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Release of innocent detainees will fast-track acceptance of reintegrated penitent insurgents

3 April 2024
Reading time: 6 minutes

Frustrated and angry relatives of detainees cannot understand why repentant surrendered insurgents are being reintegrated into society while their innocent loved ones are still imprisoned.

As surrendered and repentant insurgents are being welcomed back into society, thousands of ordinary and innocent civilians – arrested at the peak of the insurgency on suspicion of being linked to extremist groups – are still languishing in detention centres.

In the past couple of months hundreds of detainees have been released but many more are still being held without trial.

Their relatives claim they are innocent and never had ties to the Jamā’at Ahl as-Sunnah lid-Da’way Wa’l-Jihād (JAS), more commonly referred to as Boko Haram, and the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP).

They say their husbands, sons and brothers were arrested during the insurgency and have been kept in military detention centres, such as the Giwa Barracks in Maiduguri, without trial.

Many relatives do not even know if their loved ones are still alive.

Humanitarian agencies have often accused authorities of infringing the rights of suspects, many of whom have later been found to be innocent of any crimes.

Last week RNI reported that the Federal High Court in Maiduguri had ordered the release of more than 500 detainees saying, “the prosecution counsel could not charge them with any offence due to lack of sufficient evidence against them”.

Many of the detainees have been in detention since the start of the insurgency in Borno State in 2009.

Major-General Edward Buba, director of defence media operations, told journalists in Abuja on Thursday, March 28, that following the court ruling the detainees had been handed over to the Borno State government before being “properly reintegrated” into society.

But the relatives of the thousands still in detention are frustrated and angry.

They say they can’t understand how the government is doing all it can to reintegrate “so-called repentant insurgents” into society while their innocent loved ones are still in detention.

The exact number of penitent insurgents who have surrendered is not known. In January last year, General Godwin Irabor, chief of defence staff, said that more than 83,000 former combatants and their families had surrendered to the Nigerian Army through the Operation Safe Corridor programme.

Babagana Umara Zulum, the governor of Borno State, said in November last year that about 160,000 insurgents and their families had surrendered.

Former president Muhammadu Buhari established Operation Safe Corridor in September 2015 to encourage “willing and repentant” insurgents to lay down their arms and undergo a structured disarmament, deradicalisation, rehabilitation and reintegration (DDRR) programme.

When the idea of the programme was first mooted, ordinary people in Borno State – which has been the epicentre of the insurgency – were suspicious of the repentant combatants.

They said they did not want the very people who had murdered, maimed, abducted and raped their loved ones living next door to them.

Since the start of the programme, the government, religious and traditional leaders, human rights and peace activists have encouraged civilians to accept and welcome repentant insurgents back into their communities after their rehabilitation.

But there are many who remain suspicious, particularly as some of the “penitent” insurgents have returned to the combatants in the bush.

And the relatives of wrongly arrested people have questioned the rationale of the military and the Borno State government which seem intent on welcoming back the former fighters but who are keeping their innocent loved ones in detention.

They say their loved ones are being treated unjustly and that instead of focusing on the penitent insurgents, the government should free those who were wrongfully arrested.

Bulama Laminu Abdullahi, a ward head of the Mashamari-Tandari community in the Jere Local Government Area, told RNI that traditional leaders had been urged to encourage host communities to accept the rehabilitated fighters.

“The majority of people believe that the DDRR approach is wrong because of the massive atrocities committed by Boko Haram [JAS] insurgents, ranging from the murder of close to 40,000 to the displacement of 3.2 million people and the destruction of property worth billions of naira.

“The families of people who were wrongfully detained by the military are angry and frustrated. They see so-called penitent insurgents being reintegrated into society while their relatives are still in detention.

“Right now, in my community, there are many reintegrated penitent insurgents and they are living peacefully without hindrance or tension.

“To keep it like this, I urge the military and both the federal and state governments to free all innocent detainees to ensure massive acceptability of reintegrated penitent insurgents into host communities.”

Mala Munna, commander of the Mashamari-Tandari Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF), said the military, CJTF members and other security operatives were playing a vital role to ensure the restoration of peace, security and stability across the state.

“Ongoing counterinsurgency operations have led to the mass surrender of Boko Haram insurgents and most of them have already been reintegrated into society. Mashamari-Tandari is one of the communities that has accepted the former combatants.

“However, although the recent freeing of innocent detainees is a welcome development, desired peace and unity between reintegrated penitent insurgents and members of host communities will be successful and sustainable only when all wrongfully held detainees are released.

“I hope the military will continue to release innocent detainees in military facilities and prisons across the country.”

Bulama Abiso, chairperson of the Borno State branch of the Network for Civil Society Organisations, told RNI that many people had raised concerns about the reintegration of former JAS and ISWAP insurgents and the continued detention of innocent people.

“The success of the DDRR programme depends on several factors, particularly transparency and accountability in regard to state-society relations.

“It is difficult for community members who bore the brunt of Boko Haram atrocities to accept fully those who have been reintegrated into society. There is a measure of stigmatisation and discrimination because ordinary people do not believe the former combatants can really change from their old ways.

“And the families of innocent people who are still in detention have expressed dismay about former Boko Haram fighters who move freely among them while their loved ones remain imprisoned. This has created a sense of injustice.

“Increased pressure from human rights activists, civil society groups and the media to free innocent detainees seems to be having the desired effect. More wrongfully detained people are being released. This is beginning to douse pent-up anger, frustration and tension. It will become easier for ordinary people to accept penitent insurgents into their communities once their innocent loved ones are returned to them.”



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