Boko Haram escapees now confronted by uncertain future

Closure of Nigerian camps leaving ex-militants struggling to survive and care for dependents

Boko Harem is infamous for its attacks on schools, including the April 2016 abduction of hundreds of schoolgirls from Chibok in Nigeria. File photograph: Getty

Boko Harem is infamous for its attacks on schools, including the April 2016 abduction of hundreds of schoolgirls from Chibok in Nigeria. File photograph: Getty

 

When his child found the leaflet on the ground, Mohammed, who is illiterate, was not able to read it. Instead he pocketed the piece of paper, only showing it to a friend in the dead of night.

It said that Boko Haram fighters like Mohammed, a 42-year-old commander, were being encouraged to surrender. The Nigerian authorities would not kill them, but would give them a place to live and training that could help them start a small business, he remembers hearing. Tired of a life of violence, Mohammed was easily swayed. He convinced dozens of others to defect with him, swearing on the Quran that they would all be safe. His wife was one of the hardest to persuade. “Even if I get killed, my children will not get killed,” he told her.

Eventually, 41 people escaped together. In the 15 months since, the same path has been followed by thousands of other so-called “repentant” Boko Haram fighters.

Last week, when I met him in Maiduguri, the besieged northeast Nigerian city known as the birthplace of the Islamic terrorist group, Mohammed looked close to tears. It was dusk and we sat in the almost dark: insurgents have blown up power lines and the city has had no electricity for almost a year.

Over the last few weeks, ten of Mohammed’s group of escapees have left again for the bush, prepared to rejoin the militant group they had sworn to break from forever. Their reasoning, he said, was that the Nigerian government is forcing displaced people out of the camps that have been a fixture of Maiduguri, leaving them struggling to survive and take care of dependents.

Roughly 200,000 people out of northeast Nigeria’s estimated two million displaced – as well what Mohammed says are about 200 former Boko Haram fighters – have been instructed to leave by the end of the year. Many civilians say the regions they fled over more than a decade of war are no longer safe for them, and they are frightened they will be abducted or press-ganged into joining militants.

For Mohammed, the closure of the camps – where he lived with his mother, two wives and 14 children – is a sign that the authorities cannot be trusted. “I don’t like to kill people but because of the fake promises of the government I want to go back,” he said. (A spokesperson for the governor who ordered the camps emptied denied former fighters were living in them and said: “I really do not know what is really special about [the] accommodation issue. I think the most important worry for the repentant was . . . safety after surrender.”)

Lack of employment

Like many others who have surrendered, Mohammed says he initially joined the insurgents because of “a lack of employment”. Boko Haram fighters hired him to buy goods for them, paying “good money”. Becoming a member meant his family would be provided for. But when he got away he was “so happy”, he says.

Boko Haram – which has killed tens of thousands of Nigerians and once controlled territory the size of Belgium – is now split into factions, the most powerful of which is the Islamic State’s West Africa Province (Iswap). Iswap is aligned with the so-called Islamic State and was involved in the May 2021 death of Abubakar Shekau, the leader of the other major faction to which Mohammed belonged.

Two years after its territorial defeat in Syria, IS continues to retain influence in pockets across Africa, where poverty, corruption, a sense of injustice and a lack of functioning government institutions can make it easy to recruit. Last year’s Global Terrorism Index found that seven of the 10 countries with the largest increase in terrorism globally were in sub-Saharan Africa, while IS-affiliated groups are becoming “especially prominent”.

This week, Uganda launched air strikes and sent troops into neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo to hunt down the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), a group that the US, among others, say is IS affiliated.

Uganda’s military response came after four people were killed and 33 injured in twin suicide bombings in the capital city Kampala on November 16th, which police said was carried out by a domestic group linked to the ADF. Islamic State claimed responsibility.

Another bomb killed one woman at a roadside restaurant on October 23rd, while several people were injured on October 25th by a suicide bombing on a bus. Local tallies say the ADF has killed roughly 6,000 Congolese civilians over the past eight years.

Thousands of child soldiers

The ADF’s forces include child soldiers. Last month, the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) said 21,000 children have been recruited and used by armed forces in west and central Africa since 2016, making it the region recording the highest numbers in the world.

As IS collapsed elsewhere, weapons and other forms of support flowed into Africa. Former Boko Haram fighters describe regular communication between IS leaders in the Middle East and those in Nigeria, and recall foreigners from Libya, Iraq and Pakistan visiting their camps.

Boko Haram’s name roughly translates as “western education is forbidden”. The group is infamous for its attacks on schools, including the April 2016 abduction of hundreds of schoolgirls from Chibok, which sparked the global social media campaign #BringBackOurGirls.

Since his defection, which involved participation in a government-led deradicalisation programme, Mohammed said his children are finally getting an education – the main reason he is hesitant to rejoin the insurgency. “It’s one of the factors that will stop me from going back, because my children are going to school and they like it.”

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