Nearly 6,000 fighters from the Boko Haram Islamist terrorist group in northeast Nigeria have surrendered to the Nigerian military in recent weeks, the Nigerian armed forces said on Thursday.
Brigadier General Bernard Onyeuko, a spokesman for the Nigerian military said, “Within the last few weeks, more than 5,890 terrorists comprising foot soldiers and their commanders have surrendered with their families to own troops in the North East Zone.”
He added that 565 of the surrendered fighters had been handed over to the government of northeastern Borno State for “further management after thorough profiling,” but gave no further details.
While that is a feather in the cap of the military’s counter-insurgency efforts, it presents an entirely new set of challenges for the Nigerian government and citizens. Nearly 350,000 people have died in the fight against Boko Haram during the past dozen years. Further, more than two million citizens have been displaced. The violence spilled over to neighboring Niger, Chad, and Cameroon. So, although the former terrorists have seemingly renounced their ways and are controversially seeking to re-enter mainstream society, the distrust among parts of the population is well-founded.
Even the Nigerian government’s program, Operation Safe Corridor (OSC), aimed at deradicalizing low-risk former insurgents, is controversial among citizens.
Under OSC, ex-insurgents receive six months of skills training and psychological support. However, those benefits have not been extended to the war-affected victims, which has been a sore subject with the displaced Nigerians.
Surrender Was the Only Choice
Some of the citizens believe that the Boko Haram defections are just a ruse, as many were facing an unwinnable situation.
After Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekaku died in May while fleeing an attack by the Boko Haram breakaway Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP), his men faced a dilemma.
ISWAP gave Shekaku loyalists an ultimatum to either join ISWAP or be hunted down and killed. The remaining outpost of Shekaku’s fighters is far to the north on the remote Niger-Nigeria border. This is a long and difficult journey for Boko Haram fighters in the Sambisa area. Therefore, surrender could have been their only viable option.
“They are not sincere – they defected to save their lives. They’ve had no change of heart,” said Musa Sumayin, who runs an NGO that helps internally displaced persons access healthcare, to The New Humanitarian in an interview. “That’s what people really fear,” he added.
During the mid-2010s, Boko Haram was considered the world’s deadliest terrorist group according to the Global Terrorism Index. Its members were known for their brutality and wanton killing of civilians. In 2014, the group kidnapped 276 schoolgirls from the town of Chibok.
Since they began fighting against ISWAP, the death toll among civilians caught in the middle has risen. The two groups had been fighting for control of territory in northeast Nigeria and around Lake Chad.
The Nigerian government faces a difficult choice of whether to accept the surrender and try to integrate the Boko Haram fighters back into society.
Borno State Governor Babagana Zulum believes that accepting the surrenders at face value may attract more Boko Haram fighters to surrender as well.
“We have to choose between an endless war, or to cautiously accept the surrendered terrorists, which is really painful and difficult for anyone that has lost loved ones.”