There is need to carry through the process of rehabilitation for the penitent terrorists to avoid the attraction of returning to old ways, as some of the mistakes in the Niger Delta amnesty programme have tended to encourage. Vincent Obia writes
In the North-east, the Boko Haram terrorist sect is still wreaking havoc on soft targets. Yet some members of the group are turning their backs on insurgency and surrendering to the military. The Defence Headquarters on Tuesday said it had established camps for the repentant members of the group, who laid down their weapons and embraced peace. Director of Defence Information, Brigadier-general Rabe Abubakar, said the setting up of the camps was a component of the military exercise, code-named Operation Safe Corridor, aimed at ending insurgency in the North-east, securing the zone, and reintegrate willing members of the terror group into society. He said repentant insurgents would be trained in various skills and equipped economically as part of the rehabilitation programme. Though, the leadership of the Boko Haram Islamist group has not commented on the capitulation by its fighters.
The military says more than 800 Boko Haram fighters have surrendered and shown repentance.
Details of the rehabilitation programme have not been made public. But initial indication points to an amnesty plan. Ideas designed to reclaim Nigerian lands and wean terrorists off the rebellion, which has killed an estimated 17, 000 people and displaced nearly three million from their homes, would certainly receive the support of the citizens. But the transition from terrorism to normal life in society for contrite Boko Haram members must be properly articulated and implemented to achieve the peace that the country seriously craves. Nigeria cannot afford to repeat the mistakes in the implementation of the Niger Delta amnesty programme, which have tended to turn a scheme designed as a solution to armed struggle into a motivation for the same problem.
Though, the context of the Niger Delta amnesty programme is different from the current Boko Haram rehabilitation process, there are uniformities in the two schemes that offer useful lessons, which need to be learned, particularly, to avoid repeating the same errors.
The late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua had declared the Niger Delta amnesty programme on June 25, 2009 as a five-year project of “Disarmament, Demobilisation, and Rehabilitation or Reintegration” for armed agitators who accepted the offer of amnesty. Before the acceptance of the amnesty offer, the armed groups had raised issues of development, environmental and economic justice, and land and resource ownership rights in the oil-rich region. They reached agreements with the federal government on the issues, which formed part of the core questions in the Niger Delta agitation. Some of the specific demands of the people included completion of the East-West road, the railway line and coastal road from Lagos to Calabar, construction and establishment of new towns with modern facilities in the Niger Delta, as well as establishment of tertiary institutions to bring education closer to the people in the coastal communities of the region.
Following the decision of the groups to lay down their arms, the amnesty project was meant to stabilise the security situation in the Niger Delta for development to take place. But while the security angle has been largely achieved, the federal government has generally reneged on its obligations in terms of development of the region under the amnesty programme.
Part of the implications of the lack of commitment to the development component of the amnesty scheme is the excessive focus on the former armed agitators at the expense of other people in the Niger Delta who, though victims of the agitation, were not combatants. There are several victims of the armed agitations, including whole communities that were destroyed, who are not covered by the amnesty programme. The concentration of effort on the former armed men has tended to create an endlessly repeated circle of arms surrender and demand for compensation, as rising unemployment cause people to increasingly view the programme as an unending meal ticket.
The government must deal with the problem of unemployment through the development of the economy to reduce susceptibility and incentive for violent crimes.
Besides the development issues, there is an emotional element of the transition from a violent background to peaceful life that is often ignored. The process of healing, which prepares the penitent militant for reintegration into society, appeared to be left out in the Niger Delta amnesty programme. This seemed to isolate many of the repentant men and expose them to the temptation of returning to violence.
It would certainly require more than just vocational training to prepare persons who had done things that are abhorrent to civilised society, such as killing, to be reintegrated into the community. An emotional healing process would be needed to make such persons feel comfortable in the community.
As one of the country’s worst sectarian conflicts appears to be thawing, the authorities need to have a cogent plan to take back those who have decided to renounce terrorism.