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‘We survived on urine’ — how Boko haram ‘repentants’ were subjected to abuse during deradicalisation

A repentant Boko Haram soldier

On the night of April 14, 2014, when 276 young female students were kidnapped by members of Boko Haram, an Islamist militant sect, from the Government Girls Secondary School in Chibok town, Borno state, Abu Mohammed was there. In fact, the success of the operation could be tagged to him. Mohammed was only 18 at the time. He and his team were tasked with providing cover for the terrorist group in case the Nigerian army showed up to rescue the girls.

Mohammed, now 27 years old, could not recall how old he was or the exact year he joined Boko Haram because he was too young, but the trajectory of his life showed he became a member of the sect in his early teenage years. His mallam had convinced him that joining Boko Haram would please Allah and that it was the right way of life.

Eventually, Mohammed and 132 other new recruits were taken to the Mandara mountains along the northern part of the Cameroon–Nigeria border to learn the Quran. After a satisfactory assimilation of the Islamic religious text, Mohammed was finally ready to become a Boko Haram fighter.

In Sambisa forest, the Boko Haram hideout that would be Mohammed’s home for a while, he was trained to be a combatant for a gruelling six months. He quickly gained expertise wielding different arms such as the AK47 (Kalashnikov Model 1947), Mark 4, GPMG (general purpose machine gun), and pistol. He was also trained as a gun repairer.

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THE YOUNG GUNSMITH IN SEARCH OF SALVATION

Mohammed was a former Boko Haram-trained combatant and gunsmith

He had been part of a few criminal expeditions with the group but his first real experience with terrorism was the night the Chibok girls were abducted. Kidnapping the students was not the original plan. Mohammed told TheCable that the terrorist group was on its way to attack the army (29 brigade) in Chibok, but decided to pick up the girls as an afterthought after they realised students were there.

At first, they were unsure of what to do with the abductees. Afterwards, they decided to split the girls into three groups for effectiveness. Mohammed’s team, led by a man he identified as Baban Baba, took strategic positions in readiness for a counter-attack and ensured they went away without a hitch. That was his final mission.

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Although he had been relegated to the forest, his service to the sect did not end. When the militants returned from a raid, Mohammed was tasked with ensuring that the faulty guns whose chambers could no longer fire a bullet were fixed. But the young gunsmith felt incomplete. Mending the metallic toys no longer brought him joy and the familiar comfort he had felt thinking he was doing God’s work was beginning to seep away.

He had been listening to the radio frequently and each time he tuned in, there was a sermon preaching against what he had come to know as the right way to live. The message struck his heart and he made up his mind. He would escape, he thought to himself.

His friends had been listening to the radio programme too; so, convincing them was not difficult. Mohammed said it took the group of seven friends five days to cover a significant distance on foot but they were soon accosted by their belligerent colleagues.

“They tied us up and locked us for two months. It was horrible,” he told TheCable.

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“Eventually we tried to escape again but three died in the second attempt. They caught us, beat us, and locked us in a cell for trying to run back to the infidels. We had to promise that we would not run again before we were released.”

It was a false promise. The trimmed group of four made another escape attempt and this time, it was successful. At their first stop in Bulungwa town, where they hoped to run into soldiers, there were no troops. Mallam Maja, a small village by the road, was the same. Mohammed and his friends had their prayers answered in Dikwa. But surrendering to the army was a nightmare Mohammed never saw coming.

Though he has come to regret his actions and is now a “repentant” Boko Haram member, the abuses he would come to face in the hands of the Nigerian army, whom he surrendered to in hopes of being rehabilitated, made him wish for death but he could not get it.

DYING FROM STARVATION, LIVING ON URINE

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Mohammed’s reason for surrendering to the army was understandable. The government had just rolled out its deradicalisation programme, a “soft approach” to fighting terrorism. Repentant terrorists would be vetted and then become part of a programme aimed at recalibrating their minds and eventually reintegrating them into society. The condition for pardon was a total surrender to the army.

But Mohammed said he and his friends were immediately locked up and denied food for 17 days.

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“We had to depend on our colleagues’ urine for food. Hunger killed all my friends,” he said.

Because of his core role as a combatant and gunsmith in Boko Haram’s den, the punishment meted out to Mohammed was severe. He was eventually transferred to an underground cell at the notorious Giwa barracks in Maiduguri, a holding facility with detainees kept under “administrative custody”.

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When his former colleagues breached the barracks’ walls with rocket grenades and freed their members, he did not join in the escape, majorly for fear of being killed by the militants for being a stray or by the locals.

