Making Peace with Enemies: Nigeria’s Reintegration of Boko Haram Fighters


In October, I was the first researcher to visit Operation Safe Corridor, a military facility on the outskirts of Gombe, Nigeria, that houses a bold experiment in jihadist deradicalization. At the site, 157 former Boko Haram fighters who laid down their arms and turned themselves in under the government’s amnesty offer are going through a program to reintegrate them back into society.

This program may be the best path to peace, but its potentially fraught nature is clear. Deradicalization of former Boko Haram militants will not succeed if the broader contours of the conflict are not dealt with. Specifically, a wider justice and reconciliation package — one that convinces, prepares, and equips communities to receive former fighters — and sustained pressure from the military are needed.

Just like the ex-fighters, Boko Haram’s victims should receive support to rebuild their lives and livelihoods. Extending the kind of vocational trainings defectors receive at the deradicalization camp to communities and providing trainees with starting capital and/or tools will not only empower society economically, but also reduce resentment toward ex-militants returning home with marketable skills. The government should establish psychosocial therapy and other healing efforts to help communities accepting returning fighters recover from the atrocities they experienced. Informational campaigns to help communities understand why ex-militants are being granted amnesty and what vetting and deradicalization processes they have gone through will help as well. Moreover, to avoid further straining relations between Nigeria’s Muslim and Christian communities, the government must ensure that different religious groups are closely involved and receive adequate representation in the reconciliation process. Finally, some form of community-based truth-telling, justice, forgiveness, and reconciliation mechanism should be instituted. Religious, traditional, and community leaders can play a vital role in this as they are important vectors of communication.

An Ideology-Based Approach to Deradicalization

Boko Haram has brought unspeakable violence, kidnappings and reprisal attacks across Nigeria. The Nigerian Security Tracker estimates that since 2011, more than 50,000 people, mostly civilians, have died and 2.1 million have been displaced, while 7 million need humanitarian assistance. In April 2014, the group gained particular notoriety for the abduction of an entire girls’ school in the town of Chibok.

Today, as part of Operation Safe Corridor — a Nigerian government-funded scheme coordinated by the military — more than 100 government experts including imams, deradicalization specialists, physiologists, social workers, educators, artisans, and drug counselors from 13 government ministries and agencies help ex-combatants shed violent ideas, recover from trauma, acquire basic education, and learn crafts. The idea is to prepare the former fighters for reinsertion into communities. (My visit to the facility was part of field research for a paper Rachel Bryson and I will be presenting on behalf of the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change at a conference on Boko Haram organized by the Nigerian Defence Academy in collaboration with the Victim Support Fund. I had approval of all the institutions involved to carry out this fieldwork. The Tony Blair Institute will also be publishing a policy paper on Operation Safe Corridor’s approach to deradicalization in the coming weeks.)

Operation Safe Corridor clients undergo treatment such as psychotherapy, psycho-spiritual counseling, and art therapy. Imams conduct lectures aimed at refuting Boko Haram’s religious narratives by highlighting Islamic textual authorities that forbid violence. This is intended to reverse Boko Haram’s simplistic narrative, which frames the problem as unbelief (kufr), with the solution a return to a puritan Islamic community, and jihad the only means to that. In essence, Nigeria is implementing a version of Daniel Koehler’s repluralization model of deradicalization, which seeks to repopulate the participants’ worldview by providing alternative religious interpretations.

Nigeria’s approach differs from that of EXIT Sweden or the French government’s deradicalization program, which deliberately exclude religious ideology for a number of legal and practical reasons. These include difficulty in measuring change in behavior, skepticism about the role of ideology in radicalization, and concerns that such an effort may create perceptions of Islamophobia. By contrast, Middle Eastern and South Asian countries such as Malaysia, Saudi Arabia and Singapore, make tackling ideology a central thesis of their deradicalization programs, as Nigeria does.

Operation Safe Corridor also exposes clients to rudimentary vocational training skills, giving participants alternative ways of seeking livelihoods after reintegration. They are asked to choose from carpentry, fish or poultry farming, tailoring or sewing, welding and shoemaking. The program organizers told me such training is vital because it provides economic empowerment, offers clients hope for when they return to their communities, and reduces the chances of recidivism by giving clients a chance to make a living. Many who joined Boko Haram at a young age never had the opportunity to develop employable skills.

The scheme also helps participants overcome trauma. Psychologists and imams seek to treat issues of fear or phobia mixed with religious beliefs or ideology. One of the psychologists said their partnership with imams is helpful because clients raise religious issues that are best handled by clerics, such as questions about the possibility of redemption after committing atrocities.

