On February 19, 2020, Senator Ibrahim Gaidam, the former governor of Yobe State, introduced legislation to create the National Agency for Deradicalization, Rehabilitation, and Reintegration of Repentant Insurgents. Gaidam represents Yobe state, which borders Borno and has been affected by the insurgency. The bill’s purpose is to encourage and rehabilitate Boko Haram defectors and prevent violent extremism in Nigeria. Given the recent requests for additional military force to combat Boko Haram by Nigerian lawmakers, Senator Gaidam’s legislation is an important step toward incorporating deradicalization, rehabilitation, and reintegration (DRR) programs into the overall strategy designed to defeat Boko Haram.
Currently, Nigeria has three deradicalization programs that support Boko Haram defectors. The Prison Program works with militants convicted of violent extremist offenses or those on or awaiting trial. During the program, Imams teach classes on non-violent interpretations of Islam, and other program staff provide vocational training so that, when inmates fulfill their prison terms, they can reenter society with less risk of reverting to terrorism. Second, the Yellow Ribbon Initiative supports women and children associated with Boko Haram by providing psychosocial therapy and reintegration programs. Finally, Operation Safe Corridor, launched by the Nigerian military in 2015, works with Boko Haram defectors by addressing extremist ideology and providing them with trauma counseling. Two thousand members of Boko Haram and the Islamic State in West Africa (ISWA) have defected through Operation Safe Corridor since its inception.
Governor Babagana Zulum of Borno promised to complement security initiatives with programs that provide access to education and job opportunities. But, as military failures at the hands of Boko Haram’s have left much of Borno cut off from itself and the rest of the country, Governor Zulum has apparently—and understandably—prioritized military action by calling on the federal government to recruit 100,000 troops to counter the insurgency. Zulum promised an additional 50,000 “able-bodied” persons to combat the extremist group but did not request support for DRR programs. Instead, Babagana urged the Nigerian military to re-establish a military base in Borno. Other Northern leaders such as Yobe State governor, Malam Mai Mala Buni, are calling on the Nigerian military to expand their presence in the north. While an influx of troops may be important to addressing the immediate security situation caused by Boko Haram, the governors’ prioritization of security forces over investments into more DRR initiatives places their constituents in a revolving cycle of violence.
Many Nigerians, including several lawmakers, oppose DRR programs. Some feel that their communities are not sufficiently consulted when these programs are developed and implemented. Perhaps more problematic, many communities, after enduring years of atrocities, remain skeptical of reconciliation with Boko Haram defectors. A senator from Ondo state said that there was “no justification” for the program proposed by senator Gaidam. “How can an enemy be rehabilitated? These are people who have done Nigeria so much harm.” Current DRR efforts have had mixed results due to the Nigerian military’s limited expertise in deradicalization programs such as Operation Safe Corridor and reasonable fears that program participants will face violent retribution upon reintegration.
Vanda Felbab-Brown argues that community opposition to DRR efforts suggests that the Nigerian government “needs to invest more in open and comprehensive discussions with society about rehabilitation, reintegration, leniency, and victims’ rights.” To be effective, Nigerian lawmakers must ensure that DRR programs continue to work with those communities that will receive the rehabilitated fighters. A primarily military effort—still the current approach of the government—has not been successful; leaders owe it to their communities to explore the root causes of the insurgency and support non-military efforts, where possible, such as Senator Gaidam’s new legislation.