In November 2019, more than 500 former Boko Haram members surrendered to the Nigerian military, embracing the recently established amnesty programme of the Nigerian government under its Operation Safe Corridor programme. But Operation Safe Corridor—designed to de-radicalize, rehabilitate, and reintegrate surrendered insurgents—has continued to receive a lot of criticism from the Nigerian public. Many Boko Haram victims as well as members of the Civilian Joint Task Force, who have been instrumental in providing the Nigerian military with the much-needed knowledge of the local terrain in combatting the group, accuse former combatants of wanting to recycle themselves back into society, acting as a Trojan horse for Boko Haram. Certain factions in southern Nigeria have also alleged that the programme is a ploy to integrate former members into the military, only for them to be deployed to southern Nigeria in an effort to increase the number of northern soldiers ahead of the upcoming 2023 elections.
Considering Nigeria’s past history of military interference in the country’s state affairs, and the failure of past amnesty programmes like the 2009 Niger-Delta amnesty programme in reducing insecurity and violence in the state, these claims are not farfetched. Still, the government’s choice to employ strategies that deviate from a solely military response in countering Boko Haram suggests new flexibility and training of the Nigerian military in coping with the complexities of Boko Haram.
Boko Haram has continued to pose a threat to Nigeria, with the group emerging as one of the most active terrorist groups in Africa since its establishment in 2009. The movement’s insurgency has led to the loss of more than 27,000 lives, the displacement of 1.8 million people, and has negatively affected the livelihoods of an additional 7.1 million people as agricultural activities in the North East—the seat of Boko Haram’s insurgency—remain restricted due to security concerns and large-scale population displacement.
Operation Safe Corridor: A Brief Overview
So, what is Operation Safe Corridor? Operation Safe Corridor (OPSC) is an initiative of the Nigerian Federal Government that emanated from a National Security Council Meeting held in September 2015 to encourage willing and repentant Boko Haram combatants to surrender under its amnesty programme. It is part of the government’s efforts to ‘[restore] total peace to Nigeria’s northeast region,’ by instituting non-military frameworks that complement military offensives in order to address the negative impacts of Boko Haram’s activities on vulnerable populations. Interestingly, Nigeria’s approach is similar to the deradicalization programmes done in countries such as Algeria, Indonesia, Pakistan, Singapore, Malaysia, and Saudi Arabia. Deradicalization programmes are intended to provide Islamic re-education to extremist sympathizers in governments’ efforts to persuade ex-combatants that their jihadist interpretation of the Quran is incorrect. These governments thus tackle ideology as a central thesis in their various deradicalization programmes.
In Nigeria, the primary objective of OPSC is to facilitate the easy access and passage of surrendering combatants to security forces for subsequent deradicalization, rehabilitation, and reintegration (DRR) back to society. Although led by the Nigerian military, OPSC is a joint multi-agency humanitarian operation involving other security and law enforcement agencies, 12 federal government ministries and agencies, and multi-national and non-governmental organizations such as UNICEF, the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD) and the Northeast Regional Initiative (NERI). The operation is conducted in tandem with existing international humanitarian laws and is a bold ideology-based approach that focuses on tackling Boko Haram’s religious narratives, as it provides alternative religious interpretations of the Quran to ex-combatants.
Understanding OPSC’s DRR Programme
As part of their deradicalization and rehabilitation process, ex-combatants undergo treatment and therapy, and are exposed to psychotherapy, psycho-spiritual counselling, and art therapy. These activities form part of an effort to provide ex-combatants with appropriate insight into their important roles in society and the nation. In addition, imams and clerics conduct lectures, which are intended to refute Boko Haram’s narrative by highlighting Islamic texts that counter and deconstruct the religious narratives espoused by the group. Boko Haram, for instance, espouses the overthrow of the Nigerian government in order to create an Islamic state under Sharia law, with jihad as the only means of achieving a puritan Islamic community. Counter-narratives are intended to highlight texts that forbid violence so that ex-combatants’ extremist ideologies are transformed to conform to acceptable norms and teachings of Islam. For example, teachings are centred on peace as the defining feature of the life intended for humanity on earth and in the next life, and on texts in the Qur’an that prohibit coercion in religious affairs. Moreover, in nullifying the anti-social ideologies of Boko Haram, ex-combatants are involved in extracurricular activities like sports, to encourage cordial interactions between them and their handlers before proceeding to the reintegration phase of the programme.
The reintegration phase is divided into two stages. The first entails exposing ex-combatants to rudimentary vocation training to enhance smooth transition when they are integrated back into society. Ex-combatants are typically exposed to vocational skills such as tailoring and welding, carpentry, farming, and shoemaking in developing marketable skills that reduce the chances of recidivism. The second stage is the resettlement stage, which entails the transfer of ex-combatants to their state government authorities in accordance with established systems in each state. OPSC additionally engages the services of partner NGOs and traditional institutions to sensitize receiving communities prior to the arrival of ex-combatants.