Fears of Re-Integrating

One of the people I spoke with at the deradicalization facility is a teenager I will call Modu. (The names of teenagers and persons not speaking in official capacities have been changed throughout for security purposes). Now 18, he fought for Boko Haram for half a decade, leading raids on at least 16 villages and rising through the ranks to the position of “general.”

“After what I have gone through here, I would never go back to Sambisa forest,” Modu told me, referring to the territory Boko Haram has been based in since 2009. “I would never harm even a fly again.” It’s difficult to gauge the veracity of self-reported motivations, but Modu tells a story of full reformation. He was excited to tell me that over the past 11 months, he had learned basic literacy, numeracy, and Nigeria’s national anthem. He wrote his full name in my diary with a smile, eager to prove that he is now literate.

Like others at the facility, Modu looks forward to going home. He plans to start a shoe repair shop, a trade he learned here, and go back to school — incidentally, precisely what Boko Haram killed people for doing, for which it earned its name (which means “Western-style education is prohibited.”)

But when I asked Modu whether he thinks his community will welcome him back, his tone became more uncertain. “I don’t know. I have no idea how they would react,” he said. The experts helping Modu, however, know the community is not prepared to accept him. The 95 ex-fighters whom Operation Safe Corridor has already “deradicalized” are still in a “transit camp” awaiting reinsertion, according to an official with the program. The officials who run the facility are proud of the job they have done, saying they are “100 percent” confident their clients have been reformed, but worry about negative public perception undermining their efforts. If the deradicalized militants’ communities don’t believe in the process, how can Nigeria recover from the trauma of its homegrown terror group?

Skepticism of Amnesty

The driver who took me to the camp pointed at a building damaged by Boko Haram’s 2015 attack on the facility, before the program was established. “These marks keep their atrocities fresh in our memory,” he said. “Some think it is a waste of resources while others think it is just unfair to let these folks go without paying for their crimes.”

The pain is perhaps too recent. Victims continue to recount harrowing stories of suffering. “They slaughtered my husband in the market while he was struggling to put something on our table. They left me with five little children … I wished I didn’t survive that day,” a volunteer with a group known as the civilian joint task force, whom I’ll call Maira Bamalum, said with a trembling voice.

The task force is a local self-defense group with as many as 30,000 volunteers who spend most of their days on the road searching vehicles or traveling into Sambisa forest in pursuit of militants, some of whom were their childhood friends. It was formed by youths as a response to the terror Boko Haram waged in communities like Maira’s. She is now the Sector III women commander of the group. Maira is among those in the task force who unequivocally reject reintegration, branding defectors as “spies” or people merely driven from Boko Haram by hunger and harsh conditions. Others in the task force and broader community are more willing to accept these individuals back; some maintain that only members who were taken forcefully should be allowed to return. However, even these members generally maintain that it is too early to reintegrate because the conflict is still ongoing and victims’ lives need to be rebuilt first.

Asked about the deradicalization program, Maira says she doesn’t support it. The government, she says, “is spending a lot of money on them while we are suffering.” With violence still freshly etched into the collective conscience of the nation, victims find it hard to move on. There is little or no psychological help on offer to assist victims who have suffered and witnessed horror over their years of trauma, nor any other government assistance in the form of footing the medical bills of those injured and helping victims that have lost their property and livelihood get back on their feet. Perceived leniency toward the perpetrators of such barbarity feels like an insult to many.

Much of the criticism centers on Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, who reportedly paid Boko Haram millions of dollars in exchange for the “Chibok girls” — a deal some feel only strengthened the group. Although Buhari campaigned on militarily defeating Boko Haram and declared seven months into his presidency that Nigeria had “technically won the war,” he publicly offered the group amnesty if they agree to lay down their arms. Even though Buhari’s offer is a restatement of one his predecessor made two years earlier (which was rejected by the militia), it nonetheless divided the country along ethno-religious and geographic lines. Groups in the north, which is predominantly Muslim and advocated for the policy, welcomed the offer, while predominantly Christian groups in the south, who had always opposed the idea, rejected it, as did a popular southern Nigerian newspaper, the Vanguard. Pastor Bayo Oladeji of the Christian Association of Nigeria said, “Why grant amnesty to criminals who have killed many people? It shows weakness on the part of the government or sympathy for them as being speculated.” Nigeria is almost evenly divided between Muslims and Christians and relations between the two factions have been tumultuous and sometimes violent for decades.



