“Prof” Usman Abakyari is instantly likeable. But the impish, slightly dishevelled water engineer turns serious at any mention of Boko Haram, the jihadist insurgency that for seven years has traumatised northeastern Nigeria.
He blames Boko Haram, incubated in his home city of Maiduguri, for the death of his wife. He has vowed to take revenge should he ever get the chance.
As a public employee, Abakyari was a target. The goal of the insurgency is the destruction of a corrupt Nigerian state, replaced by a justly governed caliphate, harking back to a pre-colonial past. But when armed men tried to break into his apartment one night in the “Locos” suburb of Maiduguri, he believes the motive was robbery rather than any grander statement.
Boko Haram’s membership is broad. Within its ranks are educated ideologues, opportunists looking for power or money, and the men and women who have been kidnapped and coerced. In Locos, as in other parts of the city they once controlled, they killed and extorted under the noses of the security forces, imposing a tax “for breathing” on anyone they chose.
But when they knocked at Abakyari’s door, his wife stood her ground. As he hid in the shower, she denied he was home and refused them entry. When the gunmen finally left, she collapsed in the doorway and he couldn’t revive her. “She protected me,” he tells IRIN.
This is a war that has killed more than 20,000 people, driven over 1.8 million from their homes and left two million hungry. But what has been a spectacularly grisly conflict now seems to be entering a new and uncertain phase.
Boko Haram once controlled most of northeastern Borno, with footholds in neighbouring Yobe and Adamawa states. At one stage it was estimated to be 15,000 strong. Now the momentum appears to be with the military. Boko Haram is still active in Borno, but the last unliberated territory is on the northern desert fringe of the state, bordering Chad and Niger.
Boko Haram members still raid army posts, and they still bomb. The explosions are rarely high-profile – almost exclusively attacks by “expendable” young women on crowded urban centres, serving only as disconcerting reminders of the insurgency’s deadly intent.
But there is a diminishing intensity to the conflict. In the last few months of 2016, death toll figures were at their lowest levels since February 2013, according to the monitoring group ACLED (although there is the beginning of an uptick).
Adding to Boko Haram’s problems is that it has split. The charismatic, ranting, classical Arabic-speaking leader Abubaker Shekau seems to have lost the support of so-called Islamic State. IS now backs Abu Musab al-Barnawi, who has questioned Shekau’s indiscriminate use of violence. Another powerful commander, Mamman Nur, is reportedly aligned with al-Barnawi.
Time to talk?
There has been a long and at times farcical history of “back channel” talks with the jihadists. But the release of 21 Chibok schoolgirls in October signalled that more solid contact was being made. The government has confirmed yet more of the estimated 195 remaining pupils, held since 2014, could be freed.
Zannah Mustapha, one of the mediators involved in the negotiations, sees an even more tantalising prospect. He believes there is scope for an agreement on a no-fire buffer zone, humanitarian access to Boko Haram-controlled areas, and ultimately a cessation of hostilities.
The talks, conducted over cellphone with at times “erratic” Boko Haram leaders, are coordinated by Nigeria’s Department of State Security and supported by the Swiss government. The International Committee of the Red Cross is acting as a "neutral intermediary".
Agreeing a peace would require a gargantuan political investment by the government. Nigeria is all too often polarised along regional fault lines, with the insurgency regarded as a northern problem in a country where conspiracy theories run deep. The Nigerian military would also need to be on board to end a conflict that its more entrepreneurially minded officers and men benefit from.
Mustapha, a lawyer who runs a school in Maiduguri that enrolls the orphan children of both Boko Haram and the security forces, says the choice is stark. He hunches forward in his seat for emphasis: “Do we want to continue this war or do we want to stop it? If you say stop it, then you need to find the political courage to do that.”
The counter-argument is a simple one: A peace accord is not in the DNA of an absolutist Boko Haram. If money changes hands for the release of the Chibok girls, it will be invested “in more guns to wage more war”, said one security source who asked not to be named.
But a smarter approach to this war is being tried. While Boko Haram’s leaders are ruled out of any peace deal, there are supposedly more than 1,400 footsoldiers who have surrendered under a safe corridor initiative. They are being held in secret locations around the country.
The goal of the programme “is to rehabilitate repentant Boko Haram militants and reintegrate them back into their respective communities as productive law-abiding citizens”. If the fighters in the bush can be convinced there is a genuine path to reconciliation, it would likely trigger yet more defections.
The initiative was developed by the Office of the National Security Advisor, part of a civilian-run counter-insurgency strategy. Ferdinand Ikwang, who pioneered it, explains how militants would signal to ONSA their intention to defect, drop their weapons at pre-arranged sites, and then be taken into custody. The army, with its history of rights abuses, was deliberately kept at arm’s length.
But the programme is now in the hands of the military, which is trying to coordinate multiple government ministries and agencies with only limited resources. Not only would they seem not to want the portfolio, but also a lack of transparency is threatening what was a potentially groundbreaking initiative to counter violent extremism.
A year down the road, a legal framework is still to be developed to cover the secret detention sites and indefinite incarceration of prisoners. Operationally, the categories of ex-combatants qualifying for the programme have not been spelt out. Neither has the “reintegration” process been properly explained.
Moreover, the 12-week period set aside for “deradicalisation” is seen by most analysts as way too short, and no biometric records are being kept to track the former fighters.
View from Maiduguri
Another glaring omission has been the failure to consult the communities supposed to receive the ex-combatants. A pilot programme involving a handful of detainees – who had gone through “deradicalisation” in a camp in Gombe, south of Borno – ended badly. At least two of the former militants were killed when they were returned home.