Mohammed said he spent five years inside the barracks before he was transferred to a transitional camp to receive care from the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). The only form of rehabilitation he recalled participating in was football.

MORE MISERY 

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It was the same false promise of forgiveness and rehabilitation that made Mustapha Ali surrender to the Nigerian army.

While serving under Boko Haram, he was tasked with making shelters for the sect. so. when the troops ambushed the militants and asked them to divide themselves according to their roles, Ali had a tiny glimpse of hope that he would be of use to the army as a builder. Bloodshed was not what he hoped to see.

“They asked us to separate ourselves from the core Boko Haram fighters. Immediately we did, the military opened fire and killed them (core fighters) all. All in our presence,” Ali told TheCable with a shiver.

The fighters were close to 50, he recalled.

Immediately afterwards, Ali and his non-combatant sect members were shipped off to Giwa barracks where he spent three months with close to 180 people in a single cell room.

“They gave us food without water. Many of the detainees died from heat and thirst,” Ali added.

Ali said they were locked up doing nothing before they were moved to the maximum prison where he spent six years either farming or doing whatever chores were required of him.

‘MY RIGHTS WERE VIOLATED’

A repentant Boko Haram soldier

Many of the repentant Boko Haram soldiers, who spoke to TheCable, had a similar experience after they surrendered to the army. First, they would be detained for a few days before being shipped off to Giwa Barracks; some would make a stop for a few months or years (depending on the nature of their role as a terrorist) at the maximum prison in Maiduguri, while others would be taken down to the deradicalisation, rehabilitation and reintegration (DRR) camp in Gombe.

An Amnesty International report revealed that the screening processes for people exiting Boko Haram usually involved physical torture with the aim of extracting confessions. The screening was conducted by military officers and members of the Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF).

Even being a member of the CJTF did not save Bo Tijani when he needed it to. In 2020, when Boko Haram attacked Saula village in Marte LGA where Tijani hails from, he joined the task force to repel the militants against future attacks. Six months later, the Nigerian army arrested Tijani, based on “information” from the CJTF, and accused him of being a Boko Haram member. Tijani still has the stripes from the beatings the soldiers etched on his body in hopes of getting a confession and later “deradicalising” him.

“I have never joined Boko Haram in my life,” Tijani told TheCable.

“I was falsely accused by the military and the CJTF because I remained in the village when insurgents were there and everyone else had left. They said I was a member and that was why I stayed back.

“The Department of State Services (DSS) interviewed me for four months before transferring me to the maximum prison for five years and then transferring me to the Gombe safe corridor. In the maximum prison, I was just kept there doing nothing. In Gombe, I spent 10 months.

“They said they would train us on skills but we did not do anything. In the morning, they would bring us out to run and flog us, follow us with more beating and then take us back to our cells. First, I was falsely accused, then my rights were violated.”

PAINFUL REHABILITATION

Isa Aba still limps when he walks till now. The halts in his steps are a reminder of the beatings he received when he was in Gombe for the rehabilitation programme.

Aba said the abuses would have been worth it if, at least, they were trained in the skills they were promised as part of the programme.

“When they took us to Gombe, they said they were taking us for rehabilitation and to learn skills like carpentry, barbing, and welding. But when we reached Gombe, we didn’t learn anything,” he said.

“We saw the carpentry sheds and people welding; we saw barbing salons. They showed us but they didn’t train us. Up till now, I’m not happy. I still feel the pains from the beatings in my legs.”

For Goni Abacha who spent 10 months in the rehabilitation centre, the beatings were accompanied by starvation. Before joining the Boko Haram group, he sold kolanuts to keep life going. When he surrendered to the army, he hoped the rehabilitation programme would provide him with a fresh set of skills and hopefully, capital to set up a new business. Abacha got none of that. Now, he has settled for his old source of income — selling kolanuts.

But some of the repentant militants like Kaji Mohammed were considered lucky. After spending 10 months in the Gombe camp in 2020 on three square meals that were not up to a standard meal when combined, Mohammed said he learnt how to barb hair.

Upon the completion of the programme, Mohammed said he was given one clipper and N10,000 to set up a barbing salon.

“I was not a fighter, but I was treated as a fighter,” he recounted.

Some other former terrorists said they were also given N10,000 and equipment to start up a full business, while some simply did not find favour in the eyes of the army. It was this type of unfair treatment that made Abdul Akbar wish to rejoin his former colleagues in the Sambisa forest.

“I’m happy to leave Boko Haram. But now I miss them because when I was with them I had something to fall back to. But now, I have a wife and children to look after. How do I do that without a source of living?” he pondered aloud.

