Redeeming the Seemingly Irredeemable Former Fighters
Rachel Bryson and Bulama Bukarti
The challenge of how to deal with former fighters has never been so relevant. Countries worldwide are debating whether to repatriate individuals who left their home country to join an outlawed terror outfit and pick up arms. There is no clear process to measure threat level, screen individuals, offer fair trials and ensure safety for other civilians. While the debate is regularly in reference to ISIS and foreign fighters, other conflict zones are facing relatable issues and there is much to learn from them. Given it’s a global issue, there has to be global collaboration and learning.
On October 4th 2018, when Abuja’s humidity was subsiding in the late afternoon, we had the rare opportunity to visit Nigeria’s Defence Headquarters to meet General Bamidele Shafa and Colonel BMG Martins, two military officers who are working hard to turn sworn enemies into close friends. They are ultimately in charge of Nigeria’s deradicalisation programme in Gombe, Operation Safe Corridor (OPSC), that engages with surrendered Boko Haram members. It’s a place where those who are globally deemed by some as irredeemable are in the process of being turned around – we went to find out how.
When President Buhari took office in May 2015, he bolstered the military response to Boko Haram by moving the headquarters of armed forces to Maiduguri – the epicentre of the insurgency, reviving an inactive military coalition with Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Benin. The new strategy worked as it put the group on the back foot, dislodged them from the territories they controlled and pushed them into the fridges of Sambisa forest. But President Buhari quickly realised that a military-only approach was not adequate as this can only contain the violence and kill extremists but not extremism. Yes, Nigeria was claiming back the land from the fighters, but not hearts. It was winning the battle but not the war. He therefore, in line with his predecessor, held out an olive branch to Boko Haram fighters. As in the past, Boko Haram did not take it but some of its fighters quickly seized the opportunity.
Upon surrender, these former Boko Haram members go through a process of screening by Operation Lafiya Dole (translating as ’Peace is Must’) where their threat level is assessed. If it appears they are truly defecting and desire a different way of life, they are processed through to OPSC and, from then on, drop the name of terrorists and are referred to as ‘clients’.
On visiting the camp, one could see signs of redemption was occurring. Military guards, teachers and Imams who teach a moderate interpretation of Islam all sat with the clients, who saw them as enemies worthy of death, at lunch, eating off the same plate. Clients engaged actively with English and numeracy lessons, studying the very education Boko Haram killed people for. There are lessons on the national anthem, what it means for Nigeria, how it was established, why the flag is important, what the government does and such like. Most of the clients did not go to school and did not know any of those before they started the course. The gruesome relationship between Boko Haram and the authorities that manifested for many of these clients from childhood was beginning to tangibly erode as they were sharing food and showing kindness. Experts we interviewed on ground in Gombe north-eastern Nigeria echoed Martins’ confidence. They are “100” confident that their clients are reformed. Nigeria focuses on the ideology on which Boko Haram thrives but did not loose sight of socio-economic push and pull factors. Nor did it ignore post-exit trauma of participating in and witnessing horror for years.
Not only are there educational skills instilled in these clients, something that is scarce in northeast Nigeria, but there is vocational training as well. The clients have a choice of vocational training that will be easily transferrable to their region when they return to society. Leather shoe making, fishing, poultry farming, welding and sewing are amongst the list on offer. This is intended to economically empower clients, who did not have employable skills, and enable them to earn a livelihood upon reinsertion. On graduation from camp, each client receives two pairs of crafted shoes and clothes to take back to normal life.
Now, by no means is this scheme perfect. There is tangible change and the influence on all these individuals’ lives is inspirational. But there is still ample room to grow. Firstly, the vast majority of clients at OPSC are male. There were reports of three or four women having attended the camp over a year ago but soon being taken elsewhere due to the male-dominated environment. OPSC may not be the prime location for women, in fact at the moment it isn’t due to the lack of adequate facilities for women, but Boko Haram is renowned for female participation across a whole host of roles. If women are active in the group, and an amnesty is offered to all Boko Haram members, there must be a gender-sensitive deradicalisation programme.
Just because there are imperfections with a deradicalization camp, it does not make it a failure. In fact, Nigeria is courageous in its approach and has taken strides beyond many countries in its steps towards restoring the lives of those who have left violent and extreme groups. These lessons learnt need to be shared with other countries struggling with related issues. Violent extremism is a global challenge. It transcends borders and languages, yet too often governments remain in silos. For the countries in the Lake Chad Basin in particular – Chad, Cameroon and Niger – the lessons from Nigeria are particularly pertinent given the regional conflict. These countries are in the nascent stages of designing a response to jihadi extremism and we urge them to take a leaf from Nigeria, sidestep making unnecessary mistakes, and fast tracking into inheriting Nigeria’s experience.