The Importance of Amnesty

Amid such anger and resentment, amnesty is a bitter pill to swallow. But the government may have no other choice. Amnesty for former fighters may need to be part of a comprehensive peace bargain that would include justice for offenders and proper deradicalization processes.

As Alexander Thurston writes in Boko Haram: The History of an African Jihadi Movement, however, no durable solution can be found unless politics — which may at some point involve “trying to talk to Boko Haram” — is brought back into view and confronted. Governments seem to be acting on this advice: France, Algeria, and Mali are alleged to be working towards an agreement to offer Sahel militants, including parts of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, immunity in return for laying down arms. And the Nigerian government’s actions show that it believes amnesty will help clear the path to peace. Explaining the president’s position after the announcement, his spokesperson argued that amnesty would mean “saving lives that are being lost through bombing,” and that the government “will be saving money that we are using to procure weapons so that such money can go into services and infrastructure and welfare of the citizens of this country. It is a win-win situation.”

But explaining this to victims will be hard. “You are asking me to live next door to the murderer of my father and you call that win-win?” said Sharu Dikwa, another member of the civilian task force. “Give me a break. We will kill all of them if they bring them back. … They do not deserve to be treated as humans.”

Dikwa and others justifiably feel that fighters must face retribution and pay for their crimes. But this may be tricky in practice both because of the complexities in the justice system and because, according to my interviews with Nigerian and U.N. officials, there are thousands in detention against whom there is simply no evidence to proceed. While skeptics may argue that the government cannot just release former fighters into communities, it is also difficult to justify their indefinite incarceration. A comprehensive reintegration package is, at the very least, the lesser of two evils.

What’s more, like the dozens of teenagers I met in Gombe, there are thousands of young men and women who were conscripted into Boko Haram. The girls were made into sex slaves, explosive-device manufacturers, and suicide bombers, while the boys were forced to kill in order to live. The chilling story of the Boys from Baga is another haunting example. It is only fair that these adolescents, who have spent years in the group’s brutal grip, be rehabilitated back to normal life before they are reintegrated. Deradicalization, which may in practice look more like rehabilitation, is needed not only because these ex-combatants might have picked up some of Boko Haram’s radical views but also because they have gone through experiences that require trauma counseling. Of course, some of these former fighters may be peddling false narratives of innocence. But that arguably makes the case for deradicalization even stronger, because they have some level of ideological attachment to the group that needs to be treated.

In Nigeria, proper reintegration is crucial given the remarkable extent to which Boko Haram combatants and their victims were integrated into the same communities before the fighting began. I was raised in north-eastern Nigeria, and I have several friends and neighbors who joined Boko Haram. We ate together, played together, and went out together.

Need for Peace

Other conditions for reintegration will also need to be met if deradicalization is to succeed. The first is a basic level of peace and stability. The authorities are right to claim that Boko Haram has been weakened, but the group remains a threat and still attacks vulnerable targets. As Professor Kyari Muhammad, who has written on the group, puts it, “It is going to be very difficult to take them back to the communities when the communities are still being attacked.” He adds, “You don’t do reintegration when the conflict is still on going.” It is only logical that communities will be more amenable to forgiving after attacks against them have stopped. But that doesn’t mean the government should stop trying until Boko Haram is completely defeated. That could take years and many more lives. In the meantime, the fighters who have surrendered can’t stay in transit camps indefinitely.

But this is still likely to require increased military action to totally defeat Boko Haram — a difficult task to achieve against a guerrilla group — and get them to surrender, or at least make it impossible for them to strike communities. Improved surveillance would further seal the group’s supply routes and squeeze it out of the forests in which it hides. This is likely to require additional operations and improved communication among security agencies, as well as between them and communities. It also means more vigorous regional and international cooperation as I wrote in a recent open letter to Nigeria’s president. Cessation-of-hostilities talks, which Nigeria’s Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, has spoken about, should also be pursued.

But even if the precondition of militarily squeezing the group is met or a peace deal is struck, resettling the likes of Modu in their former communities will still require society to feel that justice has been served.

Desire for Justice

“No reconciliation or reintegration effort will succeed without punishing perpetrators for their offences. If justice is not done and people appropriately counseled, any repentant [Boko Haram] member brought back will be executed,” one of the leaders of the civilian joint task force in Borno state warned.

But justice is not straightforward and critical issues need to be resolved. These include delays in the justice system, burden of proof, and capacity on the part of prosecutors already stretched thin by other cases. As a lawyer who practiced in Nigeria for half a decade, I know court proceedings are unlikely to produce results that will satisfy communities.

