Nigeria: Ex-Boko Haram fighters: To reintegrate or not to reintegrate?

Fola Aina
By Fola Aina

Fola Aina is a political scientist and a doctoral fellow at the African Leadership Centre, King's College London. His areas of research interest include peace and security in Africa, grand strategy, governance for development and public policy. He can be reached on Twitter via @folanski

Posted on Thursday, 23 September 2021 12:22

In this photo released by the Borno State government House, Recently freed Chibok School girl and her daughter, left, is welcomed by Borno State Governor, Babagana Zulum, centre, in Maiduguri Nigeria. Seven years after Boko Haram extremists abducted more than 270 schoolgirls in northeast Nigeria, two of the more than 100 still being held by the rebels returned this month, renewing the hope of parents who have all but given up on the long wait for the return of their children. (Borno State House via AP)

Extremist group Boko Haram has wreaked havoc in Nigeria's northeast region for over a decade, and the affected communities should be involved in the reintegration talks.

Following the activities of the dreaded violent extremist group Boko Haram since 2009, which has claimed the lives of over 350,000 people in Nigeria’s northeast region and displaced over 2.1 million, there has been growing concerns about the rationale for reintegrating ex-fighters of the group. The Nigerian military claims that its intensified onslaught on the group has resulted in the mass surrender of ex-fighters of Boko Haram, this account offers on side of the reality which has informed the recent developments across the northeast.

Another account has it that those who have been surrendering alongside members of their families have been doing so at the instance of an ultimatum given to them by the Al-Barnawi led faction of the group which goes by the name Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP).  ISWAP pledged allegiance to Daesh in 2015 following internal disagreements with the Shekau-led faction of the group. This ultimatum comes on the heels of ISWAP’s recent killing of Shekau in May 2021 and the refusal of some of his loyalists to join its ranks.

Concerns about reintegration

As can be understood, Nigerians have raised concerns by questioning the rationale by Nigeria’s military to accept these ‘repentant’ ex-fighters as part of its broader disarmament, demobilisation, rehabilitation and reintegration (DDRR) efforts.

While reintegration programmes such as those aimed at ex-Boko Haram fighters is not new in Nigeria, with Operation Safe Corridor (OPSC) being the foremost of its kind, what appears to be different this time around is the uncertainty around the process itself.

Not very much is known about OPSC to the general public which has contributed significantly towards reinforcing doubts about the efficacy of DDRR programmes in Nigeria.

The initiative which also focuses on former male fighters of the group appears to neglect a crucial demographic, which are the women and girls associated with these ex-fighters. This tends towards the misleading impression that the women are less of a threat as compared to the men.

As the Nigerian military comes under increased pressure, following the protracted cases of insecurity across the country, the need to win the war against violent extremist groups such as Boko Haram and ISWAP is one that has been given utmost priority.

DDDR programmes

The success of DDRR programmes depends on a number of factors, some of which includes transparency and accountability, particularly with regards to state-society relations. Members of the once affected local communities who have had to bear the brunt of the activities of these groups tend to end up subjecting those who have been reintegrated to various forms of stigmatisation and discrimination as they feel they never really change from their old ways.

Beyond these concerns, it is imperative to note that unless underlying conditions which continue to fuel violent extremism such as poverty, inequality, unemployment, illiteracy, corruption, weak institutions and poor governance remain unaddressed DDRR programmes in themselves could be efforts in futility.

An example in view is the Presidential Amnesty Programme which was provided for the ex-militants in the Niger Delta region. While this was responsible to a degree for holding the peace together, the lack of a proper evaluation mechanism means the programmes stands the risk of eroding gains made. In the case of the ex-Boko Haram fighters, the tendency to go back into acts of violent extremism remains high if they are not properly monitored, measured and evaluated.

No doubt, DDRR programmes are complex as several factors need to be taken into account for their success. A more practical approach towards a successful DDRR programme is in ensuring that trust is built between the state and the once affected local communities through the establishment of mutuality.

Making sure that the affected locals who have had to carry the weight of devastation play an integral part in defining the terms of the reintegration process is not only key to its success but is central to providing them with closure which is fundamental to their healing and recovery. DDRR programmes that are not designed in this way run the risk of failure while those which follow this path are set up for success.

At the heart of every successful DDRR initiative is being able to prioritise ‘disengagement’ and ‘deradicalisation’, which are often used interchangeably but are distinct in meaning.

While the former emphasises the need to stop involvement in extremist behaviour, the latter is mostly directed at changing one’s views about involvement in violent extremism.

For the high influx of surrendered ex-Boko Haram fighters to translate into any form of meaningful success, it is not enough that they are disengaged, they must also be deradicalised.

To achieve this goal, efficiently and effectively, as part of a successful DDRR programme for ex-Boko Haram fighters, there is a need for individual-risk assessment for every single one of them beyond a generalised approach. Doing this is crucial to determining the risk factors peculiar to each person which is crucial to evaluating their readiness and suitability for reintegration. This is useful towards shifting focus on the over prioritisation of ideology over individualism. Unfortunately, most DDRR programmes do not give this the priority it deserves.

Bottom line

As Nigeria’s military embarks on the process of absorbing these ex-Boko Haram fighters into a new or existing DDRR programme, it must invest the time and effort required for a robust evaluation process centred on individual-risk assessments.

This is where members of the affected local communities who know some of these fighters long enough might be helpful in deterring their readiness and suitability for reintegration. As violent extremist groups such as Boko Haram and ISWAP intensify their efforts at winning hearts and minds, the Nigerian state must ensure creativity pathways in its approach towards disengagement and deradicalisation. The future peace and security of the country depend on it.

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