OPSC Challenges and Implications
Nonetheless, many communities remain fearful of ex-combatants, with some even resenting the Nigerian government for providing amnesty to former Boko Haram members. But granting amnesty to insurgents is not a new phenomenon in Nigeria. In 2009, President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua proclaimed a 60-day unconditional amnesty period for militants in the Niger-Delta, as a step towards resolving the protracted insecurity in the region. The terms of the amnesty included the willingness and readiness of militants to surrender their arms, unconditionally renounce militancy, and sign an undertaking to this effect. In return, the government pledged its commitment to institute programmes to assist their disarmament, demobilization, rehabilitation, and reintegration. And yet, in the North East, presently, communities remain sceptical of former Boko Haram members and whether they are truly repentant. Victims and communities most affected by Boko Haram’s violence have also lamented about the enormous resources provided by the government to assist and support former insurgents, while their needs remain neglected.
Moreover, scholars and security experts have highlighted the programme’s lack of female participants even though Nigerian authorities have acknowledged that there are women returnees associated with Boko Haram. And while certain security experts have contended that Boko Haram members who would typically surrender do not trust that the Nigerian government will follow through with the amnesty programme, the government’s perceived leniency towards ex-fighters has continued to divide the country along ethno-religious lines. Jama’atu Nasril Islam (JNI)—the umbrella group under which all Islamic organizations in Nigeria rally around—for instance, has welcomed the amnesty programme with the Secretary-General of JNI, Dr Abubakar Khalid-Aliyu, noting that the amnesty programme was a good development in achieving peace in the region. In contrast, the Christian Association of Nigeria has continued to describe the amnesty programme as a sign of ‘weakness on the part of the government’.
Furthermore, because OPSC is an ongoing operation, the state has offered very limited information to the public. This limited ‘restrictive publicity’ is intended to safeguard the rights of ex-combatants who go through the DRR process. But misinformation about OPSC’s objectives and how ex-combatants are being reintegrated back into society have continued to impede the reinsertion of many of the programme’s graduates, with many ex-combatants fearing community retributions for crimes committed. Additionally, OPSC’s leadership deems the reinsertion phase as outside of its mandate and has tried to encourage state governments to resettle former members. However, local politicians remain fearful of being seen as sympathetic and lenient towards ex-Boko Haram members, and as a result, continue to do little to build popular support for the OPSC programme or clarify the various misconceptions surrounding it. Thus, there remains no institution charged with the task of preparing communities for the re-insertion of ex-fighters.
As the analyst and Boko Haram specialist, Bulama Bukarti contends, the Nigerian government and its military need to engage in public information campaigns to communicate to north-east communities and the wider Nigerian public why ex-Boko Haram members are being granted amnesty. Such communication will also need to shed light on what vetting and deradicalization processes ex-combatants go through before being resettled in their various communities. Such campaigns, as Janet A. Weiss and Mary Tschirhart posit, can help government officials deliberately shape public attitudes, values, or behaviours in the hope of reaching some desirable social outcome—which, in this context, is OPSC’s reintegration of former combatants into their communities.
To do this, however, campaigns must deliver messages that are clear, credible, and easy to understand. Campaigns also need to be grounded in the diagnosis of the pressures that govern the behaviour of interests in communities affected by the Boko Haram conflict. In this case, communities affected by Boko Haram’s violence have to be part of the DRR process from the start—and not just at the resettlement stage—in facilitating changed behaviour towards former fighters. The Nigerian government must also provide Boko Haram victims with resources and training to rebuild their lives and livelihood. Extending the kind of vocational training defectors receive to victims and communities, as scholars have noted, may help in reducing resentment towards former fighters who return with marketable skills.
Most importantly, the Nigerian government must learn from OPSC’s successes and failures, noting, in particular, aspects of the programme that have been most effective and aspects that need improvement. OPSC will live beyond the war being waged against Boko Haram. But such a reintegration programme must also acknowledge the victims and communities most affected by the insurgency. One way to do this might be for the government to establish a restorative justice body under the National Commission for Rehabilitation. The body would focus on community-based truth-telling, justice, forgiveness and reconciliation measures between victims and former Boko Haram members. Such programmes have worked in South Africa and Rwanda, and may just be the step Nigeria needs in healing and bringing peace to the North East⎈
The information in this article is based on research the author conducted during her time as a Visiting Research Fellow at the National Defence College, Abuja. It is part of her Doctoral Dissertation, which centres on African government policies and strategies in delivering security to vulnerable populations affected by extremist violence.
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