“Borno Government, Repentant Terrorists and Accountability”: Black, White or Shades of Grey?

“Borno Government, Repentant Terrorists and Accountability”: Black, White or Shades of Grey?

This article by Maryam Uwais is a Rejoinder to The Advocate of last Tuesday, February 20th. She discusses some of the reasons behind the Borno State Governor, Babagana Zulum’s interventions, combining kinetic and non-kinetic/civilian tools to deal with the Boko Haram insurgency and heal the communities within his State, which has been one of one’s most hit by terrorism. She commends his efforts which are said to be yielding positive results, particularly in a matter which the Governor does not have a template to guide him


On Tuesday February 20th, 2024, The Advocate carried a very strong opinion regarding a key element of the efforts by Borno State Governor Babagana Zulum to restore enduring peace in Borno State, following the severe disruptions arising from the violent Boko Haram (BH) insurgency. I feel that it might be helpful to give context and the rationale for what I consider to be a well thought out intervention in an extremely difficult, complex and unprecedented situation.

We may recall that BH began as a relatively low-profile radical group in Borno State, opposing western-style education and government corruption and pushing for an ‘Islamic State’. BH became increasingly violent after it’s leader was killed extrajudicially. By 2014, BH had seized control of over 20 Local Government Areas, as it continued to expand its attacks to neighbouring States and countries, utilising tactics that included kidnappings, suicide bombings, and ferocious attacks on civilian populations. The Nigerian Government initially opted to pursue a purely kinetic option, working alongside a coalition of Nigerian, Chadian, Cameroonian, and Nigerien forces to launch coordinated military operations against BH. Nevertheless, the group remained active, carrying out deadly sporadic attacks and suicide bombings in many parts of Northern Nigeria and West Africa.

The Boko Haram insurgency has had severe consequences for Nigeria (and Borno State, in particular), including the deaths of thousands of civilians, including security personnel. Over 1.7 million of people have been internally displaced or forced to seek refuge in neighbouring countries due to the violence and insecurity. The insurgency has caused a severe humanitarian crisis, with food shortages, malnutrition, and lack of access to healthcare affecting millions of people. Vital infrastructure has been destroyed, hindering development and reconstruction efforts. The conflict has had a negative impact on the economy of Northeast Nigeria, undermining agriculture, trade, and other economic activities. The targeting of schools has disrupted education, causing a significant increase in the out-of-school numbers. In addition to the heavy toll on human life, infrastructure and security, the attacks overturned normalcy and stability. Farming and food security became practically impossible.

The Borno Model 

It quickly become glaring that, force alone cannot end an insurgency of this nature. Being at the epicentre of the insurgency, the Borno State Government has had to assume the enormous responsibility of healing communities and restoring social infrastructure, as a critical aspect of ending the insurgency in a sustainable manner.

This ‘Borno Model’ was conceived by Governor Zulum, as a feasible option for countering the BH insurgency in Nigeria. The process combines both military and civil components, aimed at addressing the root causes of conflict, while promoting peace, reconciliation and development. Broken down, the Borno Model involves encouraging the individuals concerned to surrender to the State Government, on mutually agreed terms. These terms include surrendering with their families, weapons and hostages (if any), as well as oath taking, upon the assurances of the State Government to consider their reintegration and rehabilitation under traditional, transitional and restorative justice processes of justice, subject to a methodical process of ascertaining their levels of ‘complicity’ (if at all), as well as community acceptance. 

A critical element of the Borno Model, is the engagement of local communities, with social cohesion platforms and groups being formed for the purposes of ensuring only ‘low risk’ returnees are facilitated to return to the communities, as determined by them. In this process, diverse (and key) members of the community are engaged and trained to identify, monitor and manage the rehabilitation of only ‘low risk’ returnees (a vast majority of who are minors, or even if currently adults, were minors at the relevant time), after they may have surrendered, been screened, profiled, treated for physical ailments, and then deradicalised, counselled and trained on relevant skills, as support towards rehabilitation and their seamless reintegration in their communities. 

Expertise, hard work, passion and commitment have gone into the setting up of inclusive community platforms, with members trained to verify, evaluate and escalate issues where they arise, thereby ensuring a seamless but closely monitored process.

Those identified as ‘high risk’ returnees are, however, routinely rejected by the community platforms. These are adults suspected of having directly committed heinous war/terrorist crimes, as well as sexual and gender-based violence. They are housed in ‘integrated villages’, pending investigation for prosecution under the Terrorism (Prevention and Prohibition) Act 2022 at the Federal High Court. These highly secure integrated villages also ensure that these persons are subjected to deradicalization, and counselling, pending prosecution.

As reiterated by The Advocate, terrorism is a Federal offence, triable only by the Federal High Court. Given the unfolding events in Borno State, however, it is important to unbundle the issues for clarity. According to the piece, 160,000 individuals have surrendered to the Borno State Government, being persons designated, as ‘insurgents’. It is important to recognise that until conclusion of ongoing inquiries and examination of evidence, caution must be taken in branding any individual as an insurgent or as ‘terrorist’. It is also worth noting that the trial of minors for criminal offences at the Federal High Court is fraught with constitutional difficulty, even where suspected to be ‘terrorist’. Family courts are established as part of the State High Court system, and not the Federal High Court. 

