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UN uncovers Nigeria’s secret programme for Boko Haram commanders

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A report by a United Nations (UN) independent news organisation, The New Humanitarian (formerly IRIN News), has uncovered a secret programme by the Nigerian government tagged, Suhlu, aimed at pulling top commanders of terrorist groups, including Boko Haram and the Islamic State for West African Province (ISWAP) out of the forests, rehabilitate them and provide them with a means of livelihood.

According to the UN organisation, Sulhu grew out of the behind-the-scenes attempts to free the more than 270 Chibok schoolgirls seized by Boko Haram in 2014, and is applauded by its supporters as smart warfare – a means to remove the senior jihadists from the battlefield more effectively than the orthodox military campaign.

The discovery follows intelligence agencies’ investigations into the recent surrender of over 1,200 terrorists and their families in the last three weeks, to the Nigerian government, to ascertain whether the surrender was genuine or a ploy to activate and coordinate terror sleeper cells across the country.

Ripples Nigeria reported that the Borno State government had announced its decision to reintegrate over 1,000 repentant Boko Haram fighters into society. But the development was greeted with annoyance by Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in the North-East.
The IDPs’ anger was because they were still languishing in pain and sorrow caused by the Boko Haram terrorists in the North-East, particularly in Borno State, which was the epicentre of the insurgency.

Following the outcry by IDPs, the Governor of Borno State, Babagana Zulum has said the state was in a very difficult situation over the ongoing surrender of Boko Haram insurgents and the agitation by the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) against accepting the repentant terrorists.

Also, Shehu of Borno, Alhaji Abubakar Umar Garbai El-Kanem, had raised concerns that the communities where thousands of people were killed by the terrorists and houses destroyed might not be in the right frame of mind to accept the surrendered insurgents.

However, the report by The New Humanitarian, which comes after six months of research, revealed that Sulhu was reaching out to “senior jihadist fighters” in the bush to encourage them to abandon their goal of building a caliphate by force of arms, and to defect.

According to the UN organisation, the programme is so controversial that no government representative agreed to go on record to discuss it, while only a few Nigeria-based civil society figures agreed to be named.

The report quoted an Abuja-based analyst, who didn’t agree to be named to have said, “We have a proof of concept; it’s working. It’s depleting the enemy’s fighting force.”

However, the men on the Sulhu programme are almost certain to have been involved in atrocities. Although they have not been granted a formal amnesty, it is unlikely that they would be held to account for the crimes they committed in the brutal conflict that is now in its twelfth year.

READ ALSO: UN says 110 killed by Boko Haram in Borno villages

The Nigerian government had also come out to reject calls by different stakeholders, including those from the North, to prosecute the repentant terrorists, saying it would not do so.

The report revealed that one Malam Aliyu, a Boko Haram/ISWAP commander involved in the Bama massacre of 2014, which killed hundreds of civilians hasbeen set up with a rent-free house in Kaduna, a business license, and a small monthly stipend provided by Nigeria’s Department of State Service (DSS).

A former government-Boko Haram intermediary that was interviewed by The New Humanitarian, who didn’t want to be mentioned, was quoted to have said, “These are mass killers, yet on a programme sponsored by Nigerian taxpayers.”

Meanwhile, people familiar with the Sulhu programme said a total of 150 mujahideen was reported to have surrendered their weapons and crossed over since 2019.

The report stated, “A total of 150 mujahideen have surrendered their weapons and crossed over since 2019, according to people familiar with the programme. In the last few weeks, there has been a separate surge, related to internal feuding within the jihadist movement following the death this May of Abubakar Shekau, who had led Boko Haram since 2009.

“Some of those mujahideen, like Aliyu, were commanders, known as qaid – in charge of several districts. Such was the importance attached to the initial group that they were invited to Abuja, where they met representatives of President Muhammadu Buhari.

“Under sulhu, defectors are enrolled in a six-month “deradicalisation” course in the military’s demobilisation and reintegration centre in Mallam Sidi, in northeastern Gombe State. After promising to renounce violence and be good citizens, they are issued with a graduation certificate, signed by a high court judge – and some have then gone on to set up businesses, from cap-making to chicken-rearing.

“Sulhu is run by DSS and the military but is separate from the army’s much larger disarmament, demobilisation, and reintegration initiative, known as Operation Safe Corridor (OSC) and also based in Mallam Sidi.

“OSC is aimed at low-risk former combatants, although as many as 75 per cent of those on the programme may never have held a weapon – just villagers snagged in the military’s catch-all dragnets, with years spent in detention without trial.

“Those on the sulhu initiative are the turbaned rijal seen in the low-res YouTube videos, exultant in victory, killing without remorse. Before joining ISWAP, prior to the 2016 split from Boko Haram, these men had been obedient to a maximalist “takfir” creed, promoted by then-leader Shekau, who declared that anybody living outside their zone of control was an infidel, punishable by death or enslavement.”

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