There are important takeaways from the United Nations Secretary General’s visit to the Sahel this week. Mr Antonio Guterres first visited Senegal, whose president is the current chairperson of the African Union. That visit would have been a non-issue under normal circumstances but Senegal’s location in Africa’s Sahel is unique for the very reason that it is the most notable stable democracy in a region infested with political instability, violence, climate change-induced resource-based conflicts as well as other problems that have coloured the region which is now known as the Coup Belt of Africa, owing to the rise of hostile military takeovers of democratically elected governments in Mali, Guinea and Burkina Faso.
Particularly interesting is Mr Guterres’ visit to Niger and Nigeria, two countries reeling from the effects of over a decade of cross-national insurgency by Boko Haram that has set off a chain of events with templates for other armed groups to work on. In Nigeria, he stated that he fully supports moves to expand facilities to reintegrate surrendering ex Boko Haram fighters in northeastern Nigeria because it is a key step to achieving peace. As part of efforts to end the conflict, the government is reintegrating fighters who voluntarily surrender. Borno Governor Babagana Zulum said at least 40,000 Boko Haram fighters and their families have turned themselves into authorities since last year, as the group reels from the death of its leader early in 2021 and as rival ISWAP seeks to absorb them. The state government December started closing some camps for internally displaced people, citing improved security and the surrender of Boko Haram fighters but there is more than meets the eye.
It is important to fully interrogate the Controversies that have surrounded these two issues–the surrender and reintegration of repentant fighters, and the resettlement of internally displaced people in the communities they fled from. The lack of broad support given to both initiatives is telling and is important to note because of how it may damage both initiatives. Among the prominent critics of the first initiative is Borno Governor Prof Babagana Zulum who about a year ago, told a North East governor’s forum meeting that the reintegration programme aka Operation Safe Corridor which the military launched six years ago is simply not working, as the so-called repentant fighters “only come to spy on communities and then return to join the group. ” In his words, “It has been confirmed that the concept of deradicalisation or Safe Corridor is not working as expected. Quite often, those who have passed through the Safe Corridor initiative, or have been deradicalised, usually, go back and rejoin the terror group after carefully studying the various security arrangements in their host communities, during the reintegration process.”
So far, despite a glaring lack of faith in the process and notable friction between the governor’s office and the military especially in Borno, the differences are yet to blow over as both institutions–the Borno state government and the military–are focused on their assignments: the state government with its IDP resettlement scheme and the military with its repentant fighters reintegration programme. One wonders how soon these parallels would meet. Will it happen when the resettled displaced persons are attacked by people who the military regard as ex-fighters? Or will it happen when Zulum’s fears are realised and the so-called repentant fighters are used to stage more attacks which may trigger another wave of displacement?
In March, about 559 students of Operation Safe Corridor graduated from the government’s deradicalisation programme, joining the over a thousand fighters that have graduated from the scheme since 2016. The details of the government’s plan for their reintegration into society remain scanty, if not non-existent. According to policy statements by senior officials involved in the process, the goal has been to reintegrate them into communities where they are originally from. Let’s assume for instance that one of the graduates is from Katakauri or Pemi towns in Chibok Local government area in Borno. He returns to his community with a lot of hostile reactions from the people he grew up with. A few days later, Boko Haram attacks his village. He may not necessarily be a spy for the group as Zulum has alleged but the distrust his community will have for him will most likely not end. It even makes it worse if the reintegrated soldier has absolutely nothing to do with the skills he’s been said to have learnt during his time in detention. There have been reports of ex-fighters returning to the Boko Haram fold because of idleness as ISWAP promised them better jobs. There has been no plan to address these concerns.
Even more, worrying beyond these is the safety of the said communities the displaced people would be returning to. Despite concerns, the state government forged ahead with plans to close camps but this is not a counterterrorism policy. It’s a hasty government decision that is hardly rooted in reality.
A successful counterinsurgency strategy takes into account the cost of policy actions and takes steps to mitigate the fallout. The resettlement of refugees and/or displaced persons is usually done at the last stages of a counterinsurgency plan, not right in the middle of it. Both state and federal governments have run out of patience and resources set aside to run such camps and donor funds from international aid organisations look set to dry up as new active war zones open in places like Ukraine among others and as such, it is important that the government read the writing on the wall. This is very understandable. But one can only wonder with the best hope possible that this policy is done with a calibration of the costs involved, with a fallback option if shit hits the fan.