It was on a Friday when Madagali, a community in Adamawa Local Government Area of Adamawa State was attacked by the dreaded Islamist group, Boko Haram. Armed with Ak47 riffles, the men on motorcycle and pick up vans, swooped on Madagali residents and took them captives – men, women and children.
There was no age boundary; even nursing mothers and a 73 year-old man were not spared. They were all taken into Sambisa forest, where they were kept for days without food and water. They would later tell stories of how they survived, feeding on leaves and drinking their urine as water.
Among them was 22-year-old Mohammed Mallah, a father of four with three wives. He was captured together with 21 members of his family; his parents, grandfather and grandmother. It was while they were in search of food in the forest that they found a road to town and followed it through to where they surrendered to the Nigerian Army at Bama. Mallah later went back to bring out his wives, children, siblings and aged parents.
“On discovering the route, we planned and escaped in the night. It was only in the night that we could move without fear. I came back later to take my wives to a village called Mahinti before my father and mother later joined us. I later paid a man N5000 for transportation to Bama but one of my brothers was left in the bush because he was afraid of being kill. He said the soldiers might mistake them for Boko Haram insurgents and killed them. I however told him we were protected by the soldiers who give us better food and clothes and even provide accommodation for us at the Deradicalisation Rehabilitation and Reintegration, DRR camp in Gombe.
“The soldiers later led me back to the bush to take my brother. We are here together with our father now and our relations have come to visit us too.” Mallah said.
The story is however different with 46-year-old Babagana Meranbi. Meranbi, a father of seventeen children born by three wives was a staff of Bama Local Government Education Authority in Borno State before he was captured by the insurgents in 2014 when they launched attacks on the local government headquarters. Meranbi was, however, lucky, as he was dropped by the Boko Haram troops on age reason near a bush leading to Sambisa forest.
“For me, it was an unfortunate experience and I regret it because they wasted a lot of my time and years. I was in my office at the local government headquarters when they attacked us and captured everyone.
They took us to a village near Sambisa forest but I was not recruited as combatant because of my age. I later escaped when I had the opportunity and reported myself to the Nigerian Army. I really thank God for the grace to live again.”
In the case of Saleh Hassan, a farmer, he was recruited with a threat to kill his parents if he refused to follow them. Saleh, who ended up a member of Boko Haram, said he had no choice but to follow the invading Boko Haram soldiers. “I was a farmer and I was recruited into Boko Haram Islamist group by force.
When they came that day, they entered our house and ordered me to follow them in the presence of my father and mother. I first refused, but they said they would kill my father and mother and the little children in the house if I didn’t follow them. That was how I went with them for three years before I had the chance to run away and submit myself to the Nigerian Army.”
In those three years, he said, “I cannot remember the number of people I killed but I am not happy with the experience.”
For these 601 deradicalised members of Boko Haram and ISWAP group on parade at the Deradicalisation Rehabilitation and Reintegration (DRR) Camp of Operation Safe Corridor, OPSC, it was different strokes and different stories. They were variously involved as Boko Haram combatants, informants, suppliers, captives or in any other forms. On this day, these men were not in the jungle of Sambisa forest carrying AK47 or seeking means of survival but are all dressed in white brocade caftan, a symbol of peace with green white green, Nigeria’s national colour cap to match.
They have been in the Mallam Sidi Camp of the DRR for 24 weeks, receiving various trainings, teachings and instructions deliberately targeted at deradicalising their mindset and rehabilitating them for onward reintegration into the society. This was their graduation day. As soon as the programme commenced, all of them in their white caftan and green white green cap rose to sing the second stanza of the national anthem as the opening prayer.
Their number cuts across ages from 73 year old man to a teenager of 14 years. In this camp, they are called clients not ex-combatants. The Chief of Defence Staff, General Abayomi Olonisakin is the chairman of Operation Safe Corridor and he was perhaps the happiest man for graduating the largest repentant Boko Haram members. The training in the camp involved not only the Nigerian Armed forces but also paramilitary agencies like the NDLEA, NCSDC among others and 12 other federal government ministries, department and agencies. A number of international and local non-governmental organisations such as International Organisation for Migration (IOM) and Centre for Democracy and Development are also collaborating with OPSC to achieve its objectives.
Since inception, OPSC has admitted 893 clients comprising 287 in the first 3 batches and 606 in batch 4 for the DRR programme. Out of the 287 clients in batch 1-3, 280 including 2 Chadians were successfully integrated while seven were deceased. Batch 4 clients arrived in two chalks on 27 November and 14 December 2019. This number comprises 592 Nigerians from 10 states and 14 foreign nationals from Cameroon, Chad and Niger.
“Out of this number, three unfortunately died of health complications while one was referred for further medical treatment at the Neuropsychiatric Hospital in Maiduguri, and another one withdrawn on disciplinary ground and transferred for re-categorisation and prosecution,” said the CDS.
According to the CDS, the 601 graduating clients have been completely deradicalised; their extremist ideologies have been relinquished and they now conform to acceptable norms and the teachings of the Islamic religion.
He added that all the therapies which they underwent have certified them fit for graduation and ready for integration into their respective society.
“A special counter-narrative package by renowned clerics was also organised for the clients to correct or inculcate the right tenets of Islam and Christianity in them. As part of the DRR programme, visit from family members and prominent citizens were conducted while regular telephone conversations with relations to bridge gap and promote reconciliation were also allowed.
“During the programme, the clients appeared before the quasi-judicial panel headed by a judge of Federal High Court to confess their past deeds, denounce membership of the insurgent/terrorist groups and swore oath of allegiance to the Federal Government of Nigeria,” Olonisakin said.
The 601 repentant terrorists who are being reintegrated into their communities were given N20, 000 stipends and basic starter-packs to practise their respective vocations.
Borno State governor, Professor Babagana Zulum, who was the special guest of honour at the occasion, donated N5 million to the graduates.
Zulum, who was represented by the state Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice, Babakura Jatau, denied reports that the state government gave the ex-combatants N100,000. 00 each.
The commissioner said only 10 percent of the 601 repentant terrorists are actually Boko Haram members while the rest are those who were abducted and became accomplices.
“What the government will do is that they will be brought to Borno State from Gombe and they will be housed in two orientation camps where there are facilities for training and for them to practise whatever they were taught in Gombe.”
Responding to a question on alleged rejection of the ex-terrorists by the communities in Borno, Jatau said he was not aware of that. He, however, quickly added that rejection by the community cannot be ruled out because of the trauma and what they have passed through in the hands of terrorists over the years.
“But with enough advocacy, sensitisation and the reports we are presenting to the government for implementation, I am sure they are going to be welcomed back into the society. When we had the screening in the last three days, 80 percent of these people are innocent. We are the victims from 2009 to 2020. It’s almost eleven years, we have not run away, we are in Maiduguri, all the bombings, the sporadic shootings and attacks; we witness them. So we are the victims. We are pretty sure that once we present the report to the government, it is going to be considered and with enough sensitisation, the community will welcome them back,” he said.
Jatau sent a warning to the terrorists who are still in the bush to come out and lay down their arms and embrace the option of peace, adding that the federal and Borno State governments are willing to accept, rehabilitate and allow them live peacefully.
“If they however refuse, I can assure you their days are numbered. Sooner or later, the Nigerian armed forces will bring them on their knees,” he said.
The coordinator of Operation Safe Corridor, OPSC, Major General Bamidele Shafa said the 601 number of the graduating repentant ex-combatants is the standard United Nations battalion. “In any war where you have 600 surrendered willingly to embrace the federal government programme, I think it is a sign for peace ahead of us.”