Since Abubakar Shekau, the longtime leader of Boko Haram, died three months ago, hundreds of members of the sect have been reported to have left the group.
The Nigerian military said over 1,000 fighters of the group and their family members have surrendered and renounced the group’s jihadism in recent weeks.
Separately, the authorities in neighbouring Cameroon also said more than 260 of the group’s members turned themselves in at a deradicalisation centre in the north of the country.
Those who surrendered in Nigeria are mostly women and children, with a few commanders of the fighters such as the group’s top bomb expert and his deputy, Nigerian Army spokesperson Onyema Nwachukwu said in a statement.
On Sunday, the Borno State Government said about 3,000 repentant terrorists were set to be welcomed into communities in the state. PREMIUM TIMES reported how at a meeting of community leaders organised by the state government, the leaders expressed their willingness to welcome the repentant terrorists.
While some of the repentant terrorists were photographed at a ceremony holding placards with slogans such as “Peace is the only way”, experts warn there is more to it than meets the eye. They believe understanding the real reasons behind such withdrawals will be helpful in the push to stamp out insurgency in the Nigerian North-east region.
History of Repentance
This is not the first time members of the terrorist group would surrender in droves since the beginning of the Boko Haram insurgency in 2009. And the reasons they gave have differed over the years.
Between 2014 and early 2015, sustained offensive by the Nigerian military and the Multinational Joint Task Force resulted in many members of Boko Haram laying down their arms.
After the group split into two factions – Jama’atu Ahlis Sunnah lid-Da’wati wa’l-Jihad (JAS) and the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), following the latter’s pledge of allegiance to the Islamic State in 2016 – more than 800 Boko Haram associates surrendered to government forces within three weeks, a research by the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) showed. By the end of that year, over 1,000 had left the group in Nigeria, the report said.
And since the death of Mr Shekau in May, at least 2,122 people associated with Boko Haram have left the group, the ISS research also showed.
Mr Shekau was reported killed or seriously wounded more than five times since 2009, including in official statements by the Nigerian military, only for him to resurface in online videos weeks later to mock such declarations.
His death on May 19, after his group clashed with ISWAP fighters, was however remarkable, security experts say, as it was announced by a rival armed group and confirmed by some of his top commanders.
Even though the circumstances remain murky, it is believed that the split of Boko Haram in 2016 and Mr Shekau’s death in May contributed to the recent mass repentance.
ISWAP appears to be more liberal than Boko Haram in dealing with civilians. The group is said to allow civilians kept against their will by Boko Haram under Mr Shekau to leave in a bid to foster its public image as a de-radicalised movement.
Some Boko Haram fighters who do not wish to join ISWAP are also fleeing for their safety, ISS research revealed.
Government operations aimed at forcing Boko Haram to surrender, are also paying off, Confidence MacHarry, a geopolitical security analyst at Lagos-based SBM Intelligence, told PREMIUM TIMES.
“DSS (Nigeria’s State Security Service) launched Operation Sulhu secretly in 2019, aimed at getting repentant commanders to persuade their colleagues to surrender. Operation Safe Corridor is an initiative by the military to get people under Boko Haram control to repent and join rehabilitation programmes being carried out in a camp in Bauchi. The wave of mass repentance is an indication of policy success,” Mr MacHarry said.
What next for Bokoharam?
The events in May show that the absence of leadership can severely damage Boko Haram but that does not mean the end of the insurgency in the North-east.
“It is important to understand that most of the surrender that has happened in the past few days have been from civilians living under ISWAP control, not necessarily commanders of the group,” Mr MacHarry pointed out.
“The silver lining is that ISWAP consolidation with Shekau’s faction has not gone the way the former would have liked, a glaring indication of the operational losses of the group since Shekau’s death.
“Much of Shekau’s fighters have either been absorbed into ISWAP or have fled the Northeast. Right now, there’s not much fighting going on because of the rainy season which does not allow for large scale military operations,” Mr MacHarry said.
Rehabilitation of the surrendered
President Buhari in March 2018 announced his government’s readiness to accept the “unconditional laying down of arms by any member of the Boko Haram group who shows strong commitment in that regard.”
In July 2020, some “repentant” members of the group in Borno State were “rehabilitated” and given the opportunity to live normal lives.
Many Nigerians, however, criticised this move. For example, the majority of Nigerians who participated in an online poll by PREMIUM TIMES in March 2020 kicked against a proposed bill to create an agency for the rehabilitation of repentant Boko Haram members.
The announcement of the agency triggered outrage and debate across Nigeria. Many said releasing ‘repentant’ Boko Haram militants into the civilian population could be counterproductive.
The reasons for leaving Boko Haram differ in terms of circumstances, survival and desperation. Experts believe many of the fighters left without necessarily disavowing the group’s ideology.
This concern was also raised at the Borno stakeholders meeting on Sunday with the communique emphasising the need for “proper profiling of the repentant Boko Haram insurgents to avoid hasty release of hardening elements to the larger society.”
This, perhaps, is the yardstick used by security forces to rehabilitate ex-associates before reintegrating them into the civilian community.
“Rehabilitation of Boko Haram ex-associates through Operation Safe Corridor pass through Giwa Barracks, the screening and holding facility in Borno State managed by the Joint Investigation Committee. The committee comprises investigators and prosecutors, and determines people’s eligibility for deradicalisation, rehabilitation and reintegration.
“At the camp, high-risk members, including senior commanders, are sent to a pre-trial detention centre,” the ISS reported.
“Moderates, including foot soldiers and mid-level commanders, go to Operation Safe Corridor for rehabilitation. Most civilians arrested during military operations who are proven innocent are released to the state for rehabilitation,” the report stated.
For Mr MacHarry, the security expert, rehabilitation of ex-associates is a tough deal “because communities have been found to be hostile to repentant terrorists.”
“But the important work that must be done is the provision of economic opportunities for both ex-fighters and IDPs (internally displaced persons) with the aim of keeping both busy and reducing the possibility of friction between both, as well as a return to the life of terror on the part of the repentant terrorists.”
To trigger further desertions, Frank Ojo, a security analyst, says, the authorities should follow transparent judicial and rehabilitation processes in dealing with former fighters and their dependents.
What mass desertions mean for fight against insurgency
The Nigerian Army says the recent massive surrender of Boko Haram fighters is causing apprehension within the ISWAP camp.
The army spokesperson, Mr Nwachukwu, said in a statement that the strength of ISWAP was depleted with the mass withdrawal of Boko Haram fighters who they wanted on their side.
Mr Nwachukwu said due to the situation, the terrorist group has resorted to using futile propaganda via AMAQ Terrorists Media Wing to portray the group as still being a potent force in the Northeast.
Following the August 14 surrender of some former Boko Haram fighters and their families, the leadership of the Islamic State (ISIS) reportedly sacked and replaced the ISWAP leadership for failing to sustain the reunification of the group and Boko Haram fighters, after the death of Mr Shekau, PRNigeria reported.
This is further bringing confusion in civilian communities under ISWAP control, a situation security experts say the military should capitalise on to further degrade the terrorists.
“These recent events would boost the morale of the military in the short term but the morality of rehabilitating ex-terrorists would always be a divisive issue in the military, as soldiers had always voiced their disapproval of such plans,” Mr MacHarry said.