Operation Safe Corridor: The world of repentant Boko Haram members

Operation Safe Corridor is a programme initiated to de-radicalise, rehabilitate and re-integrate repentant ex-Boko Haram members. ZAINAB SULEIMAN OKINO came face to face with this group of people now referred to as “clients” in their camp in Malam Sidi, Gombe state. She reports on the life-changing emotions and vocations, including skills acquisition in the camp, and the joy they felt being out of the den of Boko Haram, even as they vowed never to go back to their inglorious past. 

Operation Safe Corridor (OPSC), one of the programmes initiated by the federal government to end over ten-year insurgency, and still counting, is a child of circumstance born into controversies. Ever since its establishment in 2015, debates and resentment have trailed it. The debates revolve around the propriety of engaging with ex-combatants who took up arms against their country, and must have killed in the process.

In the beginning

When the programme was introduced it was met with a lot of backlash; many had argued that absorbing the ex-Boko Haram members back to the society was wrong, and tantamount to being treated with kids’ glove instead of being made to face the wrath of the law. However, the federal government, in the vanguard of the war against Boko Haram and the military in the forefront and trenches thought differently. To them, Operation Safe Corridor was an alternative to the daily killing of Boko Haram members and decimation of the populace, none of which had succeeded in halting the bloodshed.

Hence, the launch/introduction of Operation Safe Corridor (OPSC) geared basically to give a window of opportunity and to “encourage willing and repentant Boko Haram insurgents to surrender and embrace peace,” as a solution to a seemingly lingering war.

Camp Malam Sidi

Thus, when our correspondent visited their camp last week, it was an eye- opener of a sort. Tucked away from Gombe town, in Gombe state, Malam Sidi is a serene community hosting the willingly surrendered low-risk ex-Boko Haram members. The camp is bubbling with activities and civil engagements with no signs that the residents had ever been to the warfront. The ex-Boko Haram members in the camp are simply referred to as “clients,” according to Brig.-Gen. Musa Ibrahim, and perhaps to give them a sense of belonging and integration into normalcy. Gen. Ibrahim, who is the commandant of OPSC, took our correspondent through their operational manuals at Malam Sidi, where he co-habits with the “clients” and staff.

OPSC graduates

Operation Safe Corridor (OPSC), which has the primary objective to facilitate easy access and passage for surrendering low-risk insurgents to security forces for subsequent disarmament, de-mobilisation and re-integration process, “has so far graduated 280 ex-combatants to national and state authorities” without any untoward reports so far, and has 606 currently undergoing de-radicalisation and rehabilitation at Malam Sidi Camp. The clients’ age-range is between 18-78 years.

Enter Gen. Jankada

General Ibrahim, also referred to as Jankada because of his many exploits, also revealed that war-weary military would this time experiment with non-kinetic approach, without bloodshed than the quantum of killing that has been on for almost 10 years, even as he said none of their “clients” can ever be recruited into the army or any security agencies, contrary to misconception out there that they (the de-radicalised ex-Boko Haram) would be so recruited.

No place for repentant Boko Haram members in military

Besides, in their manual it is explicitly stated that, “OPSC does not and has never recruited ex-Boko Haram combatants into the Nigerian military. OPSC does not admit arrested ex-Boko Haram combatants into the DRR programme. It is strictly for low-risk, surrendered ex-BH combatants that have been thoroughly screened at Operation Lafiya Dole.”

The child soldier

The recruitment of under-age children into armed conflict is a global concern. That of Boko Haram is not an exception. The terrorist group also forcefully recruited some young children into the bush at an impressionable age, and gave them the impression that they were going to do God’s work. General Ibrahim said such children are among those OPSC is rehabilitating so they can live a normal life again.

 Life after de-radicalisation

Talking about life after de-radicalisation process, there is fear that those so radicalised and reintegrated could go back to their old ugly past. General Ibrahim disabused the minds of the populace thus: “We have a check back and monitoring mechanism” and we only hand off after two or three years, even as he emphasised that while in the camp, the clients are not socially disconnected. “Their family members, religious and traditional leader, former ‘clients’ already back to their communities all come to the camps to see and interact with them, but anyone that shows signs of rebellion is quickly removed.” Besides, their biometrics are also encoded in their IDs making contact tracing easy.


