Deconstructing Disarmament and Reconciliation Programs in Northeast Nigeria

In this interview, Obi Anyadike describes the repercussions from the conflict in northeast Nigeria and discusses his publication in the New Humanitarian about Nigeria’s secret disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) program for senior jihadist commanders. The conversation addresses the background of the conflict, new DDR programs, and the meaning of reconciliation.

  • Obi Anyadike is senior Africa editor for the New Humanitarian and senior associate (non-resident) with the Humanitarian Agenda at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). He is a regular commentator on Boko Haram and researches jihadist recruitment as an Open Society Foundations fellow.

The discussion, moderated by Jacob Kurtzer, has been edited for purposes of brevity and clarity.

JK: Can you distill key findings from your article?

OA: There is a clandestine program called Sulhu, run by the Nigerian domestic security service in conjunction with the army. Sulhu is specifically aimed at senior jihadist commanders, with the idea being that these men can be “turned” and then used to appeal to fellow senior commanders who are still in the bush to defect, whereas the existing Operation Safe Corridor program tackles low-level jihadists and Boko Haram fighters.

Through a bit of digging and very kind sources, we found somebody from the Sulhu program who was willing to talk. This commander had been in a town called Bama where there had been hundreds of civilians killed by Boko Haram. He was there throughout that period. I wanted to understand his objectives and the mechanics of the process.

Additionally, I talked to people who had suffered at his hands and displaced people more broadly to understand where they were in terms of forgiveness. I was interested in the fundamental moral/strategic issue: Should we forgive people for the sake of peace or deal differently with people who have blood on their hands?

JK: When you spoke to civilians in Bama, was there any common thread? Second, were people interested in a program that could reduce violence or more interested in the disparity of funding going to individuals who have committed atrocities while civilians suffer from humanitarian issues?

OA: There is research looking at the issue of forgiveness. Sulhu traditionally means you swear on a Quran and renounce violence as part of the process by which the community forgives you.

Some research shows that slightly less than 60 percent of people in the northeast would agree to reconciliation. That figure drops among women, who have been the hardest hit by sexual violence, and in areas where there has been extreme violence.

Views on reconciliation shift over time. I’ve talked to a person one day and they say, “yes, we should forgive,” and then change their mind the next day. Maybe they realize how badly they suffered from violence and want to blame somebody.

Broadly, people want the conflict to be over but fundamentally know it is not going to end soon. It has been 12 years in the making. What people often say is “if the government says I need to forgive these people, and this allows me to go back to my village, I’ll do it.” What they don’t know is what happens when they get back to the village.

JK: In your assessment of the Nigerian authorities’ approach to this question, do you think there’s a way to strike a balance between some form of justice while maintaining the program’s success? How does justice factor into that equation for the civilian population?

OA: One problem with Sulhu is that the agreements include a transitional justice component the government has not implemented. There should be truth telling and reparations. The community should be involved but hasn’t been because it’s a clandestine program (separate from Operation Safe Corridor).

The second issue is financial capacity. People are outraged that fighters coming through Sulhu are offered businesses and receive a monthly stipend. This outrage also applies to Operation Safe Corridor. Populist politicians have painted it as killers who are pampered. These men receive vocational training and psychological support and are released into communities that have comparatively nothing. People are outraged by that inequity: those who go through a DDR program are resettling back into the communities where there has been no support for civilians.

The critical failing of both Operation Safe Corridor and Sulhu is the absence of community discussion and involvement. Some state governments have resisted resettling men who have come through Operation Safe Corridor because of popular anger. In the case of Sulhu, fighters are melting back into the local population. However, there are areas they can’t go back to because they committed atrocities. So, they are happy staying in cosmopolitan cities where they’re slightly anonymous. But again, there has been no forgiveness or transitional justice.

JK: Nigeria receives extensive international assistance from the European Union, the United States, and the United Nations. Have any donors expressed any reservations about Sulhu or Operation Safe Corridor, or is this consistent with DDR programs donors have supported for conflict resolution in the northeast?

