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Nigeria’s Secret Programme To Lure Top Boko Haram Defectors



Editor’s observe: This story was based mostly on six months of reporting and analysis. Authorities officers, former jihadists, analysts, journalists, displaced individuals, and civil society employees have been interviewed, however almost all requested to have their names withheld or altered as a consequence of safety considerations.

‘If sulhu permits us to return to our farms and villages, and the federal government says we should settle for, then I’ll.’

Abubakar Shekau

Malam Aliyu* lives in a neat, two-bedroom home in Nigeria’s northern metropolis of Kaduna. Squeezed into the small lounge is a big, brand-new couch set, nonetheless in its plastic. A plasma TV is on the wall. Exterior, within the yard, is an space the place he plans to lift poultry.

It’s the house you would possibly count on of a mid-level public servant, perhaps a instructor – in all probability not that of a senior ex-jihadist commander.

Aliyu has a brand new life now. The previous was the last decade he spent combating with Boko Haram after which with the breakaway Islamic State of West Africa Province (ISWAP) within the scrubland of the northeast. It’s the 2 wives and 4 kids he left behind when he defected, and the ability he as soon as wielded as a jihadist rijal – actually a “man” – in zones underneath the insurgents’ management.

In his early thirties, with a wispy goatee, Aliyu has remarried to a forthright girl from the northeastern metropolis of Maiduguri. She can be former Boko Haram, they usually have been arrange with the rent-free home in Kaduna, a enterprise license, and a small month-to-month stipend supplied by Nigeria’s home spy service, higher generally known as DSS.

The worth of this largesse: to work for DSS to show different jihadists underneath a clandestine mission generally known as sulhu – Arabic for peacemaking. It’s so controversial that no authorities consultant would go on report to debate it, and given Abuja’s rising hostility to unbiased reporting on safety issues, few Nigeria-based civil society figures needed to be named both.

Sulhu is applauded by its supporters as good warfare – a way to take away senior jihadists from the battlefield extra successfully than the stuttering orthodox army marketing campaign. “We’ve a proof of idea; it’s working,” stated an Abuja-based analyst, who would not comply with be recognized past that description. “It’s depleting the enemy’s combating pressure.”

However the males on the sulhu programme are virtually sure to have been concerned in atrocities. They haven’t been granted a proper amnesty, however neither have they been held to account for any crimes dedicated in a brutal battle that’s now in its twelfth 12 months. It’s a battle that has killed 35,000 individuals – 350,000 when you embrace the victims of the accelerating humanitarian disaster – and upended the lives of tens of millions extra, in accordance with the UN.

“These are mass killers, but on a programme sponsored by Nigerian taxpayers,” defined a former government-Boko Haram middleman. He has been in contact with the motion virtually from the beginning, when it was nonetheless an area non secular sect led by a younger cleric, Mohammed Yusuf, earlier than it declared battle on the Nigerian state in 2009.

Sulhu grew out of the behind-the-scenes makes an attempt to free the greater than 270 Chibok schoolgirls seized by Boko Haram in 2014. After years of painstaking contact-making by means of a community of mediators, it dawned on the negotiators that not solely did they’ve a gap to safe the discharge of a few of the schoolgirls, however there have been additionally mujahideen signalling they is perhaps open to dialogue – a possible breakthrough in a deadlocked battle.

A complete of 150 mujahideen have surrendered their weapons and crossed over since 2019, in accordance with individuals conversant in the programme. In the previous few weeks, there was a separate surge, associated to inside feuding inside the jihadist motion following the demise this Might of Abubakar Shekau, who had led Boko Haram since 2009.

A few of these mujahideen, like Aliyu, have been commanders, generally known as qaid – answerable for a number of districts. Such was the significance hooked up to the preliminary group that they have been invited to Abuja, the place they met representatives of President Muhammadu Buhari.

Beneath sulhu, defectors are enrolled in a six-month “deradicalisation” course within the army’s demobilisation and reintegration centre in Mallam Sidi, in northeastern Gombe State. After promising to resign violence and be good residents, they’re issued with a commencement certificates, signed by a excessive courtroom decide – and a few have then gone on to arrange companies, from cap-making to chicken-rearing.

