…Ex Boko Haram men reveal brainwashing skills of insurgents while recruiting
•Shocking testimonies of ex-combatants and their new resolutions
•Saturday Vanguard visits ex Boko Haram Rehab Centre
•What OPSC is all about – Commandant, Brig.-Gen Musa Ibrahim
By Soni Daniel, Northern Region Editor
The compound wears the toga of any normal military barracks. It remains quiet all the time and is flustered with the aura of being forlorn. But the Malam Sidi Camp of the Nigerian Army has many buildings scattered in the massive compound tucked away in a conspicuous roadside in Lawanti town, Akko Local Government Area of Gombe State.
Like any other military establishment, it enjoys 24-hour surveillance and scrutiny by eagle-eyed military personnel, who are eager to frisk any visitor to their pants before authorizing entry into the place. Although there is nothing avaunt-garde about the compound, there are very important persons who are housed there for very special purpose. Of a truth, the occupants may not command any serious attention because of their physical appearance.
Many of them may not attract a generous handshake from most Nigerians because of their physique but their current status in the ongoing campaign by the Nigerian military to end the cycle of insurgency and terrorism in the country makes them the cynosure of anyone who steps into the camp any day. If any success is to be made in the adoption of non-violent approach in ending the ongoing war between Nigeria and insurgents in the north, the testament of these category of men, may help. That is why they occupy a special place in the heart of top military commanders who have been deeply involved in ending the onslaught that has tasked the nation and its resources since it assumed a war status in 2009.
These men who have been consigned to these building can rightly be described as history-makers because of the status conferred on them by the Nigerian government and circumstances that drove them there in the first place.
They are Nigerian men drawn from no fewer than seven local government areas of the country, who were either conscripted into the Boko Haram fighting force or voluntarily enlisted into the virulent group in order to achieve its set goal of turning Nigeria into their caliphate. In this category are no fewer than 606 mostly young adult males who have denounced terrorism and association with the Boko Haram sect and embraced the Federal Government’s De-radicalisation, Rehabilitation and Reintegration, DRR, programme, which is anchored by a special unit called ‘Operation Safe Corridor, OPSC, and coordinated by Major General Bamidele Ashafa of the Nigerian Army and Brig. Gen. Musa Ibrahim as the Commandant, who sees face to the face with the former Boko Haram elements daily and attends to their daily needs, including training, welfare and capacity building to be able to face the future with hope and confidence after leaving the camp. In order to give them a good sense of belonging, the former fighters (not all of them were gun-wielding but carried out designated chores for the sect inside the bush) these repentant men are not taunted as ex-Boko Haram fighters or members by the government but are ingeniously designated and addressed as ‘Clients’ and given all the necessary support and encouragement they need in order to turn a new leave and become useful to themselves and the larger society.
The De-radicalisation, Rehabilitation and Reintegration, DDR, which is akin to what the Federal Government offered the Niger Delta militants on June 25, 2009 in order to lay down their arms and embrace peace under the amnesty granted them by the government, is considered one of the best steps in ending the terrorism war using a non-kinetic approach, which many consider less expensive and a win-win approach if it succeeds.
Under the programme, OPSC has successfully de-radicalised and trained 280 ex-Boko Haram combatants, including two Chadians and thereafter transferred them to their respective states and national authorities for reintegration. In the current DRR programme, OPSC working in concert with 18 other stakeholders, undertake a comprehensive medical screening, DNA , biometric registration and further debriefing of the ‘clients’ under the De-radicalisation and rehabilitation phase of the operation.
In specific terms, de-radicalistion process, which appears to be the most difficult aspect of the job eked out for the military include: Psychotherapy, psycho-spiritual counseling, art therapy intervention, social therapy, drug use intervention, introductory formal education as most of them can neither read nor write and recreation/sports.
The rehabilitation phase of the programme has easily launched and transformed the former combatants into ‘experts’ in barbing, carpentry, cosmetology, farming, leather works, tailoring and welding. While the other phases are handled by OPSC in collaboration with the other stakeholders, the reintegration aspect is the responsibility of the respective state governments, family members, religious leaders and gradual reintegration into their respective communities.
But the ‘clients’ are not just being admitted to the programme by choice but through a well laid out process: the client must first denounce membership of Boko Haram, swear to an oath of allegiance to the Federal Republic of Nigeria before a senior judicial officer from the Federal Ministry of Justice before being admitted into the DRR programme. Beyond that, OPSC continues to monitor the activities and progress of ex-combatants even after leaving the DRR camp through government security traditional rulers and religious institutions in their respective states.
For the clients, the DRR has provided them with a golden opportunity of transformation and given them a sense of belonging. It has moved them from sick, forgotten, fragile, hopeless and destabilized people to well organized, balanced and strong Nigerians armed with the choice trades of their own.
And the beneficiaries drawn mostly from Borno, Yobe and Adamawa States are very excited about the transformation they have undergone and the ray of hope that lies ahead of them having undergone vocational training in many areas of human endeavours. And, as a demonstration of their skills, the camp is littered with products like cream, detergents, soaps, furniture, caps, shoes, cosmetic and other household items produced by the clients while others are actively serving as barbers and laundrymen. They are men who can beat their chests in self adulation and say something like ‘we are now free from our captors and our future is better than when we came here because now we have learnt many skills that can give us financial independence and a means of survival’. Indeed, even for a moment, they have reasons to be excited about their transformation and be grateful to their handlers in the OPSC because when they arrived at the camp, they were frustrated, confused and disoriented lot jolted by constant fear over their safety. This was largely because while working for Boko Haram, they had been brainwashed by the ideology that the Nigerian Government does not want to see them, does not have anything to offer them and would kill any of them who returns to Nigeria.
