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An ‘Innocent’ Detainee’s Journey Through Deradicalisation

Bukar thinks the deradicalisation programme was almost like a mind game designed to get people to admit involvement in terrorism. But, like him, many of the participants were innocent.

The road to deradicalisation for Bukar Bulama began after he fled Budumri in the Bama area of central Borno in Northeast Nigeria because of the Boko Haram conflict. The terror group had occupied the area and stopped women from going to the farm as part of the laws imposed. 

Its members also preached and tried to recruit him. 

The 25-year-old fled when Nigerian soldiers advanced close to the town. While returning, the Boko Haram insurgents flogged his wife for not wearing a jilbaab (full-length outer garment). So, he confronted them, arguing that women could not have waited to wear jilbaab while everyone panicked and fled. 

Because of that response, the insurgents accused him of violating religious rules and punished him with 20 strokes of a cane. They continued to pay attention to him after that incident. So, in Sept. 2015, Bukar and his wife grabbed their children and escaped.

Satellite map showing Bama, Marraba junction, Sambisa forest and Banki. Illustration: Mansir Muhammed/HumAngle

The escapees would spend the night at a bridge before proceeding to Marraba junction in Banki, where the military personnel searched their belongings, blindfolded them, and moved them to the prison in the town of Bama. 

During interrogation, the soldiers and militias asked if Bukar had accepted Da’wah, which in Arabic means ‘an invitation to Islam’. He responded with a yes without understanding the context, but the soldiers took this to mean he admitted to being a Boko Haram member. Other detainees who gave the same response were left alone while the rest were tied, left in the open sun, and flogged. 

The detainees were transferred to the infamous military detention at Giwa barracks in Maiduguri, the state capital. There were over 160 people inside Bukar’s cell, and after some days, more detainees joined. Later on, a soldier asked them who wished to meet Nigeria’s President, Muhammadu Buhari. 

“Who among you is a Boko Haram member that can dismantle and reassemble a gun?” Bukar recalls him asking. He himself had observed that the cell’s inmates who had any association with Boko Haram were mostly informants and errand boys, not combatants.

Bukar spent eight months in the military facility. The experience was rough. Detainees did not have enough food, but there was water. They were also urinating and defecating in plastic buckets.  

After some time, a senior military officer announced they planned to release them but couldn’t yet because their houses had got burnt and they didn’t have their families’ contacts. 

The officer then asked if they agreed to move to a place with beds where they would get healthy and could wait for their families to be tracked. They replied yes. 

They were later moved to a new cell and designated as people who surrendered. The condition of detention would improve when the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) visited towards the tail end of their stay. They received fish, meat, fruits and soft drinks. There was a time formulated foods were provided to address cases of malnourishment. 

One of the new detention cells at the Giwa military detention centre on April 27, 2018. Last year, HumAngle reported there were over 2,500 detainees at the military detention facility, mostly kept without trial. Photo: HumAngle.

Three months later, the authorities came at midnight, called out 173 detainees, and put them in a vehicle. They would later learn that the new location was the maximum-security custodial centre.  There, they were kept inside the cell for a year. If they got lucky in one week or month, they would be moved to a room with a bucketful of water and some soap.

Gradually, they were able to sew caps and share the proceeds with the correctional officials. A cap went for ₦1,500, and a fellow inmate from Lagos bought them. Sometimes, the earnings got seized, but a revenue scheme was later standardised. 

At the prison, Bukar was finally able to connect with his family after six years of detention. A warder had brought his wife’s picture and told him she was expecting a message. 

The ICRC started supplying food, but he alleges that the officials were hijacking them. “They serve us with poorly cooked rice and fermented porridge. We were 155 in the cell. I stayed there for over five years.”

The journey to deradicalisation

The transfer to the Operation Safe Corridor camp in Gombe kicked off after the military authorities called several inmates during Ramadan and took their measurements. On the night of Eid, the inmates received new dresses and were transported to the airport. 

“They chained and blindfolded us and moved to the airport for their flight. However, on arrival at the Bauchi airport, the chains and blindfolds were removed, and we were taken in buses to the rehabilitation and radicalisation camp in Mallam Sidi, Gombe,” Bukar says.

“At the camp, officials warned there would be no misbehaving, fighting, quarrelling or stealing here. Everyone should obey all instructions and let them know if they had any complaints.”

They received packaged food, three pairs of clothes, a toothbrush, body oil, two soaps, and toiletries. They were also shown their rooms, where they would stay for the next 10 months. 

The daily routine began with eating at the dining hall in the morning. During his time there, the trainers asked them individually if they had ever killed people. Bukar responded that he had instead suffered as a result of Boko Haram. 

He chose to learn welding from the different vocations offered.

Bukar thinks the programme was almost like a mind game designed to get people to admit involvement in terrorism. The staff see them as offenders. He recalled an incident where the participants asked for medicine and the officials replied, “After killing people and causing havoc, you are disturbing us for drugs.” 

After seven months, a graduation ceremony was held. A tailor was brought to take their measurements again, and in May, they moved them back to Maiduguri. 

The last phase of the programme involved a stay at the Bulumkutu rehabilitation centre run by the Borno state government, where he received ₦10,000 and a machine for welding.  

Bukar feels he went through the experience unjustly. “I can say there was an injustice because I am innocent”. 

He feels out of place, having no house or farm in the state capital. With the camp closure, he has nowhere to go or a home to return to because Boko Haram insurgents were still present in his village of Budumri. Since his return from the Operation Safe Corridor programme, no official has followed up, he says. 

His wife, Karu Bulama, is happy to have him back though. She had cared for their three children by herself in his absence, seeling food condiments, bean cakes, and sewing caps to survive.

During his detention, she moved from Bama to Maiduguri for treatment after the children got malnourished. They were kept at a nursing village camp to recover. 

Karu is a member of the Knifar Movement, a group of displaced women campaigning for the release of their husbands from unlawful detention. 

“People thought it was not going to succeed,” she says. “But it was successful. We are happy.”

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Murtala Abdullahi

Abdullahi Murtala is a researcher and reporter. His expertise is in conflict reporting, climate and environmental justice, and charting the security trends in Nigeria and the Lake Chad region. He founded the Goro Initiative and contributes to dialogues, publications and think-tanks that report on climate change and human security. He tweets via @murtalaibin

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