OA: There’s a lack of transparency on the development funding in the northeast. The needs are huge, and it is difficult to evaluate how money is best spent.

There could be more support for Operation Safe Corridor, especially if it was better run or more transparent. A lot of men in Operation Safe Corridor are low-level Boko Haram fighters or were picked up because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. There are people who have nothing to do with Boko Haram in the military barracks at Giwa, which terrifies people. In a sense, we can celebrate Operation Safe Corridor for decongesting and righting an injustice by removing people from the Giwa barracks who shouldn’t have been there in the first place.

To the broader point, there needs to be a smarter way to fight this war. Some people see Operation Safe Corridor and Sulhu as smart counterinsurgency strategy. The problem is that we might be fooling ourselves. Commanders coming through Sulhu do not have clear motives behind why they are leaving—whether an ideological change of heart or just an escape. There is concern that men are leaving because they found themselves at the wrong end of a political debate within the bush or had committed crimes and had to flee. To claim an ideological change of heart seems like a no-risk way of getting out and getting supported. So, it’s tricky.

JK: The timeframe for success for something like this is extremely long. Within Sulhu, are there metrics to determine success?

OA: There’s no real evidence that deradicalization works. In a sense, this is just pulling out and peeling away people who already want to quit. So, it’s not hardcore jihadists being removed and converting to something else.

Some Boko Haram men who’ve been through Operation Safe Corridor despise the deradicalization aspects. They look at the imams and say, “you don’t have more knowledge or religious knowledge than I do, and we don’t agree with your interpretation.” But they like psychosocial support.

The army is trying to say, “anybody who wants to leave, we will support you.” That’s one less person on the battlefield, but this is not a strategy that’s going to win the war.

Sulhu might lead to an open channel for communication to some Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) commanders. Then, there would be a possibility of some political agreement or Taliban-style deal. Within the Nigerian context, I don’t see how that can happen and I don’t think anybody would accept an enclave in the northeast.

JK: Is Sulhu talked about widely enough to have permeated into ISWAP leadership? How do you think this could change the dynamics of the conflict?

OA: The Sulhu program is mainly focused on ISWAP. The initial contacts were through a senior ideologue named Mamman Nur. Expectations were set on this man being a useful interlocutor in trying to find a political solution to the crisis. So, that was his network. That’s another reason why Sulhu may not work. He has since died. There is a new, young, and charismatic leader of ISWAP called al-Barnawi.

I’m not sure people will still defect. I think ISWAP is on a roll. Al-Barnawi is seen as a breath of fresh air. He’s an Islamic scholar in a sense, where some of the hardliners in ISWAP weren’t. We are seeing a movement of francophone jihadists into the northeast or Lake Chad region flocking to his standard. The death of Shekau, the leader of Boko Haram who al-Barnawi and ISWAP killed, caused a whole reorganization of the jihadist movements that can strengthen their movement.

The problem is that some Boko Haram commanders who are loyal to Shekau have refused to join ISWAP, but many others have. This politically astute reorganization is developing into the anti-Shekau movement—and avoiding the killing of Muslims indiscriminately. The target is the security forces. They want to build a caliphate that is more just and equitable, whereas Shekau was just a brutal killer. This has a political resonance in some parts of the northeast, and this message has always been harder to defeat than Shekau’s brutality.

JK: You spoke to the difference in attitudes about this program among women. With respect to these programs and other Nigerian government efforts, what do you think about the gender component?

OA: Operation Safe Corridor focuses on the men. Sulhu tries to bring families out, with family units staying together, which is appealing. In coming out, they fear getting shot by the army or thrown into detention. But the idea that they can come out with their family and get vocational training is appealing and an incentive to quit.

The gender component in the northeast is fascinating. There’s a flowering of women who are empowered because the aid industry in the northeast has educated women with job opportunities. Young women realize they must stand on their own two feet because there are not men in their lives who can provide for them amid high rates of unemployment. Traditional gender roles have been turned upside down to a degree. There’s been a growth of women-led businesses, which would result in Shekau turning in his grave. This is not what Boko Haram has been fighting for. Its goal is to keep women in the home instead of the workplace.

