Is granting amnesty to Boko Haram members fair to the Nigerian system?


In 2015, the Nigerian federal government inaugurated an initiative called Operation Safe Corridor, aimed towards rehabilitating and reintegrating repented Boko Haram militias. For years, the activities regarding the programme were either less reported or the programme itself was redundant, until recently when the media was awash with daily news of Boko Haram members repenting and renouncing their membership to the terrorist group.

In the past few weeks, thousands of them have reportedly surrendered. Reports say many repented members have since been rehabilitated and reintegrated through the Operation Safe Corridor programme. The development has, however, generated controversies and mixed reactions in the country and the international community.

Boko Haram is Africa’s deadliest terrorist group and one of the world’s four most vicious. Since its emergence in 2010, the jihadist sect has terrorised the entirety of the Lake Chad Basin region, which comprises Niger, Nigeria, Cameroon, and Chad. The group started its onslaughts in Nigeria and eventually spread to other countries in the region.

In Nigeria alone, Boko Haram fighters have killed tens of thousands of people and displaced millions of people, exacerbating the continent’s refugee crises. It has also crippled the socio-economic activities in many communities in the Lake Chad region. Northeastern Nigeria, especially Borno State, bears the greatest burden of the group’s deadly and frequent onslaughts, being the group’s headquarters and epicentre.

Many communities ruined by Boko Haram rebels are still recounting their losses, with millions of the forcefully displaced persons scattered across various internally displaced persons (IDP) camps in their home countries and many as refugees in neighbouring countries. Reports show that about 2.4 million have been displaced by the jihadists, with tens of thousands of children orphaned, especially in northeastern Nigeria. To worsen the case, the government-owned camps housing the IDPs are neither well-managed nor safe. There have been reports of congestion, hunger, rape, and extortion in the camps. Some of the camps have been attacked by Boko Haram terrorists to further compound the victims’ woes.

Many settlements in the region have lost their ancestral lands to the terrorists, with no hope of regaining them soon. The group’s widespread human rights violations have also rendered millions of school-aged children academically disadvantaged due to regular kidnappings, arson, and murders, which have forced many schools to close on different occasions. This year alone, more than 1,000 students have reportedly been abducted from their schools. Hundreds of them are still held in captivity by various militia groups linked to Boko Haram and operating in northern Nigeria. The abduction is their other way of generating funds for their operations, as they charge families of their abducted victims exorbitant sums for their release. Since the start of the year, about $5 million have been extorted from Nigerians as ransoms for kidnapped persons.

Boko Haram attacks are not limited to the civilian community alone, as its members have unleashed terror on the militaries in all four countries on several occasions. Though their attacks on security outfits started in a hit-and-run fashion, the jihadists eventually became much bolder and started engaging military camps in confrontational battles after growing in members and weapons. In many of the attacks, the group has recorded many gains against the military, which it proudly flaunts on the internet.

A report by the Council of Foreign Relations reveals that Boko Haram fighters have on different occasions overrun fixed military companies and battalions in all the region’s four countries, leading to reported low morale in various camps and resulting in cases of desertion from war fronts. Their activities have also cast a huge shadow of doubt on the military’s ability to protect the civilian communities due to the constant attacks on locals despite the presence of military formations in strategic places.

In Nigeria, families of the slain soldiers continue to suffer the loss of their loved ones, most of whom were breadwinners for their households. Despite paying the ultimate price for their service to the nation, their sudden exit left a huge financial vacuum in their families, who have expressed being neglected by the federal government. Their deaths have led many of their children to drop out of school, created difficulties in putting food on their table, paying house rent, and providing several other basic family needs. The story is the same in the civilian community as the victims continue to grapple with the untold hardships left behind by the group in each attack.

This explains why there has been strong opposition from various quarters against the reabsorption of the Jihadists and the amnesty being granted to them. Loud voices against the programme come from community members who have lost friends, relatives, livelihoods, and properties in the ongoing war, as well as families of slain soldiers. Apart from the pain of still nursing the devastations from the group’s destructive agenda, community members also show widespread suspicion regarding the purported repentance. They doubt the genuineness of the fighters’ intent and are also rejecting the idea of living together with them in the same community. They tend to insist that all violence from the sect will first need to have ceased and their lost livelihoods and properties restored to them. Unfortunately, checks by Immigration Advice Service revealed that the Boko Haram group is still carrying out regular attacks despite the ongoing rehabilitation programme.