A close perusal of the demography of the returnees (during profiling by security agencies) would disclose that over 90% of the returnees have been verified as farming ‘slaves’, detained to serve the insurgents. It is also on record that by now, and save for a handful of individuals, the first generation of ideologic BH members are no more. Those embraced by the communities comprise mainly of youth, children, and women who were captured in their tender years, or were born and raised in captivity, with no evidence of them having been directly involved in the BH atrocities. Being tired of such a perilous existence, they have, in unison, offered to surrender, opting to abandon the forest and embrace the invitation to live normal lives on the set preconditions. Indeed, surrendering only gives the perception that they are ‘traitors’ to the BH, so returning to their past lives, thereafter, becomes dangerous.

There is a valid social policy behind the consideration of age and the state of mind of individuals, who must have been children when the insurgency began over 20 years ago. What does criminal law say about minors, or the culpability (or otherwise) of women who have been captive to the insurgents for so long? In addition to the actual commission of a criminal act, surely the intention to commit a crime is a critical ingredient. Moreover, assuming that the evidence for prosecution can be processed, we simply do not have enough prisons to harbour the sheer numbers of individuals emerging from the bush as a direct response to the invitation to surrender.

The thrust of the Governor’s effort is to utilise methods of resolving local conflicts and tensions (based on thorough research conducted) that have contributed to the insurgency, often through traditional conflict resolution mechanisms. Truth and reconciliation committees have been established, given the grievances held within communities and families. Such commissions provide a platform for victims to share their experiences, and for societies to acknowledge the past. Encouraging dialogue between victims and offenders fosters understanding, empathy, and a sense of shared responsibility. Empowering victims to actively participate in the justice process allows them to voice their needs, and contributes to their sense of justice. Providing opportunities for ‘offenders’ to make amends and reintegrate into society, promotes rehabilitation and reduces recidivism.


There is abundant evidence that the Governor’s efforts have led to improved security in most of the affected areas, allowing displaced populations to return to their homes in the rural areas. By actively involving local communities in the security efforts, the Model has gained their trust and support, making it easier to identify and counter insurgent activities. The rehabilitation and reintegration programmes have seen over 120,000 individuals being reintegrated into society as productive citizens, all of whom have acquired new skills. Strident efforts to resolve local conflicts have helped reduce tensions and promote peace in areas affected by the insurgency. Farming has resumed in almost all the affected communities for the most part, due to the involvement of these returnees who have been co-opted in the patrol and the protection of farmlands and villages, being familiar with the terrain and BH tactics. Initiatives to rebuild infrastructure have improved and contributed to restoring normalcy in some areas, encouraging displaced populations to return. The Model has also facilitated the delivery of humanitarian aid to those in need, alleviating suffering and addressing the immediate consequences of the conflict.

The impact of the Borno Model, as a non-kinetic approach to sustainable peace, is an ongoing and evolving process, which has achieved remarkable success in such a short period. It is still work in progress, however. While it has made progress in some areas, it is important to acknowledge that the root causes of the insurgency, such as socio-economic disparities, governance issues and radicalisation, remain complex matters and difficult to address swiftly, requiring continuous support. The efforts to counter BH must involve multiple stakeholders and require sustained commitment. The entire Model aims to restore trust between and within communities and security forces, with improved coordination between Nigerian security forces and regional partners. 

It must be emphasised that transitional and restorative justice options represent powerful frameworks aimed at addressing historical injustices, fostering reconciliation, and rebuilding fractured societies. I am an unapologetic advocate for these optional justice models, believing in their efficacy to facilitate healing, accountability, and sustainable peace in communities grappling with the legacy of conflict, oppression, and human rights abuses. Transitional justice acknowledges and confronts historical wrongs, including atrocities committed during conflicts or periods of oppression. Restorative justice focuses on repairing harm and rebuilding relationships within communities. Providing reparations to victims, such as compensation, cash grants, healthcare, and education, acknowledges their suffering and contributes to rebuilding their lives. A combination of these mechanisms encourages a shift from punitive approaches to collaborative problem-solving, promoting a more compassionate and empathetic society. With the successes recorded in countries like Northern Ireland,  Colombia, the Republic of South Africa, Sri Lanka, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Liberia, the international community increasingly recognises the effectiveness of transitional and restorative justice in rebuilding post-conflict societies.

On the other hand, pursuing accountability for ‘high risk’ perpetrators through fair trials and legal proceedings strengthens the rule of law, while balancing justice and reconciliation. This aspect is integral to the entire process, but evidence must first be presented in court for prosecution and convictions to happen. That process can, however, take time, hence the secure facilities termed ‘integrated village’.


Achieving justice and sustainable peace, is not only about the black letter of the law. There are so many shades of grey. Facts are that these ‘returnees’ have been living in the forest, caught up in this terrifying web of lies, death and destruction, through no direct fault of their own. 

Governor Zulum’s commendable effort, goes far beyond ‘forgiveness and oath-taking’. He has not broken any law. Indeed, what are his options? Supporting a purely kinetic approach, which has only increased the destruction, death and desperation, including handing over over 150,000 ‘prisoners of war’ to the security agencies (if they are even captured), majority of whom will continue to languish endlessly in tight holding spaces (at government’s expense), since they cannot be prosecuted on account of age, or lack of evidence? Or combining both kinetic and non-kinetic approaches, thereby encouraging productivity, healing and promoting an enduring peace? His challenges are hydra-headed, with no prior designed template to guide him. If we cannot find it in ourselves to support him in this very complex, taxing, unfolding scenario, we should at least appreciate his sincere, meaningful, and increasingly successful efforts at ending the peculiar nature of conflict and its multifarious consequences. 

Maryam Uwais OON, Senior Partner, Primera Africa Legal,  Abuja

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