The move raises questions over how the government deals with defectors. 

The Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) has described the de-radicalisation, empowerment and rehabilitation of Boko Haram suspects as troubling and suspicious after a bill seeking the integration of former fighters back into society was submitted to parliament.

Samson Ayokunle, CAN president, made these remarks at briefing in Abuja to mark the second year of Leah Sharibu‘s abduction, noting that it is shameful that despite Nigeria’s military forces, killings in the country have not let up.

“The setting free of so-called ex-Boko Haram terrorists under de-radicalisation, rehabilitation, empowerment of the arrested terrorists by the federal government is rather troubling and suspicious,” he said, quoted by Nigerian newspaper Vanguard

“What is the guarantee that the freed ex-terrorists would not return to Sambisa forest and pick up their arms against innocent Nigerians?”

More on this: Africa – Silencing the Guns By 2020

The bill proposes the establishment of a commission that will oversee the education and reintegration of repentant militants. Despite criticism, at least 1,400 suspected Boko Haram insurgents had recently been released by the government.

Ayokunle continued: “The development is a shame and there is a cloud of confusion that hangs over the nation and the people that are governing this nation are not doing the right thing.

“We want the world to know the evil that is happening in the country under the watch of this government. More blood is being shed. The killing is religious. [The] Boko Haram sect wants to establish an Islamic state. We must stop these killings.”

He asked President Muhammudu Buhari to fulfill his promise of securing the release of those being held captive by Boko Haram.

How to measure the success of de-radicalisation?

The Nigerian government said the 1,400 suspects who were released had repented and were to be re-integrated into society. The government said the releases were part of its four-year old de-radicalisation programme, Operation Safe Corridor.

Opposition leaders attacked the decision, as did soldiers fighting the terrorists, The Conversation noted.

These reactions mask a fundamental challenge facing governments in conflict situations: how does it deal with defectors? Simply executing combatants, or detaining them indefinitely, aren’t viable options. De-radicalisation and re-integration programmes therefore become unavoidable.

Operation Safe Corridor was set up in 2016 by the government. It targets Boko Haram combatants who have surrendered. This approach targets three key issues: religious ideology, structural or political grievances and post-conflict trauma.

Nigerian soldiers
Niger’s special forces prepare to fight Boko Haram in Diffa, near the border with Nigeria. Source: VOA 2015

A wide range of countries have introduced de-radicalisation programmes.

There is no consensus on what constitutes success in reforming a terrorist.

There is, however, general acceptance that a narrow focus on recidivism as the key metric has been discredited. This is because the reasons for peoples’ behaviour aren’t always understood. For example, re-offending could well have been stimulated by new impulses after release. On the other hand, not re-offending does not necessarily mean the person has abandoned extremist views.

There is also confusion about whether any kind of rehabilitation is necessarily brought about by the de-radicalisation programme. For example, it could be more about the desire for freedom, or to access the benefits that go with a rehabilitation programme.

Measuring success isn’t easy. Official information is likely to be biased as the state and groups running programmes are wont to paint a rosy picture to justify the expenditure.

More on this: Nigeria – Boko Haram Fact File

It’s obvious that governments facing challenges of terrorism and violent extremism have virtually no other alternative.

But that shouldn’t stop criticism of the way in which programmes are run. The Nigerian government’s release of 1,400 former Boko Haram fighters is a case in point. It was handled badly, not least because the public was told after the event.

The timing was also inauspicious. There is currently a resurgence of attacks by the terrorist group. At the same time, President Muhammadu Buhari’s government is facing a declining sense of legitimacy. These factors helped harden attitudes and drove the push-back from Nigerians.

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Find out more in the Africa Research Bulletin: 

Nigeria: Jihadists Target Christians
Political, Social and Cultural series
Vol. 57, Issue 1

Nigeria: Threats Have Changed and Multiplied
Political, Social and Cultural series
Vol. 56, Issue 12

Nigeria: Abuja Rejects UN Report
Political, Social and Cultural series
Vol. 56, Issue 9

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