Releasing Boko Haram into society, by Richard Ali

Over the last weeks, Nigeria, especially that inescapable warren of opinions known as Cyberia, has been inundated with talk about the release of Boko Haram back into society. Preposterous, eh? Indeed. That the power of framing a discourse. At the core of this back-and-forth is something else: the question of what to do with repentant and rehabilitated low-level former Boko Haram fighters and operatives. It is common knowledge that since the start of the insurgency, members of Boko Haram have found themselves guests of the Federal Government in three ways—wilful surrender to troops, being reported to the authorities by members of their own communities and, lastly, by being captured in raids and in battle.

Boko Haram has led an Islamist insurgency against the Nigerian government following the extrajudicial killing of Mohammed Yusuf, the sect’s founder, in 2009. Perhaps informing Yusuf’s killing was the belief of state operatives at the time that his following, numbering in their thousands, who had already clashed with security forces in Bauchi, Maiduguri and elsewhere, would simply disperse if the “head of the snake” was lopped off. In this, they were mistaken. The nature of radicalization the Yusufiya had undergone was simply not understood. This was proven by the arrival of a charismatic leader, the notorious Abubakar Shekau, after a period of hibernation. Shekau quickly mobilized his radicalized membership and they have remained a thorn in the flesh of the Nigerian state for over a decade now; starting from attacks on officials and then soft targets, to the bombing of public buildings, including the UN HQ in Abuja, on to holding territory, splitting into factions, and now carrying out a guerrilla campaign of terror against the State and innocent citizens alike. Clearly, the fuel beneath Boko Haram are the low-level members who are willing to die for the cause. Clearly, these foot-soldiers are ‘manufactured’ through a system of radicalization.

The government’s Operation Safe Corridor (established 2016) is run from within the Ministry of Defence, the Nigerian Army particularly, to deradicalize captured and repentant ex-militants. This operation is part of a ‘hearts-and-minds’ strategy, an attempt to balance military force with soft power tools to end the insurgency. It is also a part of the internationally known post-conflict strategy called DDR—Demobilization, Deradicalization and Reintegration—which is recognized by the United Nations as a way of guaranteeing sustainable and lasting peace. DDR is a recognition that the peculiar threat profile of most countries is one where the ease with which terror can be deployed against innocent civilians renders the achievement of military objectives meaningless to those same civilians. Yet, governments are duty-bound to provide security as a service, under the social contract, to citizens. Stripping away the rhetoric, disinformation, misinformation and perilous incompetence, this is the issue underlying the furore over reintegrating Boko Haram fighters into society.

DDR presents a framework not only for understanding deradicalization but, just as importantly, to evaluate it in Nigeria. DDR is not a linear framework. Therefore, while it is not necessary for all members of armed groups to be demobilized, then deradicalized and reintegrated, it follows that demobilization and deradicalization of individual fighters must be done before they are reintegrated.

The peculiar problem in Nigeria is the proliferation of small and light weapons (SALWs) which has fuelled the insurgency, a problem to which the state has responded mostly with interceptions. The second complication is more serious. It relates to the push-and-pull factors of extremism: poverty, loss of dignity and the lack of opportunity, poor-to-zero quality public services, and educational systems that do not provide a pathway to jobs and prosperity. All these are added to a high percentage of young people with nothing to do and nothing to lose.

Now, putting it all together: Where ex-fighters have been demobilized and deradicalized and released to communities in which larger social problems persist, what stops them from being re-radicalized, re-mobilized and become instruments of terror once again? Without proactive intelligence machinery that completely halts the flow of SALWs into the country, how can the masterminds of the insurgency be denied the tools to maim, kill and terrorize? When ex-insurgents are trained in new skills and perhaps given some grants, in a strategy that sees them as a category of victims and seeks to isolate the leadership of the insurgency, what is to be done with the primary victims of the insurgency? By primary victims, I mean citizens who have lost loved ones, I mean the families of gallant security forces who have fallen in the line of duty fighting Boko Haram. I mean the very fabric of local communities destroyed by these self-same secondary victims? How do these primary victims get justice?

Clearly, something has to be done with repentant and deradicalized ex-insurgents. We cannot export them to the moon or line them all up and then machine-gun them. It seems to me though that the hysteria over the last weeks, powered both by genuine concern and mischief alike, comes from the lack of a clear and widely understood communications strategy within a country where good governance is the exception and incompetence is expected. There does not seem, either, to be the necessary community-level groundwork to see to the reintegration of low-level ex-militants. Where elements of this exist, they have been left to the work-plans of non-governmental organizations, which is not saying much.

What is called for is an all-of-government, all-of-society approach. DDR is most definitely beyond the scope of the Ministry of Defence and the Nigerian Army. If DDR cannot be coherently thought out and administered in an all-of-government, all-of-society manner, with citizens and justice for all victims at the centre, then beyond reintegrating deradicalized Boko Haram members into society, this issue will be yet another example of the government of Nigeria putting masking tape on a body steadily revealing new tears. It simply will not do.

Richard Ali was called to the Nigerian Bar in 2010 and has worked in private legal practice, consulted in a policy-shaping role at the Ministry of Interior (2015 to 2017) and has run a preventing and countering violent extremism (PCVE) programme. His expertise is in soft approaches to PCVE. He is an alumnus of the US National Defence University’s Africa Centre for Strategic Studies (ACSS) and of the State Department’s International Visitor’s Leadership Programme (IVLP). He is also a novelist and a poet.

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