why we must think critically about the reintegration program of rehabilitated terrorists.
Speaking to a reporter from The Punch Newspaper, Mrs. Edit Opesanmi, the national vice president of Military Widows Association expressed shock and bitterness at the government’s policy to rehabilitate and re-integrate some captured and self-surrendered members of the Boko Haram terrorist group back into the public. “Our husbands go to fight these terrorists and they keep dying,” she decried. What Mrs. Opesanmi and a number of other widows who have lost husbands to these bloodthirsty terrorists want is for these terrorists to face justice. Indeed, many Nigerians also agree.
It is unclear how much stakeholder engagement was done by the government to arrive at a rehabilitation policy that many Nigerians consider unfair, especially considering the fact that the group had murdered about 37,350 innocent people between 2011 and 2018, according to the Council of Foreign Relations. It, therefore, beggars belief that members of this same murderous group who have continued to unleash violence in the northeast are being rehabilitated and pardoned. While this policy might have been embarked upon in good faith, the impact of this policy is quite unpredictable and could be regrettable.
First, by pardoning members of one of the most vicious terrorist groups in the world, the Nigerian government is creating an Orwellian scenario where a certain class of criminals is seen to be beyond the reach of the law. The inherent danger is that this conveys the unintended message that the best way to negotiate with the government is by a systematic deployment of violence that exposes the weakness of the state and hence forces it to bend backward. If such an assumption takes root in our socio-political environment, then the state might lose its monopoly of violence to the rise of non-state actors.
Needless to say, it is counter-productive to rehabilitate and release terrorists to the same socio-economic environment that created the breeding ground for religious extremism. Several experts who have studied the rise of the extremist group in the North East have pointed to a number of factors that were catalytic to its emergence. These include poverty, marginalization, abuse by state authorities, and the rise of fundamentalist religious preachers with a disdain for western democracy. Unfortunately, these factors are still very much in play in that region and some have even gotten worse. Knowing the reality on the ground, it is difficult to believe that the rehabilitated terrorists will avoid relapsing into terrorism when exposed to the factors that once shaped their decisions and behaviors.
After just a year of being released from Guantanamo and undergoing the Saudi Rehabilitation Program, Said al-Shihri was again recruited by the Yemeni branch of Al-Qaeda and participated in the bombing of the U.S Embassy in Sanaa that killed 16 people. Once a religious ideology has taken root in an individual, it is difficult to reverse especially if the same contradictions that led to the acceptance of such ideology still exist in their immediate environment.
It is also worth noting that Nigeria has attempted this policy in the past, even though not in its entirety. In 1982, President Shagari ordered the release of hundreds of prison inmates to decongest the prisons. While his policy did not include a robust rehabilitation program, members of the arrested and imprisoned ‘Maitatsine’ group who were involved in the Kano riots that claimed about 5,000 lives were also released after the public was made to believe that they had been deradicalized. Many of them resettled in the North East and later that year, Maitatsine members rioted in Maiduguri and killed about 3,350 people. In 1984, they also rioted in Yola and killed about 700 people. In 1985, they also killed 100 people in Gombe.
It is true that the successful rehabilitation of terrorists can play a crucial role in spreading the message of peace and dissuading young and vulnerable people from becoming easy recruits. But if not properly handled, it could prove to be counterproductive. Therefore, the government should first win the war on terrorism and reshape the socio-economic realities of the North-East before attempting to rehabilitate any terrorist. At the moment, the government is losing citizens’ trust through this policy that could just end up giving the terrorists a psychological boost and more impetus.