern Muslims have a strong preference for the religious cum cultural Almajiri education system over formal or western education.

In this system, parents send away their young boys between the ages of 5 and 10 to distant towns to live under the tutelage of Islamic scholars known as Mallams. That is perhaps one of the most fundamental enablers of terrorism in northern Nigeria. It was this system that bred the likes of Abubakar Shekau, the leader of the Boko Haram sect, and the other founding members of the group.

Most of these Mallams feed and indoctrinate these impressionable young boys with extreme and dangerous religious ideologies that tender age. In their innocence, and without the exposure that western education offers, the boys swallow everything their fundamentalist teachers feed them with as the truth and live by it.

The result of this faulty paradigm is that these boys become easy preys for those who want to cause mayhem in society to manipulate. Unscrupulous politicians would use them to perpetrate violence in their favor to win elections. They also become readily available recruits for terror gangs.

Years of total parental neglect, economic deprivation, and dangerous religious indoctrination combine to harden these boys so much so that they become inhuman and beastly. They kill their fellow humans without as much as a flinch.

Yet another batch of ex-Boko Haram fighters graduate from Operation Safe Corridor

Yet another batch of ex-Boko Haram fighters graduate from Operation Safe Corridor

Factors that militate against the success of the amnesty program, Operation Safe Corridor

Doubts about the effectiveness and thoroughness of the de-radicalization process that the authorities deploy

There is no guarantee, whatsoever, that these ex-Boko Haram fighters are genuinely repentant.

The questions that the Nigerian government needs to answer include one, what variables is it using to screen the combatants to measure the level of threat they pose? This question is particularly pertinent because the basis for selecting those to release is not clear. It is fundamental to the discourse to interrogate this because the reasons why humans do what they do in any given circumstance are not always understood.

For instance, we could ask if the desire for freedom or to access some benefits that the rehabilitation program promises is the only factor motivating the combatants to embrace it, rather than a real change of mind. Again, there are insinuations that some unscrupulous elements in the military conspire with Boko Haram to secure the release of hardened terrorists.

Two, what plans does the government have in place towards ensuring that the former fighters, who are returning into the society, do not end up influencing others with their extremist ideologies or serving as spies for the terror group?

That is because we do not always understand the reasons for human behavior. New impulses could cause a rehabilitated offender to re-offend after release. Conversely, that a rehabilitated offended has not yet re-offended does not necessarily mean he has abandoned extremist views.

Nigerians are very skeptical about the implementation of the program because they are all too familiar with how even well-crafted government policies too frequently fail at the point of implementing them. The implications of such failure are too scary to contemplate. That is why Nigerians all the more apprehensive about the program.

At the core of terrorism are extremist religious ideologies etched on the minds of these fighters by many years of indoctrination. It is, therefore, an uphill task to dissuade a person that has imbibed such philosophies to now accept that everyone has the right to choose their faith. It follows that de-radicalizing or rehabilitating these combatants would take years of consistent de-programming and re-programming of their minds to achieve.

More so, to ensure that the ex-fighters fully reintegrate back into society, there has to be a follow-up program that monitors and engages them after their return to the communities. It is not clear if the Nigerian government's amnesty program incorporates such after-program monitoring.

The ex-fighters only spend a few months in the Operation Safe Corridor program before they are certified fit to return to society. One, therefore, cannot but doubt the effectiveness of the program.

The people's unwillingness to accept the ex-fighters back into the communities and the attendant stigmatization

Because of the fear that these returning ex-fighters may sooner or later re-join the terror group to continue with their lives of obnoxious violent crimes, residents are unwilling to accept them back into their communities.

The returning ex-combatants would face stigmatization from members of society. The pains occasioned by their atrocious crimes are still very fresh in the hearts and minds of people. People would not want to co-exist and interact with them in the same communities.

This stigmatization may eventually make the ex-fighters contemplate a return to the terrorists' camps, where they will readily find acceptance. Besides, the terror group could adopt a carrot-and-stick approach to bring the ex-combatants back into its fold. They would use persuasion, and where that fails, they would adopt threats to get them back.

A senator of the federal republic of Nigeria recently corroborated these fears.

Senator Ali Ndume, a senior ranking All Progressives Congress (APC) senator representing Borno South Federal Constituency in the Senate, validated Nigerian's position on the reintegration of the ex-Boko Haram fighters. His views mirror those of the people he represents. Senator Ndume is also the Chairman of the Senate Committee on the Army.

In an interview with national television, Senator Ndume insisted that it is morally and ethically wrong for the government to pamper ex-Boko Haram fighters at the detriment of their yet traumatized victims neglected in IDP camps. He labeled the move a misplaced priority. He also frowned at the timing of the program, saying the government should have first rehabilitated and given a head start to the terror victims if it was serious about the rehabilitation program.

The senator lamented the fact that the government does not have a follow-up mechanism in place to monitor the returning ex-fighters to ensure that they blend into their communities. He confirmed that some of the ex-fighters were returning to the terror group, citing the case of one of them in Damboa, who killed his father a few days after he returned and disappeared with the father's valuables.

Some others, he disclosed, disappeared from the communities a few days after they returned.

The senator disclosed that he had information from reliable sources that some of them said during the re-radicalization process that they were unwilling to return to live in the same communities with 'infidels' a word they use for non-Muslims. That confirmed he fears of Nigerians that some of these ex-fighters are not repentant after all.

There is a general perception among the majority of Nigerians that the government's Operation Safe Corridor is a scheme that rewards the aggressors while the victims live in dehumanizing conditions. They say that it represents a slap on the faces of victims, some of whom lost entire families to attacks by these now rehabilitated ex-terrorists.

On the whole, the chances of success of the amnesty program for Boko Haram are slim.