Both the jungles of Sambisa and the fringes of Lake Chad have become less safe for the lieutenants and fighters of Jamaatul Ahlil Sunna Liddawati wal Jihad (JAS), also known as Boko Haram, following the sudden death, in May, of their leader Abubakar Shekau.
Shekau had committed suicide during a deadly fight with the rival terror group, Islamic State West African Province (ISWAP). After putting their loyalty to the test, this development has since forced many JAS members to give up the fight and surrender to the troops of the Nigerian military.
While some quarters of the Borno communities and Nigerians at large have hailed the event as a welcome development, others are fearful and wonder what is the proper way of handling the ‘born-again terrorists.’
The new wave of desertions
About three weeks ago, one of the 112 remaining abducted Chibok schoolgirls, Ruth Pogu, surfaced alongside a man believed to be a Boko Haram fighter and whom she reportedly married while in captivity. The ‘couple’ who have two children gave themselves up for the Nigerian military somewhere in Bama town of Borno state.
It is one of the latest in the list of terrorist surrenders so far since May when the death of the late Shekau was announced.
About a week after Pogu walked back to freedom, the Cameroonian authorities issued a statement that further confirmed the fast weakening of the “Boko Haram” fighting force, announcing that they had received at least 82 repentant terrorists who gave up the fight alongside their families. According to the Cameroonian officials, the repentant fighters, who are largely from Nigeria, needed to be ferried back to their respective countries because “the influx has overwhelmed rehabilitation centres along the border.”
According to the government of the Central African country, its National Committee for Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration (DDR) centre, located in the border town of Meri, now houses a total of 967 former members of the armed opposition group. Of this number, about 260 arrived at the DDR centre within the past one week, 82 of them confirmed to be former Boko Haram male fighters, while the rest are women and children.
“We came to see the fighters, those young women and men predominantly made of Nigerians flooding out from the Boko Haram camps into our country,” Cameroon’s Director of DDR, Francis Fai-Yengo, told the press on Tuesday, Aug. 10.
“The numbers are increasing daily. We welcome them, but after we have done the necessary verifications, we will send them back rapidly to their country because of the good relationship that our country [Cameroon] has with our neighbouring country to the west [Nigeria].”
Without any formidable leader to direct their affairs, coupled with the fear of being subdued by the rival ISWAP, the former footsoldiers of the late Abubakar Shekau had no option than to hand themselves over to the forces of the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF), operating around the Sambisa Forest near the Cameroon-Nigeria border.
On another hand, the Nigerian military authorities had also, recently, reported receiving over 1000 surrendering Boko Haram members. Onyema Nwachukwu, the Director, Nigeria Army Public Relations, had in a statement said the surrenders took place in four different locations of the frontlines but did not specify if one of those locations was in Cameroon.
“It is a known fact that in the recent past, over 1,000 members of Boko Haram and their families have surrendered to the troops due to the intense pressure from troops’ sustained offensive actions,” said Nwachuchukwu, a Brigadier General in the Nigerian Army.
He further added that among those who surrendered “were key leaders of the terrorist group who have renounced their membership and have turned themselves in.”
Though a surrender and laying down of arms is what many advocates of peace have prescribed as a panacea for an end to the brutal war, the recent development has still triggered fears and concerns amongst the people of Borno.
A recent video that trended on social media showed many ex-Boko Haram fighters and their families filing out of the jungle as they surrendered to the Nigerian military, some with arms and ammunition.
The government and the people of Borno state have reacted to the mass surrender differently. Opinions differ on how to deal with the former combatants returning to the communities where they had inflicted great pain.
Already, a league of Borno traditional rulers and elders had raised concerns over the large number of ex-Boko Haram fighters surrendering.
The Shehu of Borno, His Highness Abubakar Garbai Ibn Allamin Elkanemi, who spoke on behalf of the Borno elders, noted that the surrender was a welcome development for the state and country but “it will be very difficult, if not impossible to reintegrate the repentant insurgents into our destroyed communities.”
He said the fear of the people over the 12-year-old insurgency remains and will continue to haunt members of the communities where the repentant terrorists are to be reintegrated.
“It is easy to forgive for the destruction of much life and property, but difficult to forget the wanton loss of lives in the various communities in my chiefdom.”
In his reaction to the mass surrender, the Chairman of Borno Concern Citizens Forum, Alhaji Hassan Zanna, described it as a big relief to the people of the state.
Zanna, however, called for the proper certification of those that renounced their extremist status, especially on the need to check their “physical and mental status while they undergo deradicalisation and other procedures necessary for the reintegration of those qualified into the society.”
He explained that the development was reducing tension in the state and facilitating the expansion of farming activities in areas hitherto known as no-go areas.
