It was recently reported that President Muhammadu Buhari’s government has granted amnesty to thousands of repentant Boko Haram members. This development has generated mixed reactions across Nigeria and the world, with many questioning the justification for this action.
In 2015, the federal government inaugurated Operation Safe Corridor, an initiative aimed towards rehabilitating and reintegrating the militias. However, for years, operations regarding this programme were either less reported or redundant until recently when there were frequent reports of the insurgents repenting and renouncing their allegiance to the group. Boko Haram is one of the world’s four deadliest terrorist groups and has terrorized the entire Lake Chad Basin region, comprised of Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon, and Chad, since its emergence in 2010.
In Nigeria alone, its members have killed over 36,000 people and displaced millions of people. The group’s regular and deadly onslaughts have crippled the social and economic activities in many communities across the region, with northeastern Nigeria being the most affected.
Apart from its attacks on civilians, Boko Haram has terrorized the militaries in all four countries. In its early days, the extremist sect’s attacks against the security forces were more of a hit-and-run style, using motorcycles. They started by attacking police checkpoints – the pillion rider would kill officers on duty and escape with their weapons. But with time, they grew in confidence, arms, and numbers and started taking the battle directly to military formations in the region frequently, sometimes multiple times in a month.
Reports by the Council on Foreign Relations show that Boko Haram members have overrun fixed sites of companies and battalions in all four countries in the region, resulting in deaths of tens of soldiers and looting of military materials in many of those attacks. Their attacks were said to have lowered morale in military camps as soldiers sometimes feel helpless watching their colleagues massacred and their weapons stolen. This has reportedly led to cases of mutiny and desertion from war fronts. The insurgents’ activities also brought civilian trust in the military to its lowest ebb.
Many communities they degraded are yet to recover, as millions of forcefully displaced people still living in internally displaced camps (IDPs) across the country and a good number of them as refugees in neigbouring countries. A United Nations report shows that about 2.4 million persons have been forcibly displaced by Boko Haram and tens of thousands of children orphaned, mostly in northeastern Nigeria, which is the epicentre of the conflict.
Unfortunately, the government-run camps accommodating most of them are poorly managed. Congestion, rape, hunger, and other poor living conditions are frequent occurrences in these camps. They are also vulnerable to terrorist onslaughts, compounding the woes of the already devastated and traumatized victims. In Nigeria, Boko Haram terrorists have overrun IDP camps on various occasions, killing and abducting many. While the region has a perennial refugee crisis, the protracted fight has further exacerbated it, with children and women being the most burdened.
Many of the victims have been widowed and orphaned. Some also saw their ancestral lands taken, with no hope of regaining their communities any time soon. Millions of school-age children in the region have experienced academic disadvantage as the incessant kidnappings and murders by the jihadists have forced many schools to close on different occasions. This year alone, over 1,000 students have been abducted in their school premises, with hundreds of them still in captivity. The insurgents have turned the kidnapping into a money-spinning venture and have extorted about $5 million from the affected masses since the start of the year.
Families of soldiers killed by the group have also expressed being abandoned by the federal government. Many of the slain soldiers were breadwinners in their families, which explains why their deaths left a huge financial vacuum in their children and spouse’s lives. Their demise has caused their wards to drop out of school, increasing difficulties in paying house rent, putting food on their table, and meeting other basic family needs. Therefore, it is understandable why many of these victims are kicking against the continuous pardoning and reabsorption of the ‘repentant terrorists’ into the system.
There is a widespread suspicion by community members and the country at large who question the intent behind the insurgents’ repentance. They are not only doubting the genuineness behind it but also rejecting the pardoned terrorists from living together with them in the same community.
Strong oppositions against the ongoing reintegration programme include affected community members who have lost friends, relatives, properties, and livelihoods to the jihadists’ attacks. These victims seem to be feeling that they are considered less important in the scheme of things. They, therefore, tend to insist all armed conflict will first need to have stopped and their properties and livelihoods restored. However, checks by Immigration Advice Service show that despite the pardon, the extremists haven’t stopped attacking.