Other countries have pursued justice while bringing communities some sense of closure. Most striking is the case of Rwanda, where, following the 1994 genocide, the government had to bring more than 100,000 suspects to trial. Under the standard Western-modeled Rwandan justice system, it was estimated it would take over a century to finish prosecuting the suspects. Instead, the country opted for a traditional method of dispute resolution called Gacaca, which loosely translates as “justice amongst the grass.”

Under Gacaca, communities elected local judges to hear genocide cases against suspects in their area. Those accused of planning genocide were tried either in national and international courts. Lesser sentences were often given to convicts who showed remorse, while those who confessed often went home without further penalty or got community service orders. This gave victims the opportunity to learn the truth about the deaths of their family members and relatives and to forgive those who had shown genuine signs of remorse and sought mercy and reconciliation.

The Rwanda model may not necessarily work in Nigeria. But Nigeria could surely look at it and evolve something local.

Challenges to Reintegration

Operation Safe Corridor’s deradicalization curriculum is comprehensive in that it seeks to tackle the fighter’s ideology and initial grievance as well as to help them get over their trauma and learn skills. However, there are several obstacles to success. Saskia Brechenmacher of the Carnegie Endowment has identified five challenges to reintegration in Nigeria, including lack of clarity on who is eligible, lack of clear reintegration strategy and gender mainstreaming. On the issue of eligibility, Operation Safe Corridor officials are adamant that their criteria are clear: The program accepts those who willingly laid down arms and turned themselves in. The gender issue has also been raised and extensively discussed by Fonteh Akum, a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies. As Brechenmacher notes, the program does not handle female participants even as authorities acknowledge there are hundreds of women returnees associated with the group. I did not see any female clients on my visit to the facility, even though authorities with the program say they are making efforts to develop their capacity to treat women participants. There is only one female deradicalization expert on the site.

The Kukah Center has emphasized the need for a human rights-based approach as well as for community involvement throughout the demobilization, deradicalization, rehabilitation and integration of ex-Boko Haram fighters. A significant body of work emphasizes the importance of this sort of transitional justice.

The major challenge is the lopsidedness of Nigeria’s deradicalization and reintegration program. Abuja is investing enormous resources to prepare ex-combatants for reinsertion into communities, but little to nothing is being done to prepare the communities that are expected to receive them. This failure is a major reason why reinsertion has not actually yet occurred for any of the graduates. Deradicalization seems virtually pointless if deradicalized individuals cannot be reinserted at the end of it all.

No department or agency has been mandated to take on this role. Whereas Operation Safe Corridor’s leadership deems reinsertion to be outside its mandate and has tried to get state governments to take up that role, state governments have indicated little willingness to do this. Furthermore, there is currently no plan for how to return non-Nigerian former militants to their countries and communities.

The Nigerian government and its international partners need to articulate and implement a plan of action for this final stage of deradicalization. Operation Safe Corridor says it operates in secrecy for security reasons, but bringing members of affected communities onboard from the start of the process is key to reinsertion. This could be done by inviting political, religious, and traditional leaders of local affected communities to visit the camp, see things for themselves, and report back to their constituents. This, of course, should be done in a way that does not compromise security and safety of the participants, experts, and the facility. Town hall meetings with communities, which started recently, should be sustained and taken down to the grassroots level.

Other countries considering deradicalization strategies could learn from Nigeria’s successes and challenges, particularly immediate neighbors who have suffered from Boko Haram attacks and had their citizens recruited into the group. Niger is currently in the process of passing a law that would define its deradicalization strategy, after which the country is expected to start handling the cases of hundreds of fighters who have waited for years. It is eyeing funding from U. S. State Department for this effort. Cameroon has set up an inter-ministerial community to articulate and implement a deradicalization strategy to deal with its defectors. Chad is struggling with the same challenge.

Each of these programs would be dealing with individuals who were motivated by similar religious doctrines and pushed by similar socio-economic, historical, military, and political factors to fight for the group. Perhaps just as importantly, the affected communities in each country — who may eventually be asked to receive returning fighters — might have gone through similar experiences. They would do well to learn the lesson of the Abuja government’s experience: Deradicalizing former fighters, while a noble initiative, is futile if it is not paired with broader efforts to heal the wounds of the society into which those ex-jihadists seek to reintegrate.



Bulama Bukarti is an analyst specializing on extremist groups in sub-Saharan Africa at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change in London. He has researched Boko Haram in his native Nigeria for a decade and is now pursuing a PhD on the subject at SOAS, University of London. He taught law at Bayero University Kano and practiced as a human rights lawyer and anti-corruption advocate in Nigeria for half a decade.


Image: United Nations photo by Mariam Kamara