In 2016, Nigeria launched a program to help Boko Haram defectors reintegrate into civilian life. Rare interviews with the “deradicalisation” facility’s graduates reveal some encouraging signs but also troubling patterns that – if not addressed – could endanger the initiative’s future.
Operation Safe Corridor was established by the Nigerian government in 2016 to receive voluntary defectors from factions of the jihadist group Boko Haram. Part of a national strategy to degrade militant activity in the country’s north east, the program faces problems. Authorities channel into Safe Corridor far too many civilians fleeing Boko Haram areas, unjustly mislabelling them jihadists, clogging the system and putting off donors. More troubling are accounts from program participants who have seen sometimes deadly conditions at the facilities they pass through on the way into Safe Corridor – both a concern in its own right and a deterrent for those who might follow their path. Despite improvements, the reintegration of defectors into society can be bumpy. The program is also controversial, with critics arguing that it amounts to amnesty for terrorists. For Safe Corridor to thrive, the government will need to better screen out civilians, protect participants and more effectively reintegrate graduates into society. It should also work harder to persuade the public of the program’s merits.
The Nigerian government created Safe Corridor in 2016 after concluding that it would not be able to defeat the Boko Haram insurgency, which it has been battling since 2009, by military means alone. The program’s core target group is low-level jihadist recruits who perform combatant and/or non-combatant roles and are important to the daily functioning of Boko Haram’s two main factions – Jama’tu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad (People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad, or JAS) and Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP). There is ample reason for these recruits to seek an exit. When defectors leave the jihadist factions, it is normally due to mounting scepticism of the insurgency’s prospects, exposure to atrocious violence, the danger posed to them and their families, aversion to the factions’ unfair and brutal internal politics, the lack of material gain after years of service and, for some, the desire to escape a movement they were coerced into joining.
But while some donors and officials hope the program might be able to facilitate thousands of defections, it has struggled to bring in the right people. To date, of the hundreds of individuals who have gone through or are currently in the program, many are not from the target group. Rather, they are civilians who threw off Boko Haram’s yoke and who, after detention by security forces, were mistakenly categorised as militants and channelled into Safe Corridor. The program has also been something of a catch-all for a wide range of other individuals, including minors suspected of being child soldiers, a few high-level jihadists and alleged insurgents whom the government tried and failed to prosecute and who say they have been moved into the program against their will. Some donors, worried Nigeria is not spending their money on the target group, are therefore cautious about further investment in the program.
Even more jarring are allegations regarding the terrible treatment that many program participants experience after they enter Nigerian government custody. Many former Safe Corridor internees have reported enduring horrific conditions, particularly in the network of detention centres where they were held prior to reaching the program’s facility, Mallam Sidi camp in Gombe state. Some of those who voluntarily defected found themselves held in government facilities for as long as three years in total and often without any contact with family members for long periods of time. Some died in confinement. Even at Mallam Sidi, where conditions are better than at regular internment sites, former internees report that they were sometimes left short of food and given no certain timeline about when they might be integrated back into society.
The program could also do more to help graduates reintegrate into society after they leave Safe Corridor. When it first launched, authorities had given little thought to this matter, leaving many former internees without a smooth path back into civilian life. State and local authorities have since become more actively involved with their reintegration. Some returnees still face suspicion from communities and local security forces, however. The program also has yet to overcome continuing public hostility and opposition from some prominent politicians, who characterise it as providing amnesty and support to terrorists or criminals who should instead be punished.
To strengthen the program, the authorities, with donor support, should:
Fix screening systems so that they more effectively identify Boko Haram recruits who are in the program's target group. Civilians who have escaped from Boko Haram areas, who are more likely than former recruits to find immediate acceptance back home or in displacement camps, should be screened out quickly and moved through separately so they can make a speedy return to society.
Accelerate work to improve detention conditions, adding better safeguards to protect internees from abuse after surrendering and creating better systems to move defectors swiftly out of interim detention centres and into the Mallam Sidi camp. The camp leadership at Mallam Sidi should tighten up management of food supplies so that internees are well nourished and secure more resources for the training and psycho-social support key to internees' return to society.
Augment efforts to coordinate the return of Safe Corridor graduates with state authorities and local security services to help smooth their arrival back into society. Working with donors, they should also intensify plans to offer material support to host communities and their members, in order to give them incentives to accept former Boko Haram recruits into their fold.
Beef up public awareness campaigns to persuade Nigerians of Safe Corridor's merits and to overcome any hostility to the idea of rehabilitating former Boko Haram recruits. In doing so, the government should strive to balance the assistance it is giving to former jihadists to start new lives with initiatives that can afford comfort and a measure of justice to victims of Boko Haram atrocities, notably putting on trial captured militants such as high-level commanders or those involved in atrocities.