HARSH TREATMENT A RESULT OF ‘FALSE REPENTANCE’

Allamin acts as a negotiator between the terrorists and the federal government

Akbar is one among hundreds of ex-terrorists who are battling an internal crisis to return to their former ways, Hamsatu Allamin, founder of the Allamin Foundation for Peace and Development, told TheCable.

Allamin has acted as a trusted negotiator and peacemaker between militants and security agencies for close to a decade. She also serves as the regional manager of the north-east section of the Nigeria Stability and Reconciliation Programme (NSRP).

The human rights expert said the approach deployed by the army to “deradicalise” the former militants is sowing seeds of discontent and egging them on to return to their former ways. Those who had plans of surrendering their arms are having a rethink, she added.

“There has to be a right approach. Those who came out told me they did not get what they expected and what the government promised them,” Allamin said.

“But with the confessions of killing, rape, maiming, and kidnapping, what will they say to the people they have violated and what do they expect? This was what I asked them and they just kept quiet looking at me.

“According to them, since they have not got what they want and enjoyed what they expect, definitely the real die-hard fighters will not come out. Because they will see that those who came out have now been segregated and locked, which is contrary to their expectations, and those who are not the real fighters will be relaying the information to them. This is not the right approach.”

Allamin suggested that community leaders who can identify former Boko Haram members can play a part in the rehabilitation process by collaborating with the army to vouch for individuals who lived in the community with a good history but eventually went astray.

Buba Sale from Gwoza LGA is that community leader. Sometimes, he helps to convince members of his community who joined Boko Haram to drop their arms and return home. He said he is not aware that the ex-terrorists face abuses at the hands of the soldiers. But if they are, it could be because their repentance is not genuine.

According to the community leader, the Boko Haram repentants, upon completion of the deradicalisation programme, are given a sum of N40,000 for support and certificates of completion of the skills acquisition programme.

Sale told TheCable that the residents are having issues accepting the repentant ex-terrorists

“When the project first started, they were giving them the support of N40k, supporting them with certificates in carpentry, welding and I have some of them who are working on that trade,” he said.

“From the first and second batches, I’m aware that they were well supported and now they are still calling me to identify them so we can re-integrate them into the society.”

But Allamin, who helps the ex-terrorists to make a smoother transition into society, said she has never seen any of them apply the skills they supposedly acquired.

The negotiator corroborated Sale’s statement, saying that the initial capital given to the former Boko Haram members was N40,000 but added that it has now been slashed to half.

“Some of them, when we receive them, they have no knowledge of any skills,” she said.

“Anyway, we have taken them through trauma management; some we place on monthly stipends and that is what they are using as a form of livelihood. I honestly don’t know any of them using any skills they may have acquired.”

CONFRONTING THE REAL VICTIMS

Facing the abuses is only the first hurdle to cross. Reintegrating into society is another challenge the former terrorists are facing.

Sale said it is not an easy decision the residents have to make.

“The government thinks it is a good idea and the people have no choice but to support them. It is very painful but we have no other choice,” he said.

“These people killed our children and burned our houses. But if someone comes and says they regret their choices, you must calm down and listen.”

Jummai Msheilla, state coordinator of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), said the deradicalisation process has its own flaws. She said the programme’s intentions are good but has received negative public acceptance.

“There are a lot of issues that come from the society because so many people ask why should it be that these people who violated their rights are taken care of. But on the side of the government, they feel that it is good for them to do the programme. This is why they deradicalise the people,” Msheilla said.

To create a level playing ground, Msheilla said the NHRC is testing a pilot project focused on transitional justice.

Transitional justice involves people coming together to address the legacies of horrendous atrocities, or to end recurring cycles of violent conflict, by developing a range of responses. These responses may include reforms of the legal and political systems and institutions that govern a society or prosecutions to hold perpetrators accountable.

They may also include initiatives for providing reparations to victims, which can take multiple forms such as financial compensation, pensions, restitution of property or civil and political rights, access to health care or education, and acknowledging and memorialising the victims and the abuses they suffered.

Msheilla said the programme is not only focusing on the community residents who were violated by Boko Haram but even the ex-militants who went through the torture of the deradicalisation process.

“Because you find out that the ex-terrorists return back to their community and their houses were taken; their farmlands were taken. Maybe some of their wives were being married off. So, it generates a lot of fresh issues within the community and we have to find a way to ensure that this does not repeat itself,” she noted.

Using the deradicalisation and reintegration programme as a soft counter-terrorism approach is one many security experts have commended, but there have been concerns that the method is failing to win the hearts and minds of the people involved.

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