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Borno IDPs Live With Former Boko Haram Fighters, But Wish They Didn’t Have To

Like people in various communities in Northeast Nigeria that are now receiving “repentant” former Boko Haram members, IDPs generally dislike the idea of cohabiting with the defectors. But, as they continue to depend on the government and non-profits for survival at the camps, they have little or no say in choosing their neighbours.

Warda* left her hometown about five years ago. Members of the infamous terror group, Boko Haram, had invaded Shettimari, a community in Borno State’s Kaga Local Government Area, Northeast Nigeria, burnt the houses, robbed the people of their foodstuff, and killed “a lot” of the residents. So, fearing for her safety, Warda left with others and has since not returned.

She currently lives in the Ummarari camp for Internally Displaced People (IDPs) in the state capital, Maiduguri, her daily struggles reminding her of how the terrorists tore down her village and ruined her once-stable life.

Meanwhile, by adopting a policy that gives room for former Boko Haram members to be reoriented and reintegrated, Nigeria’s government is making it possible for people like Warda to come face to face with their tormentors — even though the war is still ongoing and the wounds of its victims, physical and mental, have not been satisfactorily addressed.

Would Warda be willing to live with “repentant” Boko-Haram members if they were to be relocated to her community? “Never!” she answered, because “they have brought a lot of suffering upon us.”

“It is impossible for us to live together,” she continued while speaking to HumAngle earlier this year. “They murdered a lot of us, kidnapped many. They burnt our houses and collected the little foodstuff we had. We had to beg for clothes to wear when we came here. As it is now, we are still suffering. Ramadan is almost here, some babies are still breastfeeding. How will they be taken care of? It is impossible for us to live together.”

Nigeria’s government had in 2016 launched a deradicalisation programme tagged Operation Safe Corridor (OSC) that allows low-risk Boko Haram members who surrender, to become rehabilitated and reintegrated. Hundreds of former militants have successfully passed through this programme in various batches — some of them ending up in IDP camps.

The programme’s aim, the Army had disclosed, is to make the ex-combatants “good members of society” and “very productive members of this great country.” Former Defence spokesperson General, Rabe Abubakar, said the main focus includes reintegrating the beneficiaries “back into normal life in the society.”

But there are many like Warda who feel strongly about the implications of this programme, especially when it comes to reintegration.

Haleemah*, another female IDP at the Ummarari camp, said, if it were up to her, former Boko Haram members would never share the same community with other people. They should rather be kept in a different place where the authorities would watch over them, she suggested. She had been driven out of her hometown, Nejede, about two years ago during a raid where many lost their lives.

“They came and killed our men, brothers, and relatives. We have been suffering for a long time. We do not like them the way they don’t like us,” Haleemah said.

Others like Sufyan* are, however, more embracing. Originally from Gulumba, a town in Borno’s Bama district, he had to move to a displacement camp in Gidan Taki, Maiduguri, five years ago after Boko Haram drove out the townspeople. But despite losing most of his properties to the war, he believes his misfortune was destined to be and holds no grudge against the marauders.

“If they decide to drop their weapons and avoid violence, we can live together in peace,” he suggested. 

“I believe this is destiny from God. I forgive them. I just want to live in peace. Both sides have lost several people, our properties will never come back. See what happened in Dikwa. We must understand that the soldiers have tried their best. It is better to come to an arrangement that would bring a lasting solution for peace. If not, I do not see this ending in another 10 years.”

Despite the general resentment among IDPs about reintegration efforts, it is difficult to find records of physical violence against former Boko Haram fighters living at various displacement camps.

A former militant whose raids affected communities such as Bama, Michika, and Gwoza confirmed to HumAngle that he has suffered no harm since his reintegration.

“My life has been disturbing me. I am in a state of regret. After committing all those crimes, I came back to Nigeria and was accepted by my friends and family. Nothing has happened to me and I thank God,” he said. 

“That is why I am regretting the past and all my past actions. To those in the bush, I advise them to repent because this is not part of religion. We were told in Gombe State that this was not part of our religion, and we know it. They should repent and accept their wrongdoings.”

OSC alumni based in Maiduguri displacement camps who spoke to HumAngle last year said though they faced subtle stigmatisation, they still interact freely with other displaced persons. But the story is different outside of IDP camps in communities where military personnel and vigilantes wield less influence.

There have been reports of people in Gwoza, Bama, Gamboru Ngala, and Dikwa rejecting former Boko Haram members who had made attempts to return to their hometowns. Last January, HumAngle gathered that about two dozen ex-militants were rejected by officials and residents of Dikwa, who said some of those who returned earlier had gone back to the forest to rejoin the insurgents.

“Let them take them to anywhere, but we don’t want them here. Their members are still sneaking in from the bush and troubling us,” one resident said.

Borno State governor, Babagana Zulum, has himself openly and repeatedly criticised Operation Safe Corridor, echoing the same sentiments as many affected locals. And so has Ali Ndume, senator representing Borno South. 

Experts are concerned too, suggesting that the programme may have emerged because of the failure of the military campaign in the Northeast to end the insurgency. But many still agree it has its use if properly managed. International Crisis Group, a non-profit think-tank, concluded in a report published in March that the programme is far from reaching its potential.

“The Nigerian authorities will need to demonstrate that the program can guide internees to graduation and reintegrate them back into society safely and securely. To date, Safe Corridor falls short of being able to offer those kinds of assurances with sufficient credibility,” the group observed

“Improved screening procedures, detention safeguards, investments in reintegration and a public relations campaign to win political and popular support can make the program more attractive to both donors and potential defectors. The relevant branches of the Nigerian government should all invest the resources and attention that the program requires lest this vital corridor become a dead end.”

The 12-year-old Boko Haram insurgency has so far killed over 37,500 people and displaced about 2.5 million people, according to the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). Millions more are in desperate need of humanitarian assistance because of the impacts of the crisis. 

In a report it released last week, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) revealed that the conflict had resulted in about 36,000 direct deaths. Three hundred and fourteen thousand (314,000) other people died as a result of indirect causes such as food insecurity, lack of clean water, and deplorable living conditions.

*Names have been altered to protect their identity.

This report is part of a series of publications supported by the African Transitional Justice Legacy Fund (ATJLF) under HumAngle’s ‘Mediating Transitional Justice Efforts in North-East’ project.

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'Kunle Adebajo

Head of Investigations at HumAngle. ‘Kunle covers conflict alongside its many intricacies and fallouts. He also writes about disinformation, the environment, and human rights. He's won a couple of journalism awards, including the 2021 Wole Soyinka Award for Investigative Journalism, the 2022 African Fact-checking Award, and the 2023 Michael Elliott Award for Excellence in African Storytelling.

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