You can see this in the internally displaced persons (IDP) camps. Several programs have tried to empower women. I remember talking to some IDP women who were saying, “these young women who are coming, working with the NGOs, working with the relief organizations, they are an example to us.” They’re showing that women can do things. The fact that aid is controlled by women is also impacting gender dynamics in an empowering way.

JK: Do you think Sulhu has meaningful implications for the broader conflict? Can this have a strategic long-term impact?

OA: I don’t think it’s a war-winning strategy, but bottom line is it’s worth trying. There is an obvious moral issue. The military or the security establishment’s position is the ends justify the means. We can keep resettling these men and they provide a service. Maybe there is evidence that it has an impact. We do know that in ISWAP-controlled areas, phone use and movement is now more strictly controlled. That could have been because of these defects.

I’d say the conflict is fundamentally an ideological one. The conflict is a failure of the state to provide adequate resources. People are looking for an alternative. There has been no ideological alternative in Nigeria since the 1980s. There is no progressive party or left-wing alternative to the banality and corruption of the state. Historically, around the world people have turned to religion as an alternative. I think to a certain degree that is happening in Nigeria.

I think that in the northeast, people who initially had supported Boko Haram when it was still a religious movement, before it became an armed movement, might now say, “we made a mistake.” But there are still a lot of people who embrace the religious idea of creating a society they crave. This message that exists in the northeast about the Kanuri people or the Islamic empire in the northeast is something that’s existed prior to colonialism. These symbols are milked and used by the jihadists, and it does resonate for people.

JK: If the Nigerian government did a better job of engaging and supporting aid operations, giving opportunities to women and girls, you could see it as an ideological alternative.

But you mentioned the Taliban. The simple narrative of Taliban success was they were quietly paying off local commanders, getting them to drop their weapons with very little violence. There was plenty of violence in the past year, but over the first few weeks of August they made massive territorial gains, including Kabul.

You said it’s worth a try. Given the spread of jihadi groups in the Sahel, Lake Chad region, and elsewhere, have you seen evidence of similar programs being tried in other contexts? Also, is there any sense that neighboring countries are looking, learning, and talking to the Nigerians about Sulhu to see if it’s something that they would want to explore in their own domestic contexts?

OA: I was at a program in Niger a couple years back. At that time, it was small and it seemed to not be well established.

Cameroon has a problem trying to tackle the issue around anglophone separatists. Again, there seem to be issues around bringing the young men over, but the conditions aren’t great. The whole setup is all well and good to quit, but the next step and the step after that is often the problem. It hasn’t been quite thought through.

Nigeria has perhaps the most advanced DDR system. Initially, it was meant to be even more advanced. If you talk to the mother of the program, Dr. Akilu, she used to be part of the Office of the National Security Adviser. Her idea around DDR was a whole remaking of society. We can’t do this in isolation. It’s not just about the guys who are in the bush. We need to look at the education system. We need to look at the justice system. It was the revolution that everybody wants as the only real alternative to the injustice that triggered so much of this violence. It can’t be done in isolation.

We can’t look at just northeast Nigeria. Northeast Nigeria is a part of the rest of Nigeria, and this is hugely political. We can’t get away from the fact that President Buhari is seen as promoting sectarian interests. Now, whether you believe it or not, this is a very strong feeling particularly promoted on social media.

People are relating this to the Sulhu program based on what we’ve seen in Afghanistan. As a result of this story, I’m seeing a lot of posts about how terrorists are pampered by a northern-led government; it’s going to be the Talibanization of Nigeria. These are fears and are very resonant right now.

Jacob Kurtzer is director and senior fellow of the Humanitarian Agenda at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Obi Anyadike is a senior associate (non-resident) with the CSIS Humanitarian Agenda.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Obi Anyadike
Senior Associate (Non-resident), Humanitarian Agenda