This should not have come as a surprise. A report in April last year by the international NGO Mercy Corps interviewed former members who had quit the group and independently came home. It described how precarious their life now was.
“We could wake up in five years and these guys are entrenched. They [could be local government] chairman, be mainstream.” - Ferdinand Ikwang, former ONSA official
Even if they had not been implicated in killings, they were under constant surveillance by the community, and risked being disappeared by the vigilante Civilian Joint Task Force or the army. Some felt it safer to settle elsewhere.
The report’s researcher, Ballama Mustafa, remembers one case where the CJTF debated killing a returnee, an early member of Boko Haram before the war started in 2009. Instead, he was taken to the police station, where he signed a statement, and then to the Bulema, the community leader, before whom he swore on the Koran that he meant no harm.
He was let go. Mustafa explains how local people are often aware of the extent of returnees’ involvement. “We know who was Boko Haram and what they did,” he says.
But the ex-combatants in the safe corridor programme are a different proposition. These are men who have taken up arms, potentially committed crimes, and could still be Boko Haram.
Ikwang, the former ONSA official, flags the inherent danger in the programme. “We could wake up in five years and these guys are entrenched. They [could be local government] chairman, be mainstream.”
Not in my backyard
After the failure of the Gombe pilot, the Centre for Democracy and Development, a local research NGO, held a “stakeholders’ dialogue” with the community in Maiduguri on the safe corridor initiative.
The community’s demands at the July 2016 meeting were clear: a minimum 10-year cooling off period before ex-fighters could return; the welfare of the displaced and those affected by the violence had to take precedence; and they wanted a say in the design and implementation of the reintegration effort.
Eight months later, opinions have scarcely changed. “Prof” Abakyari is one of several community representatives at a workshop in Maiduguri at the end of March run by the Mercy Corps stabilisation programme. Also at the table are religious leaders, state officials, security agencies (with the exception of the army), and a senior member of the CJTF.
“[Islam talks] about reconciliation, but it’s very difficult.” - Abba Munguno, retired civil servant
The conversation ricochets between the accountability of the government and people’s individual responsibility for the rise of Boko Haram: “what did you do to stop your child from joining?” is one rhetorical question that silences the room.
What is clear is the fundamental distrust in the government’s ability to protect its citizens. Boko Haram began as an intolerant grassroots religious movement with influential political patrons. The warning signs of the violence to come were ignored.
With no faith in the judicial system, few people disagree when Abakyari bluntly says he would take the law into his own hands if he ever met the men who had come to his door that night. “[The emotion generated by this conflict] is not like a switch you can off and on,” he explains.
Islam is the traditional mechanism for conflict resolution in the north. Religious leaders are expected to take the lead in promoting forgiveness and reconciliation. But despite the platitudes of “leaving judgement to God”, everyone at the workshop understands the reality.
“Even if you’re very religious, the gravity of these things makes it very hard,” says Abba Munguno, a retired civil servant. “[Islam talks] about reconciliation, but it’s very difficult.”
Women held captive would be welcome back, people around the table nod. There is grudging acceptance too of children fathered by Boko Haram fighters. And boys who had been coerced to fight might also be forgiven. But it is clear there can be no blanket approach to reintegration in the city.
“This is a step forward,” says Harriet Atim, manager of the Mercy Corps stabalisation programme. “Last year, if you even mentioned reintegration, people would just get up and walk out of the room.”
Not a single UN agency or international NGO was based in Maiduguri until a few years ago. Now, every meeting room in the hotel where Mercy Corps is holding its workshop is busy with donor-funded seminars that anticipate a post-conflict peace.
Adama Umoru wears a torn hijab, dirty wrapper, and has a permanently stunned look on her face. She came from Gwoza a year ago. The town – about 135 kilometres southeast of Maiduguri, on the border with Cameroon – was captured by Boko Haram in 2014 and declared the centre of its caliphate.
Her husband, a CJTF member, was killed in the attack. The insurgents also shot her father. A man called Abdulahi Abubaker, who sold food-seasoning ingredients in the market, pointed him out to the gunmen. Four months pregnant, Umoru was left to dig her father’s grave.
In Maiduguri, she looks after her two children by frying akara bean-cake snacks. She is doing better than many displaced people, but can’t make eye contact and seems deeply troubled. At the thought of returning to Gwoza, she becomes unequivocal: “I’m not going back, I buried my father.”
People make a community, and the need for healing is the unaddressed challenge of reconciliation, says psychologist Fatima Akilu (photo on right). She favours a truth and reconciliation process as one way to help move a fractured society forward. “People keep telling me: ‘Nobody has allowed me to tell my story until now’.”
She has sunk her savings into opening the first dedicated child trauma centre in Nigeria, in Maiduguri, and provides counselling services in the community. But Akilu, who set up Nigeria’s deradicalisation programme when she was a director at ONSA, worries about the future.
“The fundamental reasons for joining Boko Haram are not being addressed: the lack of access to justice, marginalisation… [to name a few],” she says. “The ideology has been seeded.”
The authorities still seem unprepared. There is no comprehensive early warning system for people to report to; no certainty there will be a security response, or that whistle-blowers will be protected. Imams are not registered, and the northeast remains educationally stunted.
“We are not good at long-term planning,” says Akilu. “But this insurgency calls for long-term planning, and for us to hold our nerve.”
* This story was amended on 31 May, altering the number of Boko Haram ex-combatants in government custody