Molly Kilete, Abuja
While vigorously pursuing a military offensive against the deadly Boko Haram insurgents in the North East, the Federal Government has also been implementing the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration of former insurgents into the society via the Operation Safe Corridor (OPSC) programme.
Since the programme’s commencement in 2017, a number of repentant erstwhile members of Boko Haram have been rehabilitated and given various vocational training to make them self-employed and prevent them from relapsing into insurgency.
Saturday Sun was part of a recent tour of the high-security camp at the Gombe State National Youth Service Corps Camp located at Malam Sidi. The tour provided insight on how the camp’s day-to-day activities are run by personnel of the Nigerian army, navy and air force who provide water-tight security at the facility. Other personnel at the camp are drawn from the Nigeria Police, Department of State Services, Nigerian Security and Civil Defence Corps, Nigerian Correctional Service, National Directorate of Employment, North East Development Commission, Nigerian Immigration Service, Defence Intelligence Agency, National Intelligence Agency and National Drug Law Enforcement Agency. Staff of National Identity Management Commission, National Orientation Agency, Federal Ministry of Women Affairs, Ministry Of Humanitarian Affairs and Federal Ministry of Justice are part of the camp’s personnel as well as representatives of the governors of Borno, Yobe, Adamawa and Kebbi states. In total, 468 staff, which cut across 17 ministries, departments, agencies of government and 54 local communities, keeps the camp running.
OPSC was created in conjunction with the International Organization of Migration (IOM). Its committee, chaired by the Chief of Defence Staff, include all the service chiefs, Inspector General of Police, Director-General of the Department of State Services and Chief of Defence Intelligence,a director from the Office of the National Security Adviser and the executive governors of Adamawa, Borno and Yobe states are also part of the committee.
How the camp operates
Operation Safe Corridor (OPSC) is divided into two components: Security and De-radicalization/Rehabilitation. The former consists of de-briefing, collection and analysis of intelligence, design and implementation of measures for the physical security of the camp, while the latter is concerned with the design and implementation of de-radicalisation therapies, educational and recreational programmes, counselling of clients and the design and conduct of vocational training for the clients.
The first batch of training kicked off in January 2017 with six clients (the nomenclature adopted for repentant terrorists) who were integrated into their various communities after they completed their training in July of the same year. The second batch of 94 clients resumed in July 2017 and graduated in February 2018. The third Batch of 153 who resumed in December 2017, graduated in November 2018. Thereafter, a special batch of 15 clients taken in in February 2019 graduated in October. Another special batch of 12 clients joined the camp in May 2019. In two years, a total number of 280 clients passed through the programme.
Presently, 680 clients are at the camp undergoing skill acquisition training in various vocations including tailoring, barbing, shoe-making/leather works, cosmetology, furniture making, welding, fishery, poultry, laundry, cap weaving and embroidery, butchery, greenhouse farming, fishery and poultry. Part of their rehabilitation includes formal education. Most of them who were stark illiterate are now able to recite the alphabet and can sing the Nigerian national anthem as well as recite the national pledge.
Aside the skill acquisition programme, they also undergo a series of therapies and engagements designed to test behavioural dispositions and state of mind before they are fully integrated into society. Those found still harbouring radical tendencies are withdrawn from the programme.
The camp, since its establishment, has received several threats of attack from terrorists, but it is highly fortified to withstand any onslaught.
During the tour, the coordinator of the programme in his address educated the inmates on the COVID-19 pandemic that is ravaging the world and underscored the need for them to maintain a high standard of hygiene.
With the interactive session over, the reporter moved around the camp with a guide to all the vocational centres where the clients were busy doing their work with high concentration.
A sketch of life as an insurgent
During interaction, the reporter had asked the inmates two basic questions: Why did they join the terror group? And why did they decide to embrace peace?
To the first question, the majority responded that they did not join the sect on their own volition. According to their responses, some of them were captured by Boko Haram terrorists who raided their communities. They were captured from their places of work, like one of them, a school teacher, who was forcibly taken away from the classroom when terrorists sacked his village. Another, a bread seller, narrated how he got into the terrorists’ net while hawking his wares. Others said they were captured from their farms, home, mosque, village playground and markets. They had different stories to tell of how they ended up as terrorists and how they were forced to commit atrocities before their eventual escape. Some of them had been in Boko Haram’s captivity for as long as seven years or more.
