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Quit while you’re ahead: Why Boko Haram fighters are surrendering

‘They are quitting because they can’t raid – they can’t steal – like they used to.’

There has been a wave of defections by Boko Haram fighters in recent weeks. The army hopes it will continue, and ease the military pressure after 12 years of war.
There has been a wave of defections by Boko Haram fighters in recent weeks. The army hopes it will continue, and ease the military pressure after 12 years of war. (Afolabi Sotunde/REUTERS)

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A rash of surrenders by Islamist insurgents in Nigeria’s northeast is being hailed as a military victory, but close watchers of the 12-year conflict say it marks the culmination of a power struggle within the jihadist movement, and the start of a new and more dangerous phase.

More than 1,000 Boko Haram fighters and their families have handed themselves over to army units in recent weeks in the southern Borno state towns of Konduga, Bama, and Mafa – including what the military has described as the group’s “chief bomb expert”. And hundreds more fighters have reportedly surrendered across the border in neighbouring Cameroon.

In staged ceremonies, troops have handed out food and clothes to groups of solemn men holding placards in English, some reading: “Nigerians please forgive us”; “peace is the only way”; and “surrender and live”.

The “massive surrendering” is the result of a “recent escalation of offensive operations”, the military said in a triumphant statement earlier this week.

But analysts argue that the unprecedented scale of defections has more to do with the fallout over the death of Boko Haram leader, Abubakar Shekau.

He died in the aftermath of an attack in May on his Sambisa Forest base in southern Borno by the breakaway Islamic State in West Africa Province, a group headed since March by Abu Musab al-Barnawi, a young and increasingly charismatic figure. 

The bulk of senior Boko Haram commanders in Nigeria and neighbouring Cameroon pledged allegiance to al-Barnawi in the wake of Shekau’s death. Those who refused were given a deadline and warned they would be hunted down and killed – many have since escaped to the army’s front lines and given themselves up.

“They don’t have the weaponry to confront ISWAP, so their best bet is to surrender and to at least get their families taken care of,” journalist and security analyst Ahmad Salkida told The New Humanitarian in a WhatsApp interview.

“The conflict in the northeast may get a lot tougher [for the security forces] after the rainy season [which ends in September],” said Salkida. “ISWAP is consolidating; it’s making sure it’s the only armed non-state actor in the region.”

No more looting

The current wave of defections is also ideological. “They are quitting because they can’t raid – they can’t steal – like they used to. All that was acceptable is no longer the case [in ISWAP’s] new normal,” said Idayat Hassan, the director of the Centre for Democracy and Development, which works on transitional justice issues.

Al-Barnawi was one of the key men behind the split with Shekau in 2016. He opposed Shekau’s indiscriminate violence, and the predatory nature of his followers. ISWAP has pursued a more politically savvy “hearts and minds” approach in the regions of northern Borno and Yobe states it controls.

“[The defectors] are saying they can’t understand the ideology of ISWAP,” said Hassan. “It’s not something they recognise.”

Shekau’s “takfiri” creed – that only those living in his territory would be spared, and everyone else was an “infidel” to be killed – was the justification for a years-long Boko Haram bombing campaign that targeted Muslim civilians in cities across northern Nigeria.

It was a strategy long condemned by ISWAP. “That’s why the bomb-maker cannot stay with ISWAP. That’s why he has surrendered,” Malam Aliyu*, a former senior jihadist commander, told The New Humanitarian.

Aliyu, who defected in 2019, is part of a clandestine programme known as sulhu, run by Nigeria’s domestic spy agency, the Department of State Services. Sulhu employs men like Aliyu, who are set up with a monthly stipend, to contact jihadists in the bush and persuade them to leave.

Although these former commanders have almost certainly committed atrocities, they have signed a peace deal with the government and have not been prosecuted.

Aliyu said the majority of the people surrendering in recent weeks are not rijal – the jihadist fighting men – but ordinary villagers known as awam, who had lived under Boko Haram control.

ISWAP has given them the option to stay “and do religion [jihad] with us” or leave – and he expected many more to arrive.

But Aliyu acknowledged hundreds of rijal have defected, and said he brokered the surrender of a group in Bama. “They called me and said we can’t stay with ISWAP. We need to leave and join sulhu. Please advise.”

A tough sell

The photo-ops, where the men are not handcuffed and seem well-treated, is “the military’s way of trying to encourage yet more defections”, said Salkida.

But the sulhu initiative is unlikely to be the destination for the new wave of defectors. Instead, the military has an amnesty programme – separate from sulhu – called Operation Safe Corridor, which takes low-risk former combatants through deradicalisation and eventually reintegration into society. So far, more than 900 men have graduated.

But OSC is a tough sell for the authorities in a country where 12 years of war has killed 35,000 people – 390,000 if the victims of the wider humanitarian crisis are counted – and upended the lives of millions more, according to the United Nations.

On social media, the perceived humane treatment of “terrorists” is routinely contrasted with the suffering and poverty of more than two million displaced people, and now a conflict-related food emergency that threatens 4.4 million people in the northeast.

Some senior politicians have misrepresented the OSC detention facility in Mallam Sidi, outside the northeastern city of Gombe, as a holiday resort where “killers” are pampered

The military was forced this week into making a statement that it will not “free repentant terrorists” – a claim also doing the rounds on social media.

“You’re right, people are suffering,” said Aliyu. “But these people [former jihadists] know how to shoot, how to bomb. So the government should set them up in business; otherwise they could do something bad.”

Nigeria’s northern-dominated government is accused of double standards. It has clamped down hard on a secessionist movement that has turned to violence in the southeast. It has also demanded the extradition of a populist separatist southwestern leader currently in Benin.

“People are asking how we can be giving jollof rice (a popular dish) to those that have defected but throwing into prison people coming from certain other [regions of the country],” said Hassan.

Salkida agrees: “It goes down poorly in the rest of Nigeria – but the military are trying to encourage Boko Haram to defect, and to find another [smarter] way to fight the war.”

* The name has been changed to protect his identity

Edited by Andrew Gully.

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