“Last year by now we had cases of farmers being killed in their farms by insurgents, but now that is history. We need to thank God for this development as we look forward to a bumper harvest,” Zanna said.
The Director of the National Orientation Agency (NOA) in Borno State, Shettima Ja’afar, said members of the public must give unconditional support for the surrendering initiative to succeed.
“Those surrendering, [who] are now between the age of 35 and below, were younger persons 12 years ago when they were misled or compelled to join the insurgency. It is one of our tasks to go out and sensitise the people on such issues,” Ja’afar said.
Favourable sentiments are also held by residents who are not holding public offices.
Moses Yakubu, a civil servant, argued that “those insisting that the military should ignore the surrender and crush the insurgents needed to know that there is a limit to military action in bringing lasting peace.”
“If someone you want to smoke out for the past 12 years with assorted firepower associated with collateral damage is now coming out without a shot to surrender, what else do we want? Not another year of fighting,” he added.
“We need to be optimistic as our leaders are trying. God has provided a golden opportunity for us with a hard-working governor and now a leeway for a lasting peace that should be exploited fully for the state to achieve its maximum potential.”
Ibrahim Modu, a trader who has now fully resettled in Maiduguri after his family members fled Monguno due to Boko Haram attacks years ago, however, holds a different opinion on the issue.
“It is good for Boko Haram to surrender, but it is not good for them to return to our society and live with us as if nothing had happened in the past,” he said.
“I still have the person that attacked our house and killed our senior about five years ago in mind. I knew how he tried to kill me by firing gunshots at me as I scaled the fence. He would have killed me if he hadn’t missed his shot. They have killed many of my friends too. So what happens if I suddenly see that killer coming back home as a repented person? Should I trust him or should I forgive him?”
Modu suggested that the government should “rethink” the strategy of reintegrating the repentant fighters.
Bitrus Ayuba, another entrepreneur in Maiduguri, insists that he does not believe in accepting the ex-combatants, as he is not even sure they are “the real Boko Haram.”
What faction is surrendering exactly?
Some sections of the Borno community, who have also chosen to take the surrenders with some pinch of salt, have expressed worries over the non-mention of ISWAP members as part of those surrendering.
“We only hear JAS fighters or former members of the late Abubakar Shekau faction surrendering; what about the ISWAP?” asked Abubakar Adam, a resident of Maiduguri, during a chat with HumAngle.
“The military and the government need to come out clear and tell us what manner of surrender we are having. We have seen a large number of women and children coming out. Are they the ‘deadly terrorists’ that we often hear about? Are they from both the JAS and ISWAP camp?”
Governor of Borno State, Babagana Zulum, had last month while attending an event hosted by the Chief of Army Staff, Lieutenant General Farouq Yahaya, raised concerns over the regrouping forces of ISWAP around the fringes of the Lake Chad and called for more action from the troops to disband them.
“We have started witnessing tremendous achievements in the area of fostering a harmonious relationship between the military and civilians; this very important crusade is very essential at this very important and trying moment of the increasing presence of ISWAP in our territories,” he said.
Though there are doubts about which faction of the terror group are surrendering, Governor Zulum’s concerns suggest more needs to be done despite the claims of the Nigerian military.
Kabiru Adamu, a security consultant and commentator on the Lake Chad conflict, in an interview with HumAngle noted that both Boko Haram factions are affected in the mass surrendering even though the Shekau JAS faction has more of its members laying down their arms.
“What has happened after the death of Shekau was that ISWAP has formed four protectorates,” he said.
“Two of the protectorates are in the locations that were considered as former JAS protectorates — and they are part of the ones surrendering. The ones closer to the Lake Chad basin and in northern Borno are a bit immune from the interdiction attacks from the military. That is why we are seeing less of them surrendering. But the ones in places like Gwoza, Bama, Konduga and the rest are the ones that are affected more.”
Borno government’s response
A statement by the Borno government, signed by Isa Gusau, chief spokesman to Zulum, indicated that the governor “is in a catch-22 situation” over the mass resignation.
Zulum, who had to address the state in a statewide broadcast, said though the mass repentance had left the state in a dilemma on what exactly to do, the development had also presented an opportunity that should be harnessed.
“There is a need for all and sundry to give support to this initiative,” he said. Zulum then lauded the military and other security agencies for the professionalism so far shown in facilitating the programme.
“We must come together to carefully analyse the two extremes and come up with a workable framework,” the governor said.
He added that he would engage in high-level consultations with the Presidency, service chiefs, residents, security heads, traditional rulers, victims of the insurgency, elders and religious leaders, among others, on the best way forward.
Meanwhile, at a town hall meeting held on Sunday, Aug. 29, various stakeholders in the state agreed to accept and support the reintegration of the former militants.
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