War on Terror: Surrendered Boko Haram Fighter Speaks

NIGERIA: What Happens to Repentant Boko Haram Fighters?

By Chidi Omeje

Media reports were awash a fortnight ago with stories of how some repentant Boko Haram insurgents attacked a police station in Maiduguri, the Borno State capital, in an attempt to free their colleagues that were earlier arrested over alleged drug offences. According to the reports, the repentant insurgents dressed in military camouflage invaded a police station located at Ibrahim Taiwo street and thereafter proceeded to the Nigerian Immigration Service and NDLEA check points at the entrance to the city and burned them down.

This is not the first time the issue of the so-called repentant Boko Haram members is coming to the limelight, mostly for curious reasons. In fact, if there’s one issue that has continued to provoke divergent opinions among observers of Nigeria’s counter-insurgency operation, it is what to do with the thousands of Boko Haram members who have reportedly laid down their arms, renounced their violent campaigns and surrendered to the troops of the Nigerian military.

As of the last count, about 150,000 members of Jama’at ahl as-Sunnah lid-Da’wah wa’l-Jihad (Boko Haram) including their family members, have come out of their various enclaves in the troubled north east part of Nigeria to surrender to government troops.

This unprecedented number of terrorists abandoning their ‘Jihadist insurrection’ is a significant development in the more than decade-long insurrection which has destablised much of the Lake Chad region. The Boko Haram bloody campaign that started in the north eastern Nigerian state of Borno has left tens of thousands of people, including security personnel, dead and millions of locals displaced from their homes and quartered in the internally displaced Persons’ camps.

But the growing concern around the mass surrender of members of the terrorist group – an otherwise cheery development – which has elicited differing views and reviews both in the media domain and the public space, remains the vexatious issue of what the Government intends to do with the surrendered fighters who have given the country enormous headache. Expectedly, a lot of emotions have gone into the analysis and commentaries around the issue by Nigerians whose anger towards the terrorists is justifiably high.

For some, the surrendered or repentant fighters deserve their comeuppance in view of the magnitude of their bestiality against society. Their argument is that they neither trust the government nor believe the military, which is taking in the ex-fighters and attempting to rehabilitate and reintegrate them back into the same society. They also wonder how the victims of terror activities will process the fact that those who killed and maimed their loved ones and destroyed their livelihoods are walking free, all in the name of amnesty.

On the other hand, some who are more legalistic are of the view that, as a nation governed by laws, the Nigerian government must strictly follow the provisions of law of conflict and other international statuses that support the acceptance of a surrendering or surrendered adversary.

What is incontrovertible though is that if the cold-bloodedness, cruelty and brutality of Boko Haram terrorists towards innocent folks who are minding their own businesses are put into consideration, one would be tempted to recommend summary execution of such vicious ogres. If the stress that our security forces have passed through and the unquantifiable sacrifices a lot of the gallant troops have made over the past decade in the course of carrying out their constitutional responsibility of defending the sovereignty of Nigeria from Boko Haram terrorists and their collaborators are considered, one would advocate the denial of any clemency for the surrendered villains.

If the humanitarian tragedies in the form of dislocation of families, truncation of dreams and rendition of millions of innocent citizens into Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps which the bestial activities of Boko Haram terrorists provoked are reflected upon, you would want to prescribe jungle justice for the surrendered scums; if the humongous resources wasted, properties destroyed and social fabric disrupted as result of Boko Haram violent campaigns in the north east and elsewhere are factored in, nobody will look back before obliterating any of them in sight.

Why Boko Haram Fighters are ‘Repenting’

An interplay of factors is responsible for the unprecedented mass surrendering of Boko Haram fighters, as being witnessed of late. While announcing the surrender of first batch of fighters and their family early in 2022, the then Director, of Defence Media Operations, Maj Gen Bernard Onyeuko (now of the blessed memory), said the development was as a result of intense ground and air bombardment of the terrorists by troops of the Nigerian military and those of the Multi-National Joint Task Force.

According to him, about seventeen hundred Boko Haram fighters and family members surrendered to the troops of the Nigerian Armed Forces. He further claimed that the military’s kinetic and non-kinetic activities have effectively denied the terrorists freedom of action, blocked their logistic and arms supply, denied them respite or sanctuary, and left them no option but to surrender to the troops.

Observers of developments in the Lake Chad region believe that indeed there has been a noticeable momentum in the military’s coordinated offensive posture against Boko Haram fighters and those of the Islamic State of West Africa (ISWAP). Even more pronounced is the synergy between the ground and air troops that has yielded maximum impact in the operation. Experts in the region believe that the intensity of military operations in the last couple of months have greatly degraded the capacity of Boko Haram to the point that they lack the logistical capacity to replenish the fast-diminishing weapons with which to counter the military offensive.

Deadly Rivalry
According to Zagazola Makama, the most credible counter insurgency experts and security analysts in Lake Chad, Boko Haram is almost going extinct as they are relentlessly buffeted by coordinated attacks from the military and lately by their ISWAP counterpart, who they are currently locked in deadly rivalry. The rivalry, which was sparked by the crisis of confidence arising from the perceived erratic leadership of Boko Haram leader, Abubakar Shekau, have seen Boko Haram elements at the receiving end and with bloody noses.

In May 2021, Abubkar Skekau reportedly blew himself by detonating a suicide bomb vest when he was boxed to a corner by the ISWAP fighters led by Abu Mu’ab Al-Barnawy, the son of the late founder of Boko Haram, Mohammed Yusuf who wanted him to surrender. Al-Barnawy would later meet his waterloo in the hands of the Nigerian military. In July 2022, Zagazola reported that ISWAP fighters attacked and killed many Boko Haram members who were fleeing military bombardment in Bama area of Borno State.

