By Dr Ugoji Egbujo
There is trouble in the Northeast. One of the senators representing Borno has sworn that his people will not accept repentant Boko Haram fighters.
The Federal Government is reforming Boko Haram fighters who surrender their guns and seek forgiveness. They are weaned of their murderous thoughts, reformed and resettled into their societies.
The Operation Safe Corridor (OPSC) was established in 2015 by Buhari government as a multi agency multi national program to absorb surrendering insurgents , put them through a 16 week process aimed at deradicalisation, rehabilitation and reintegration. The program is fashioned along international standards, run by the military, overseen by the International Organization for Migration and supported by the EU and UN.
Ordinarily, that should be an efficient, transparent and principled way of luring fighters away from the insurge
ncy. If the Federal Government had no window to entice, absorb and resettle repentant fighters, then insurgents who have become fed up with the rebellion would have no path for safe surrender, and would fight till they die.
The program managers have tried to curtail fears of recidivism by saying that they do not admit and have no accommodation for hard boiled, carnivorous insurgents in the program.
But that is one side of the story.
The other side of the picture was recently painted vividly by Senator Ali Ndume. The insurgents have killed thousands and decimated hundreds of communities. They have littered the Northeast with orphans and widows, and have made millions benighted refugees. The atrocities the insurgents have left on the lives of the people are still fresh.
Many of those who have survived bear weeping physical and psychological wounds. Some communities that have returned to their ancestral lands have been made to flee again and again to refugee camps.
In many of these broken communities, those left know their tormentors by name. How then can a boy who left the village, and returned to murder his kinsmen, and ruin the land of his ancestors, be brought back to the community, resettled by the government with milk and honey in his mouth?
Well no one would begrudge him of some of those he and his former friends killed were not left for savannah vultures to rip apart in open fields, after whole villages have fled for months and years. No one would bother if those whose lives they maimed, and whose livelihoods they fractured, have come back on their feet.
What sort of justice prioritizes a callous offender above his agonizing and dying victims?
And it isn’t just that the repentant insurgents have received princely treatment, it is that many of them still have the spirit of the insurgency in their hearts.
According to Senator Ali Ndume, some of such resettled and pampered repentant Boko Haram members have come back to the communities, rejoined Boko Haram, and revisited their kinsmen with vengeful mayhem.
Senator Ali Ndume, who is the chairman of the Senate Committee on the Army didn’t stop there. The insurgency has left a heavy toll on the military. We have lost many gallant soldiers. Their families have been left without breadwinners. No matter how much the army has tried to cushion their pains , for many, their wounds are still sore. Many of our soldiers have been maimed and discharged from the army. Their circumstances are not enviable. Yet they are made to watch these OPSC ceremonies on television.
It is hard to see these folks, feel their pain, and not wonder if repentant Boko Haram members deserve any sympathy let alone a treatment that would spark envy in the heart of the average, law-abiding, unemployed or underemployed Nigerian.
The argument then is , if we make repentance from Boko Haram rewarding aren’t we then motivating idle youths who might never get any help from government to take to violence and then repent into social welfare?
If the message gets to youths who are jobless, and youths who are in IDP camps, that embracing boko haram for a few months and repenting afterwards could fetch life changing rewards, we might have our hands full.
But make no mistake , there is no easy answer to the connundrum.
Some of the fighters in Boko haram were conscripted. If we do not promise them a safe corridor to life outside Boko harm, how would they be enticed into a surrender, out of an insurgency which they never voluntarily joined. If those who opted for boko haram aren’t offered a path to a decent new life how would they rethink and abandon the insurgency?
This compares to the problem with our prisons. If we brought some United Nation’s Agency to oversee our prisons and perhaps fund them with donor dollars , we could easily end up with prisons that offer better human dignity than available to the average jobless person in Makoko.
How good then should our prisons be? Worse than the inhuman living conditions of millions in Ajegunle?
Once we get decent prisons with , good food , education and all then we could inadvertently incentivize crime. Yes in the name of offering human dignity to prisoners we could make incarceration appealing to millions of Nigerians.
But can we then because we have to make imprisonment a punishment , at least unappealing, Keep our prisons squalid so that they are not more livable that Ajegunle.
It is a major criminal justice riddle problem in countries were the standards of living on the streets are so poor that a standard prison would offer better life. Yet even in this instance we cannot simply because people live abject lives in the streets make our prisons become hell holes in order to disincentivize crime. The solution lies in finding national prosperity and giving citizens on the lowest rungs basic human dignity. That is a fundament right.
Back to repentant Boko haram insurgents and OPSC. The senator suggested we keep them somewhere till the insurgency abates and the open wounds they have inflicted on the people begin to heal.
The only place to keep them would be a prison. And perpetual imprisonment even if lawful cannot be the path that can entice boko fighters to defect. Yet again if the prisons are built to standards they could be better than living in the IDP camps.
The other suggestion was that they be absorbed into the army. If they were not considered reliable enough to become ordinary members of their community, giving them guns to join the army would predispose those communities to even greater danger. The presidency has come out to deny any plans of absorbing them into the army.
So what can be done?
A lasting moral solution to this problem must be fashioned in conjunction with the battered communities. But solutions that involve rehabilitation and re-integration of repentant fighters would be more acceptable if greater attention has been given to all the victims of the insurgency – military and civilians, individuals and communities.
There is no easy solution. But the victims should get much more attention, singly and collectively, than repentant fighters.