One of their recent onslaughts was carried out on July 27 in Cameroon, killing five soldiers and civilians. On August 4, they attacked a Chadian army position, killing 24 soldiers. And on August 25, they also attacked a military post in the Niger Republic, killing 16 soldiers and wounding nine more. These continuous, frequent attacks make many people wonder if it is justifiable for the terrorists to be receiving pardon and while at the same time the group is still attacking the countries with reckless abandon.
In addition, the communities in northern Nigeria that were relatively peaceful a few years back have also witnessed a surge in violence, plunging the entire region into chaos. Most of these recent attacks are said to be carried out by the so-called bandits, hoodlums, and Fulani herders who have killed over 7,000 persons in the past six years. Though they operate under various names, their modus operandi is similar to Boko Haram’s, and they have been found to have a strong link with the terrorist group.
An Institute for Security Studies (ISS) ongoing study finds that their alliance dates back years. A 2014 video titled ‘Message to Fulanis’, features the recently reported dead Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau expressing gratitude to fellow fighters in Katsina State and other unspecified places. Also, in June 2020, Boko Haram sent greetings to “fellow fighters” in Zamfara and Niger states. Then three weeks later, the terrorist sect released another video of fighters in Niger reciprocating “greetings” to Shekau and their “brothers” in Zamfara. This sequence of events suggests that Boko Haram has been facilitating its expansion plans for a long time, and the recent surge of attacks have long been premeditated and orchestrated.
While campaigning for office in 2015, one of President Buhari’s electioneering pledges was never to grant amnesty for Boko Haram members because doing so would be “unfair to the system.” But just like many of his pre-election promises, this government has again reneged by not only pardoning the extremists but also reintegrating them with the country’s already shrinking resources.
The government’s reason for the amnesty programme is to give “a welcoming hand or an opportunity to repentant Boko Haram members to have a re-think and denounce terrorism so that they could be assisted in different areas of human development,” as part of its vision to address the insecurity facing the country. While the given reason seems laudable, the government’s priority order regarding the issue leaves many questions begging for answers, considering we still have many victims languishing and feeling uncared for, and the planned rehabilitation and reconstruction plans for the affected areas seem to be only partly true or have been pushed to the backdoor.
Since about two years that the government embarked on this reintegration programme, the general security in the country has gone from bad to worse. The activities of Boko Haram and its cronies have alarmingly increased, earning the country a rather distasteful ranking in the latest terrorism index as the third most terrorised country globally.
Boko Haram terrorist activities have lingered for over a decade. Millions of dollars have also been spent on the war, which yearly takes a toll on other important sectors, such as health and education. In the past 6 years, the current administration has spent more than $19 billion on security. But despite the increasing expenditure, the situation gets worse with each passing year.
This suggests that successive governments’ approaches towards nipping the problem have not yielded desirable results. Many experts have given divergent suggestions views on how to solve the conflict. However, the rallying point has always been to identify the sponsors behind the armed groups and bringing them to book. But there hasn’t been any tangible action towards this. Perhaps, the armed forces need to strengthen their intelligence-gathering capacity.
There are also insinuations of top government and military officials aiding the terrorists for personal, sectional, and religious interests. Deep-rooted corruption seems to be another bane in the fight. In 2015, over $2 billion security fund was reportedly stolen and shared among top government officials.
All these perhaps explain why the jihadists and their allies continue to have a field day and cast a shadow of doubt on the government’s seriousness to end the war. For this amnesty program and other approaches to work, the military and other stakeholders in the fight against terrorism in Nigeria must put their house in order, genuinely see to the welfare of the affected people and communities and curb the corruption within their ranks.
*Olusegun Akinfenwa writes for Immigration Advice Service, a law firm based in the UK and offering immigration services globally, including the US citizenship and immigration application processes.