On how they became aware of Operation Safe Corridor, those who spoke with Saturday Sun reporter said they heard about it mostly from soldiers and flyers and had on impulse dialled the number on the leaflets. A few of them explained they at first thought it was a ruse by the military to entrap and arrest them, hence their initial reluctance to call the contact numbers. The few who gave themselves up on impulse were taken to a military facility where they were thoroughly profiled and subjected to various tests before they were admitted into the camp. Others took the steps only after reports of how their colleagues had been reformed filtered to them. These set of clients told the reporter poignant tales of how many of their colleagues who wanted to take the initiative were not so lucky to make it out of the bush as they were summarily executed by their commanders after their intention was discovered.
Prodded by the reporter, they gave a sketch of life as insurgents living in the wild. They described a hellish life whereby they were forced to relocate from one place to another because of the attacking soldiers on their trail.
Feeding was a big problem and bathing was a luxury they couldn’t afford. They couldn’t remember how often they took their bath because water was a scarce commodity, the little available was meant for drinking and only those who work under powerful and very influential commander could have a sip when they are thirsty.
According to them, just as there are movers and shakers that make things happen in the larger society, terrorists also have influential members whose words were the law out there in the bush. If you happen to work with such commanders, they claimed, then, you’d live in luxury and get needful things like food, vehicles, clothes and other good things of life.
On the other hand, those who are under second-class, third-class or even classless commanders suffer the misfortune of being the community’s serfs and are like slaves. They are also expendable, likely to be killed at the slightest provocation.
On several occasions, they’d witnessed the beheading of their friends who were accused of insubordination by powerful commanders. The killing of human beings, they affirmed, was the order of the day. Those who were lucky were shot dead, usually because soldiers were closing in on them and they could not afford to waste time on ceremonial execution, otherwise, beheading was the standard method for sending unworthy ones to an early grave.
Sleep was a luxury because they were always on the run. Contrary to popular notice, they said insurgents were never on drugs.
A new lease of life
The reporter asked them to compare their time in rehab to their previous lives as terrorists. Incomparable, they responded. It is like trying to compare heaven and hell, said one of them.
They clarified further: at the camp, they take their bath twice a day and eat square meals. Instead of running around in the bush taking orders from mean commanders who would not think twice before dispatching them to the great beyond with bullets, they now live a free life learning a trade, listening to good English, and receiving good medical attention when they fall sick. They move around freely and interact with their instructors freely.
It was clear that the inmates at the rehabilitation camp are making the most of the opportunities. For instance, all the soaps, detergents, creams, disinfectants and other hygienic products used in the camp are produced by the inmates. The barbing salon where they get their hair cut was operated by their colleagues in the barbing salon section.
Their hostel maintains the highest standard of hygienic rules and they are not allowed to go in with any item whatsoever. At the end of each day’s activity, they are thoroughly searched before being allowed entry into the hospital by soldiers. Anyone found in possession of prohibited items runs the risk of expulsion. Having come thus far, none of them wants to be expelled.
A few of them who spoke with Saturday Sun cannot be identified by their real or full names due to security reasons.
Musa said: “I have received a new way of life since I came into this camp. I can now read and write a little; I can speak small English now. I also have water to bath. I go to the hospital whenever I am sick unlike in the bush when they would rather kill a sick person because he would become a burden to them. I eat three times a day and I eat good food. The last time I ate such food was when I was at home with my family before they captured me.”
Babangida narrated how he was initially scared of Operation Safe Corridor programme because “we thought it was a trick by soldiers to arrest us.”
He said: “I got to hear about the programs when I went to a village––we used to come out of the bush and go to villages to relax and sometimes attack and steal from villagers. One day when I strolled into the village, one of my friends told me and I bought the idea because I was tired of the guerilla life. It was risky for me to try and escape to another place; they’d find me and kill me because they have their people everywhere. So I started making plans. One day, I ran out of the bush and saw some soldiers. I surrendered and they took me to their barracks in Maiduguri and after plenty of questions, I was brought here. It was not easy before they brought me here because they did not trust me and me too I did not trust them, but I said, my friend cannot lie to me, so I opened my mind to them.”
He has no regret today. “I am enjoying this place. I am in the Cosmetology Department where I am learning to make soap, cream, perfume, detergent and many other things,” he said. “I decided to learn how to make soap because I like good things and when I go out I will make my product and sell and make money.”
Bobo, the third respondent who spoke with Saturday Sun also heard about the programme through some of his friends, but he took his time to plan his escape.
Of what he enjoyed most about the camp, he said: “Our instructors treat us like fathers treat their children, that is why we tell them our mind, because they are very free with us.”
He is optimistic that some of his friends who are still with the insurgents in the bush will come out once the information gets to them that the programme is real.