Sulhu is run by DSS and the army, however is separate from the military’s a lot bigger disarmament, demobilisation, and reintegration initiative, generally known as Operation Protected Hall (OSC) and likewise based mostly in Mallam Sidi.

OSC is aimed toward low-risk former combatants, though as many as 75 % of these on the programme might by no means have held a weapon – simply villagers snagged within the army’s catch-all dragnets, with years spent in detention with out trial.

These on the sulhu initiative are the turbaned rijal seen in the low-res YouTube videos, exultant in victory, killing with out regret. Earlier than becoming a member of ISWAP, previous to the 2016 break up from Boko Haram, these males had been obedient to a maximalist “takfir” creed, promoted by then-leader Shekau, who declared that anyone dwelling exterior their zone of management was an infidel, punishable by demise or enslavement.


ISWAP is militarily on the entrance foot, however there may be exhaustion with the years of battle for any variety of causes, defined a Nigeria-based researcher, who requested to not be named so they may communicate freely. “Some [defectors] have misplaced religion of their leaders, accusing them of corruption; some have even forgotten why they have been combating; others simply need their kids to go to high school.”

However permitting jihadists to return to civilian life is clearly problematic. The army’s way more restricted OSC initiative, resettling low-risk Boko Haram, has run right into a wall of criticism – together with from some senior politicians who misrepresent Mallam Sidi as a vacation resort the place “killers” are pampered.

And there’s no urge for food from the federal government to even start to publicly talk about sulhu. “There’s a scarcity of buy-in and lots of pushback from sections of the army and political workplace holders who don’t see the necessity for this course of,” stated an Abuja-based lawyer.

But virtually 60 % of individuals surveyed throughout the northeast in 2018 stated they may comply with reconciliation with repentant jihadists if that was a path to peace: although acceptance was far decrease in areas hardest hit by the battle, and amongst ladies – the victims of a lot sexual violence.

Aliyu feels comparatively comfy in large cities like Kaduna and Maiduguri. However there are locations the place he is aware of he would obtain a far rougher reception. “Folks suffered,” he acknowledged. “They misplaced quite a bit [because of us].”

Calling the (much less) devoted
For DSS, sulhu makes strategic sense. Aliyu, for instance, is a so-called “pioneer”, an early member of Boko Haram in addition to a qaid – this implies he has a deep and intimate information of the motion and the boys he fought with.

Since he crossed over two years in the past, his job has been to search out other rijal wavering of their dedication to the jihadist trigger. He says he has personally persuaded greater than 20 of them to slide into frontline northern cities like Geidam, make pre-arranged contact with the army, after which begin their journey into the sulhu programme.

All he wants is a cellular phone and recharge card. When his connections pop up, generally in Cameroon, Chad, and Niger – the rear bases of the insurgency – he pumps them for information and gossip. Then, when he judges the time is true, he badgers them to give up.

It’s not a straightforward dialog. Uppermost in any potential defector’s thoughts is the concern of being despatched to Giwa Barracks, a infamous detention facility on the sting of a quiet Maiduguri suburb. “Everyone seems to be afraid of that place, and the individuals within the lake [Chad] don’t belief the federal government [won’t send them there],” stated Aliyu. “If it wasn’t for Giwa, extra would come – [the abuse that happens there] is the largest mistake the army has made.”

The conversations aren’t one-way, both. Aliyu’s former comrades bait him, reminding him of the life he led within the dawla – the territory ISWAP administers underneath shariah legislation and regards as unbiased from Nigeria. On this zone, within the far north of Borno and Yobe states, past the attain of the army and support companies, rijal have virtually complete energy over not less than a million villagers they confer with as awam – or “commoners”.

“They are saying whenever you have been within the lake [a region controlled by ISWAP], you have been anyone necessary, now you don’t have anything,” Aliyu defined, and you’ll really feel the lack of status irks him.

The emblem on his in any other case clear t-shirt is unfastened, and the seam within the crutch of his light black trousers is coming aside. However there may be nonetheless an air of entitlement about him.

He was mock scandalised by the worth of a bottle of water within the quiet restaurant the place The New Humanitarian first interviewed him, and he feigned outrage that bike taxis weren’t allowed into the middle-class district. “I’ll at all times struggle injustice wherever I see it,” Aliyu stated grandly, seemingly the qaid – in his personal thoughts not less than – he as soon as was.