 The commandant’s statement was further corroborated by one of the “clients.” Abdulwahab Usman, nicknamed GOC because of his charisma and capacity, said he has no fear of Boko Haram after going back home because most of them (BH) have been killed anyway. Besides, as a reformed Boko Haram member who has learned some skills in the camp, he can stand his own without anybody being able to brainwash or radicalise him again. Abdulwahab is in the barbing section at the camp and will surely get starter-pack to start a trade when he goes back. He is 34 years and had spent four years with the Boko Haram before he willingly heeded the call and the option to lay down arms and reintegrate back to the society.

Besides barbing, he is also learning fish, poultry and dry season farming. Another key point is Abdulwahab’s willingness to go back to school to further his studies, having acquired an NCE before the outbreak of the insurgency. Abdulwahab who was described as very unruly and undisciplined before he came to the camp has since transformed to a well-behaved young man.

Indoctrination and combatants

 Like Abdulwahab, Tijani Mele was a local vigilante from Lamba community in Kondunga local government. He became a combatant after he was forced through the indoctrination process, until he surrendered to the military. Explaining their modus operandi as a combatant, Tijani Mele said, “They normally would ambush communities, to get war booties and share among themselves.”

 Malam Abba’s story is not markedly different from Tijani Mele’s. Though not a combatant, he too went through their indoctrination at the BH camp. He said they were told that Nigeria is on the wrong side of history and only BH can lead them to heavenly martyrdom, and so it was until he got fed up and submitted himself to the military authority before his onward transition to OPSC.

78-year-old not left out

Sadly, it is not only the younger people that got hooked to BH’s doctrinal misdemeanours. Alkali Musa Kukawa, 78, who the commandant said is “prime client” was a magistrate court judge before he and his son, Ali Musa, were conscripted. Both of them later found their way to the military and are today “clients” at the OPSC in Malam Sidi. Ditto with 54-year-old Mohammed Mu’azu from Yobe state! He was into farming and cattle-breeding before he was made to join Boko Haram. Married with a wife and four children Mohammed Mu’azu is now learning soap and shoemaking at the OPSC.

Skills acquisition

Since division of labour is the hallmark at the Malam Sidi camp, each group rotates from one skill to the other and later chooses their area of specialisation. Mohammed Henime’s village in Bama was raided; that was how he found himself in the BH den. Married with a child, his friends and family come to the Malam Sidi Camp to see him once in a whole.

There are other skills acquisition centres like carpentry and metal welding, laundry section where our correspondent also met with 25-year-old Umar Bukar Wanzam from Bama LG, before his rescue. He said he was happy to be at the OPSC camp. Then there’s the tailoring section, also flourishing, but are challenged because of lack of embroidery machines. At the barbing section, were skilful hands adept at beautiful haircuts which also reflected in the clean-shaven appearances of almost all the ‘members/clients.’

The mandate

 The OPSC, which conducts its activities “within the ambit of international humanitarian laws with adherence to rule of law” also has as its mandate de-radicalisation, rehabilitation and re-integration’ in a 24-week programme. “OPSC also “partners with local and international organisations as well as multinational agencies such as Centre for Democracy and Development, North East Region Initiative, North East Development Commission and UNICEF.”

 As for the DRR, its components include advanced profiling, comprehensive medical screening, DNA sampling, biometric registration by (NIMC) and further debriefing. The de-radicalisation process involves psychotherapy, psycho-spiritual counselling, art therapy intervention, social therapy, drug use intervention, introductory formal education and recreation/sports.

The rehabilitation phase involves exposure to vocational training of choice facilitated by the National Directorate of Employment (NDE) and they include; barbing, carpentry, cosmetology, farming, leather works, tailoring, welding and metal work.

Since reintegration is long term and the responsibility of government, it involves sensitisation of receiving communities, linking to families and visitation to senior citizens, religious, traditional and community leaders, denouncement of membership of Boko Haram before a panel comprising a federal high court, military lawyers, traditional and religious counselling, security screening by relevant government agencies, systematic monitoring, among others.

Collaborative effort

Operation Safe Corridor is not alone in the onerous task of giving back to those whose lives were ‘stolen’ and messed up by Boko Haram. It is a collaborative effort among 17 MDAs comprising the military, security and other law enforcement agencies among which are National Orientation agency, Nigeria Correctional Service, Ministries of Humanitarian Affairs, Justice, Women Affairs, National Drug Law Enforcement Agency, National Directorate of Employment, North East Development Commission, National Emergency Management Agency, and National Identity Management Commission, among others.

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