“Boko Haram fighters fled to an area in Cingori and Yuwe, an ISWAP territory, to seek refuge. They came in their hundreds, made up mostly of children and women and many of them without clothes or shoes. Only a few of them are holding arms. They have only four motorcycles, with two conveying the Commander. They were mopped up immediately after being sighted by the more formidable ISWAP faction”, the report said.

Denied any form of respite or sanctuary by the sustained military bombardment and now their former comrades, the disillusioned Boko Haram elements are literarily fighting for their ‘life’. As a matter of fact, they no longer constitute the real danger in Lake Chad. Experts believe that Boko Haram will soon have no option than to exit the Lake Chad region, as it has become too hot for them. But the dilemma is where will they go? None of the countries in the Lake Chad region will be willing to have the fighters in their flanks and no community in the region will be glad to offer them any sanctuary.

Hostile Communities
Going back to the communities to live with the people is not a viable option for the battle-weary Boko Haram elements and their family members. The reason is simply that they are not welcome.

With the kind of violent campaigns and mindless atrocities they committed or alleged to have committed against innocent locals, it is impracticable to suggest that they will ever again co-habit with the people in the communities.

Said one of the community leaders in northern Borno, “The people are not just angry with the fighters for the heinous crimes they have committed against the people, they are also angry that the government is carrying them along in whatever programme they are designing for the so-called repentant Boko Haram fighters.”.

People are genuinely enraged by the ‘niceties’ being extended to the villains by the government in the name of accepting their olive branch. They believe that various communities must be carried along in order to understand the thinking and real motives of the government. This ought to have been done before contemplating any amnesty or forgiveness.”.

Retributive justice or restorative justice?

The skepticism and emotions that are running wild among Nigerians regarding what to do with the surrendered Boko Haram fighters are pretty much understandable, but as a retired Group Captain in the Nigerian Air Force who wished to remain anonymous said, “Nigeria is a nation governed by law and the Nigerian military is an institution guided by law and rules of engagement”.

Domestic and international laws, particularly the Law of Armed Conflicts and the Geneva Convention, clearly stipulate that when an adversary surrenders or is injured to such a degree that he is no longer able to fight, you do not shoot at him or kill him.

The law goes on to say that the best you can do is to take them into your possession (more like ‘protective custody’) by moving them out of battle zone. You document them and immediately commence the profiling process by instituting investigations to ascertain the level of their involvement and the level of crime they might have committed.

Certainly, there must be differences in their levels of culpability or blameworthiness in the crime they are perceived to have committed, and as such, those with serious involvement will have to be prosecuted and sentenced up to and including capital punishment if the court so decides. You can do all that, but you shouldn’t kill someone who has surrendered to you, an indication that he is no longer willing to harm you or capable of posing any threat to you. The laws equally state that you cannot withdraw his citizenship and tell him to leave Nigeria. This is what international law says, and as a responsible member of the international community and signatory to these laws and conventions, the Nigerian government and the Nigerian military have no option but to abide by them.

A criminal justice expert, Mustapha Lawal, opined thus: “Let’s get this clear: it does not mean that because they have surrendered, they will automatically be asked to go home and sin no more; not at all. Before they are released or integrated into society, they must undergo a rigorous and calibrated ‘detoxification’ process in the form of de-radicalisation, rehabilitation, and reorientation programmes. I want to believe that if there is any set of people who understand this important fact, it should be the military that has borne the brunt of Boko Haram’s intransigence, including paying the supreme sacrifice by some of its troops”.

The important takeaway here is that the law must take its course for justice to reign and also to engender deterrence to similar criminality in the future. As someone noted somewhere, repentance is no defence in law, nor should someone use their capitulation to the might of the state to buy forgiveness for a heinous act of terrorism.

In effect, therefore, the decision to abide by those laws is never and should never be an indication of compromise or a hint of any ulterior motives on the part of the government or military authorities, as some cynical commentators would have their audiences believe.

Some experts have also opined that the decision to take the moral high ground of operating within the confines of the law of war and decency not only hallmarks the Nigerian military’s “sense of responsibility” but equally strengthens the non-kinetic part of Nigeria’s counter insurgency and counter-terrorism strategy.

“One can only imagine the kind of outrage it will provoke in the media and among the same people who are running with the ulterior motives narrative if the troops were summarily executing those terrorists who decided to turn a new leaf”, says a journalist who supports the decision to abide by the law of conflict.

The dilemma in matters like this is that whatever action you take will always be open to different interpretations.

As Sun Tzu, the Chinese military tactician and philosopher of yore wrote in his classic, The Art of War, “the acme of military skill is to defeat the enemy without firing a shot”. It will therefore fit into Nigeria’s counter insurgency strategic policy if the military wraps up the war on terror in the north east with less gun fire and more of changing rigid mindsets.

Finding Solutions
Despite the unprecedented mass surrender, some experts are of the view that the government and its military must not let down its guards or restrict its response to military action alone. They argued that there is need for a multidimensional response that will address the key drivers of insecurity in the region. These include mass poverty and joblessness occasioned by the prolonged insecurity in the region. Farmers are unable to return to their farms, industries, including small and medium enterprises, are closed down, social amenities are broken, environment are degraded, unemployment is high, and disgruntled youths are roaming around without any form of respite.

The result is that some of these youths, out of frustration and destitution, will find relief in illicit drug addiction; some end up becoming informants to the insurgents for a pittance, while others will out-rightly join up with the terrorists. These are the real issues that must be addressed head-on if we hope to see the end of Boo Haram insurgency in the Lake Cad region.

*Chidi Omeje is the publisher of Security Digest (www.securitydigestng.com) and editor at Zagazola Media Network