In recent times, the rebels have attacked different locations across the Lake Chad Basin region. On 25 August, they killed 16 soldiers and wounded nine more in Niger. Their attack in Chad left 24 Chadian soldiers dead on 4 August. They also killed five soldiers and civilians on 27 July in Cameroon. These continuous onslaughts make many people doubt if the said repented members were sincere in their renunciation.

Boko Haram fighters have also teamed up with other deadly militias to worsen the security in the entire northern Nigeria. The northwest and northcentral geopolitical zones were relatively peaceful in years past as Boko Haram activities were largely restricted to the northeast. However, the other two regions have witnessed incessant unrest from the bandits, hoodlums, and Fulani herdsmen in recent times. Though these groups operate under different names, their activities are similar to Boko Haram and are as deadly. They kidnap for ransom, attack the military and civilian population, and displace people from their communities.

On 24 August, so-called bandits attacked the Nigerian Defence Academy, one of the country’s foremost military schools, killing two officers and abducting another senior officer. Though the government has refused to tag these individuals as terrorists, their modus operandi suggests they are well funded, armed, and pose a great threat to the nation’s security outfits as most terrorist organizations in the world do. In July, they shot down a military aircraft. Findings show that they are working with Boko Haram, and their collaboration dates back several years.

In 2015, one of President Buhari’s campaign promises was never to give amnesty to Boko Haram fighters because that would be “unfair to the system.” Therefore, the ongoing initiative leaves many Nigerians wondering what could have influenced the President’s sudden change of mind, as he is not only pardoning the terrorists but drawing funds from taxpayer money to reintegrate them into the same system they spent years bastardizing.

In the government’s defence, a minister said the purpose of the pardon was to grant a welcoming hand or opportunity to the repentant members to have a “rethink and denounce terrorism so that they could be assisted in different areas of human development,” in the administration’s bid to address the insecurity facing the country. Though the idea may sound good, there remain many questions on the government’s priority order, given millions of the group’s victims still languish in suffering, their properties and livelihoods remain unrecovered, and the terrorists are still ravaging their communities with reckless abandon. Also, the proposed reconstruction plans for the affected locations seem to have been pushed to the backdoor.

Furthermore, despite the ongoing initiative, the incessant armed conflicts by Boko Haram and its allies have recently earned Nigeria a rather distasteful spot on the latest global terrorism index as the third most terrorised country in the world. The financial implication is also huge as the fight yearly draws substantial funds from the country’s budget, which affects other critical sectors such as education and health. In the past six years, the Buhari administration has spent over $19 billion on security, yet the situation worsens.

For more than a decade, successive governments have come up with various moves to curb terrorism, including increasing military expenditure. But many weapons bought with the funds have found their way into the terrorists’ camp, raising the question of fifth column and sabotage from top military and government officials, who are said to be collaborating with the militants for personal, religious, and ethnic interest. Many experts opine that the lasting solution to the crisis is to identify the sponsors of these terrorists and bring them to book. Though there are insinuations that the sponsors are well known by the government, this administration hasn’t really demonstrated any known interest in investigating and prosecuting them. All these explain the widespread suspicion about the purported mass surrendering and the taxpayer-funded reintegration programme, as well as the government’s seriousness to end the crisis.

In recent weeks, around 6,000 Boko Haram fighters have reportedly given up arms, and there are indications that many more will still surrender. For the ongoing Operation Safe Corridor and other initiatives towards the crisis to yield its intended purpose, the military and government officials involved in the fight will need to put their house in order, improve on their intelligence gathering capacity to identify and punish the sponsors, prioritise the welfare of the affected people, and curb the corruption and sabotage within their ranks.

Olusegun Akinfenwa writes for Immigration Advice Service. This is an immigration law firm that offers UK immigration and citizenship guidance to South Africans and other nationals globally.