Revisiting the faulty ‘repentant terrorists’ narrative


THE military has just dispersed another 594 Boko Haram terrorists and enablers that it claimed to have de-radicalised into society under the Federal Government’s Operation Safe Corridor rehabilitation and reintegration plan. The supposedly “repentant” Islamic terrorists were disgorged from a training camp in the Kwami Local Government Area of Gombe State, the latest in a programme whose efficacy remains dubious. With reports of some former fighters returning to crime, the government should tread cautiously on this path to meet the requirements of justice and avoid unleashing hardened killers on the populace.

There are salient issues to be considered. One is the universal concept of crime and punishment. While the ultimate goal of the modern justice system is to reform deviants, this does not obviate the need for deterrence and punishment for heinous crimes. Another is to rightly distinguish hard-line Salafist murderers on the one hand from fringe players like those providing support for them, and those coerced into terrorism, or family members of terrorists.

More importantly, any de-radicalisation programme must consider the need to provide justice and closure for the victims, the traumatised families, communities, and society.

The scale of the atrocities committed by Islamic terrorists since 2009 is horrendous. During the graduation of the 594 supposedly reformed terrorists, the coordinator of the programme, Joseph Maina, an Army major-general, recalled that over two million people had been internally displaced, and hundreds of thousands others driven into neighbouring countries as refugees.

In the 12 years to 2021 said the Health and Human Rights Journal, 43,000 persons had been murdered, entire communities destroyed, and other horrific human rights abuses such as abductions, sexual violence, forced labour, forced conscription of children, looting, and arson. The Borno State government put the number murdered at over 100,000 by 2019.

Outrages committed by Boko Haram and its spin-offs include the 2014 abduction of 276 schoolgirls in Chibok, and another 110 girls in Dapchi in 2018, massacres, mass destruction of schools, and jail breaks.

UNICEF said 1.3 million children had been deprived of access to quality education, and that 56 per cent of children displaced in Borno, Yobe and Adamawa states are unable to attend school.

While trials have been pitifully few, and convictions even fewer, the Federal Government has since 2015 adopted Operation Safe Corridor “as a non-kinetic multi-agency approach in the support of military actions since 2015.”

Though the government claims it is succeeding, this counter-terrorism approach is provocatively unbalanced. While the de-radicalisation of minor players is pursued as a strategy around the world, there should be dogged prosecution of hardened terrorists and their financiers. Blanket amnesty without trial is unjust, and rewards the killers.

The government and military have been releasing hundreds of the fiends and their families. In March 2022, over 500 were let go. As of 2020, the Nigerian Identity Management Commission disclosed that it had registered about 900 “repentant” Boko Haram members. The Nigerian Army said it rehabilitated 893 ex-Boko Haram members since 2019.

Alarmingly, no due consideration has been given to the fears reiterated by their victims on the acceptance of the so-called rehabilitated terrorists back into their communities; nor have thousands of citizens who have been consigned to the Internally Displaced Persons camps been provided with the adequate  support to fully recover from the trauma unleashed on them by jihadists.

The government continues to misdiagnose the problem. Salafism is an apocalyptic ideology whose adherents are bent on imposing their interpretation of religion on the world, and creation of a global caliphate. Focused on an afterlife of eternal luxurious reward, the Salafist craves death in the service of jihad. Adaptive and tenacious, they can pretend to repent, as the US-led coalition forces learnt in Afghanistan, bide their time,infiltrate the security and civilian establishment, and commit atrocities at an opportune time.

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Meanwhile, under the extant laws of Nigeria, terrorism is a heinous crime, and attracts severe punishment.

Therefore, it is unjust for criminals to be let off the hook under the guise of a “rehabilitation” or “de-radicalisation” scheme.

Media reports of so-called Boko Haram defectors returning to their former ways and spying for terrorist groups are pointers to the dangerous narrative. In March, troops arrested Ba’anaBdiya, a supposedly “repentant” Boko Haram fighter, over a bomb attack that led to the deaths of some soldiers according to Zagazola Makama, a counter-insurgency publication. The suspect, aka ‘Manci,’ facilitated the ambush of the troops to terrorists. A week earlier, it was also reported that two “repentant” Boko Haram commanders, Goni Farouq, and Amir Zabu, were nabbed via phone intercepts planning attacks against troops.

Similarly, in July 2022, some terrorists who were among the 800 persons “reintegrated” into the Bama community, Borno State, planted an improvised explosive device that killed eight persons in the community. The suspects reportedly maintained contact with their former colleagues and were sneaking out of the town to transact business with other terrorists.

Releasing terrorists without trial demoralises their victims, including soldiers, police, other security personnel, and the thousands of people that have been killed in the conflict. Security experts and human rights organisations have repeatedly faulted the programme.  A retired brigadier-general, Sani Usman, told The PUNCH, “… the Federal Government must intervene and set up a committee and critically evaluate them on the basis of their participation in the insurgency. The judiciary must be fully involved.”

The Human Rights Writers Association of Nigeria is unsparing. It insists that “the policy of releasing terrorists back into society after they may have, and indeed inevitably shed blood of the innocent citizens amounts to the highest grade of illegality.”

No other stable country in the world conveys to terrorists the idea that they can kill as many citizens as possible and still gain a reprieve once they surrender; without trial, or censure.

For example, the United States’ Patriot Act increased the penalties for those who commit and support terrorist operations, both at home and abroad. In the United Kingdom, a law has been passed to not only prosecute terrorists, but also to revoke the citizenship of those involved. The Netherlands has also declared that the sentence for an offence carried out with terrorist intent will be harsher than for the basic offence.

This applies not only to people who carry out attacks, but also to those planning to carry out an attack. Italy has stiffened its penalty for terrorist offenders.

The Nigerian government and the military should stamp out terrorist insurgency. Hardened terrorist leaders should be hunted down in kill-or-capture assaults; those caught alive must be prosecuted publicly. Only fringe players should qualify for de-radicalisation, and this only after trial.

Northern state governors, traditional rulers and religious leaders should revoke the penal aspects of Sharia law and engage in mass education of their people instead.

Furthermore, the Child Rights Act should be fully domesticated and enforced, and the provision of social services and rural development programmes should be made a top priority by all the states to boost production and employment. The government should pause the release of terrorists until a thorough evaluation is undertaken. ,

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