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Getting Boko Haram Fighters to Defect
Getting Boko Haram Fighters to Defect
Op-Ed / Africa

Getting Boko Haram Fighters to Defect

Originally published in World Politics Review

Around the world, states locked in conflict with jihadists are trying to devise policies to reintegrate disillusioned militants into society. In Nigeria, a program targeting defectors from the violent extremist group Boko Haram offers a window into the promise and pitfalls of such efforts.

For the past 12 years, Nigeria has struggled to quash a violent insurgency waged by Boko Haram in its northeast. Although a 2015 military offensive put the jihadists onto the back foot, the federal government recognized that it would not be able to defeat the insurgency solely through force. It therefore decided to explore nonmilitary ways to erode Boko Haram and, after the group split roughly five years ago, its two successor factions—which I will refer to collectively here simply as Boko Haram.

In 2016, the government created Operation Safe Corridor to encourage defections from the group by providing opportunities for “low-risk insurgents” who surrendered to reintegrate into society. The Nigerian military runs the program from a repurposed youth services building in the town of Mallam Sidi in northeastern Gombe state. Here, people identified as Boko Haram defectors generally spend six months following so-called deradicalization programs, which include literacy classes, psychosocial support, professional skills and exposure to visions of politics and religion that contrast with Boko Haram’s ideology.

Operation Safe Corridor was controversial from the start. Its launch met with widespread suspicion and a wave of protests in Nigeria, including conspiracy theories accusing President Muhammadu Buhari, a Muslim from the north, of seeking to reward jihadists. Early on, experts like Bulama Bukarti and Vanda Felbab-Brown raised apt questions about the institutional machinery of the operation and cast doubt on the likelihood of local communities embracing repentant militants. Now that more than 800 people have completed the program and returned to society—some as far back as 2018—it is a good time to assess whether those concerns were warranted. That is what I sought to do in a recent report for International Crisis Group, which includes insights gleaned interviews with 23 “graduates” of Operation Safe Corridor.

First, on a positive note, the program has undoubtedly helped people escape from Boko Haram. Many graduates said they had grown skeptical of jihad for a variety of reasons, including the dangers of war, extreme violence perpetrated by the jihadists, the rivalries and inequalities within the insurgency, dim prospects of victory and concern about their families. Hearing of the existence of the program—whether through airdropped leaflets, radio broadcasts or word of mouth—often motivated them to act on their concerns and leave the group. Weary militants needed to know that they had somewhere to go and would not face execution if they turned themselves in. Operation Safe Corridor gave them an option.

Weary militants needed to know that they had somewhere to go and would not face execution if they turned themselves in. Operation Safe Corridor gave them an option.

Those who completed the program are also generally grateful for the experience, especially the psychosocial support, basic education and literacy courses they received during their stay in Mallam Sidi. This may seem counterintuitive, given Boko Haram’s well-known—and often caricatured—hostility to Western-style education. But most of the graduates I spoke with expressed appreciation of the authorities’ efforts to look after them.

Another benefit of the program is that it appears to have enabled most of its graduates to reintegrate into society, despite the difficulty of finding acceptance. Early on, a large group of graduates arrived home in the town of Gwoza unannounced, only to be rejected by their community. But over time, officials learned that with sufficient preparation, families, neighbors and local officials eventually accept the graduates. A few former fighters who had become notorious for their association with the insurgency were unable to return to their homes, but they understand the reasons for this and have found ways to rebuild their lives in the anonymity of cities or in camps for the internally displaced.

As for recidivism, so far, I have documented only one relapse. The case is an unusual one—a very young man who was recruited to join Boko Haram through relatives and who had nobody to come back to after graduating from the program. He returned to the group, but has since reached out to other graduates, saying he has made a mistake and wants out again.

While the program has yielded some good results, it is also in urgent need of improvement on multiple fronts.

While the program has yielded some good results, it is also in urgent need of improvement on multiple fronts. This is an effort that will require coordinated work by foreign aid donors who help fund the program, as well as Nigeria’s civilian and military authorities that are involved at different stages of the program.

One of the biggest concerns is that, in addition to former fighters, Operation Safe Corridor also sweeps up non-combatants or people who were forced to live as passive subjects under Boko Haram’s rule. The graduates I spoke with said the selection process misses these nuances. In fact, according to their estimates, only 20 to 25 percent of those whom they spent time with in Operation Safe Corridor were Boko Haram fighters. The others were awam—Arabic for “commoner”—mainly villagers and farmers who stayed in areas under Boko Haram control to protect or feed their families. When they fled and reached government-controlled territory, these people were treated as defectors and sent to Mallam Sidi rather than being allowed to go free. The program thus needs a more rigorous screening process.

Another problem, which relates more broadly to conditions of confinement in Nigerian detention facilities, is that the process of transporting defectors to Mallam Sidi can be protracted and dangerous—even brutal. Security forces usually take defectors into custody as soon as they arrive in a government-controlled town, and most interviewees mentioned being subjected to abuse, threats and even torture. Screening then takes place at the notorious Giwa Barracks military detention facility in Borno state’s capital city, Maiduguri. International human rights organizations have highlighted Giwa’s horrendous overcrowding and inhumane conditions, including beatings and a lack of food, water or medical assistance.

Even in Mallam Sidi, a site where conditions are considerably better than in Giwa, defectors reported problems, including insufficient food and lack of information about when they would be released, although authorities appear to have taken steps to address at least some of these problems. According to Operation Safe Corridor graduates and other former detainees, the situation at Giwa has improved over time, and several of the most recent graduates told me that Boko Haram defectors are now being separated from other detainees. But more progress is needed, both to ensure humane detention conditions and to minimize the transition period before defectors reach Mallam Sidi.

Furthermore, Nigerian authorities and aid donors should do more to assist the social and economic reintegration of former militants once they graduate from the program and return home. Program managers should coordinate better with local security services and with state authorities in Borno, where the vast majority of Boko Haram recruits come from, to help ensure that those who reintegrate into local communities are welcomed and not harassed by local security services. Donors wishing to support reintegration should follow the lead of the International Organization for Migration, or IOM, which two years ago began providing business kits to Operation Safe Corridor graduates. These kits help them set up small businesses like retail booths, cobbler shops and hair salons. IOM is also working on a plan to distribute kits and offer vocational training to members of host communities, which can help allay the perception among community members that the program’s graduates are being unfairly rewarded for their wayward pasts.

Program proponents also need to invest more effort in public diplomacy, both locally and nationally. Because many Nigerians still view Operation Safe Corridor as a program that rewards “terrorists,” authorities need to better explain the obstacles the defectors had to overcome in separating from Boko Haram and share the program’s success stories. At the same time, credible and well-publicized trials of Boko Haram militants who are accused of major crimes can help demonstrate that the government continues to prosecute the insurgents where appropriate.

With Operation Safe Corridor, the Nigerian authorities have taken a bold step that can usefully complement its military efforts against Boko Haram.

With Operation Safe Corridor, the Nigerian authorities have taken a bold step that can usefully complement its military efforts against Boko Haram. To their credit, they have stayed the course, even when it was politically disadvantageous to do so, and have demonstrated a willingness to listen to criticism. Yet while some early results are encouraging, much more needs to be done. By rallying public support and addressing the program’s shortfalls, Nigerian officials and donors can help it reach its full potential.