The Commandant of Operation Safe Corridor, Brig.Gen. Musa Ibrahim, maintains that the essence of the operation is to rehabilitate the repentant ex-combatants, train them in vocational skills of their choice and prepare them to live normal life and reintegrate fully with the Nigerian society.
“We are not training them to join the Nigerian Army as some people have alluded but we are giving them a leeway to become useful citizens and return to normal lives. We are adopting a non-kinetic approach to try and end the war after which we will hand them over to their respective states for reintegration, Ibrahim,” who knows virtually all the 606 clients by first name basis, explains.
“Most of them were conscripted by Boko Haram into their fighting teams and sent into the bush to just fight while others were deceived to join insurgency without knowing why and what they were going into at that time. But we have de-radicalised them and transformed them from sick, fragile and destabilized men to strong and balanced human beings with a sense of self worth and happiness,” he added.
The commandant explained that OPSC has a system of monitoring the progress of each of the men after leaving the camp given their biometric and arrangement put in place with 17 other agencies who are stakeholders in the programme. These include: the Department of State Services, Office of the National Security Adviser, The Nigeria Police Force, the National Intelligence Agency, Nigerian Correctional Service, National Orientation Service, Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps, Ministry of Humanitarian Services, Federal Ministry of Justice, National Drug Law Enforcement Agency, National Directorate of Employment, North East Development Commission, National Emergency Management Agency and the National Identify Management Commission.
The testimonies emanating from the ex-combatants are as many as the men themselves. The oldest of the ‘clients’ is 81 year-old man from Adamawa, who was a customary court judge before he was conscripted by the insurgent along with his 23-year-old son. With less than three months the end of their training by OPSC in order to begin a new phase of life, they are very happy to have left the insurgents and given an opportunity by the federal government to learn a trade of their choice and are itching to return home to reunite with their family members, whom they have not seen for many years.
“I must confess how much I miss my wife and four children,” says 54-year-old Mohammed Muazu from Yobe State, who was forced to join the insurgents when the terrorists overran his community in 2013. He is currently learning shoe and soap-making at the camp after undergoing de-radicalisation. I really miss my wife and my four children and I pray that I will have the opportunity to reunite with them one day. I have no basis to return to the bush,” he said.
His testimony tallies with that of Alli Mallam Yilda, a father of two girls from Bama in Borno State, who was captured and taken away by the insurgents to join their fighting force in 2014 when he was pretty young. “My mother, I am told, is still alive and I am anxious to return home to join with her having lost my father before I was captured by the insurgents. They took me away after they shot and killed my boss, who was the driver of the bus where I served as a conductor” Isha Allah, I want to go home and become a better person to my family and Bama community,” the man, who is learning hat-making and carpentry said.
The quartet of Umar Buka Wanzama, 25, from Bama Borno State, Mohammed Lawal, 24 from Adamawa, Maina Bukar, 35 years from Bama and Ali Bukar from Damboa in Borno State were similarly forced to join the insurgents in 2016 and they are eager to return home to join the surviving members of their families. Many of them do not know where the rest of their family members are and if they are still alive and want a quick return home to start a new lease of life. They are thankful to OPSC for rescuing them from their captors and training them in different skills to become self-sufficient once more.
Malam Abba, who was also captured by the sect in from Bama in 2016, said they were told by his captors that Nigeria did not mean well for them and that only Boko Haram could guarantee them peace, job and security and that they should fight and defeat Nigeria at all cost. But he said he was lucky as they never gave him guns to fight and kill anyone throughout his stay with them until he was rescued by the Nigerian military after he picked up a flyer from a NAF jet and decided it was time he denounced and left the insurgents.
But for Tijani Mele, a trained vigilante from Konduga in Borno State, who is successfully training as a barber with OPSC, he was captured by Boko Haram after many of his colleagues had been killed. “They (insurgents) killed most of our members who were protecting the community and forced many of us to join them and we pleaded loyalty to them. I handled guns and took part in many operations for Boko Haram having been already trained in gun handling as a vigilante in the local government,” Mele said. “But today, I want to say that I am very remorseful for what happened. I want to start afresh and become a successful barber,” he said.
But among them clients is a very senior member, Abdullahi Usman, popularly referred to as ‘GOC’ apparently because of the active role he used to play in the Boko Haram enclave before being rescued by the Nigerian military. Usman confesses: “ They gave me the name GOC because of my leadership style and charismatic style in dealing with others while in the bush.
“I am roaring to return to my home in Borno State,” said the 34-year- old man, who has studied poultry and vegetable farming in the camp.
“I will never return to the bush to work for Boko Haram because the training by OPSC has transformed my life tremendously and if I have another opportunity I will go back to school. Most of my Boko Haram colleagues were killed while I was still in the bush and I don’t want to go back there given the opportunity we have been given here to learn various trades. I am very happy and excited about the prospect of returning to my family after this programme, which most of us did not believe was real before we came here,” Usman confessed.
The Coordinator of OPSC, Maj. Gen. Bamidele Ashafa, described the programme as the best so far in the entire West African region and hopes that it will go a long way in assisting to quicken the end of the insurgency war in the north.
Indeed, OPSC may soon become the game changer for both the Nigerian Government and the recalcitrant and malevolent insurgents who keep fighting and throwing new challenges into the battlefield.