Terrorism suspects: Trial or reintegration?
By Kayode Adebiyi, News Agency of Nigeria (NAN)
A recent report by The Punch suggests that the Federal Government will soon commence the trial of around 2,000 Boko Haram members arrested for participating in terror activities.
The report said eight judges had been appointed to handle the special trial of the terrorism suspects at a detention facility in Wawa Cantonment, a remote military base in Kainji, Niger State.
In 2018, Reuters reported that 205 people were convicted on charges related to their involvement with Boko Haram in mass trials to mark the conclusion of the second stage of prosecuting terrorism suspects.
A statement by the Federal Ministry of Justice said most of the suspects were convicted after professing to belong to the terrorist group, (or) concealing information about the group, and jail terms ranged from three to 60 years.
It also said a total of 526 people allegedly affiliated with Boko Haram were released for rehabilitation, and that 73 cases were adjourned.
By the Nigerian government’s own admission, some of the suspects whose cases would be heard in Kainji have been held without trial since 2010 and could be released for lack of evidence.
This is why some legal and humanitarian crusaders have criticise the government for violating the rights of suspects.
“Authorities must end serious human rights violations in their quest to identify and prosecute suspected terrorists.
“These abuses are both unlawful under Nigeria and international law and counterproductive in the fight against terrorism,” Timothy Avele, a security expert at Armourcop G. Security Systems was quoted by a medium as saying.
However, some security experts say that, while the presumption of innocence is a crucial guarantee during the investigation and trial of terrorism cases, suspects automatically give up some rights by their suspected involvement in the crime.
In 2014, the Nigerian government rolled out its Prevention and Countering Violent Extremism (P/CVE) Programme due to growing recognition that it cannot defeat terrorism by only kinetic measures.
The P/CVE programme has three components: Counter-radicalisation, de-radicalisation and strategic communication.
Then President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration later introduced Operation Safe Corridor (OPSC) in 2015 to de-radicalise, rehabilitate and re-integrate what it called “repentant Boko Haram combatants” who willingly surrender to troops.
Unlike the P/CVE programme coordinated by the Office of the National Security Adviser (ONSA), the OPSC is being run by the Defence Headquarters (DHQ) as a non-kinetic multi-national and multi-agency humanitarian operation.
In 2019, DHQ said OPSC handed over 86 Boko Haram child fighters who voluntarily surrendered to troops of Operation Lafiya Dole to the Borno State Rehabilitation Centre.
The child fighters were between the ages of 10 and 19 and were part of over 1,370 Boko Haram fighters who had renounced terrorism.
The immediate-past Chief of Defence Staff, retired Lt.-Gen. Godwin Irabor, said in January that over 83,000 insurgents had surrendered to the Nigerian Army through the OPSC programme.
The military high command has always insisted that the OPSC is “a non-kinetic approach to warfare, not an amnesty programme”.
But critics say with more than 35,000 people killed and two million displaced since the Boko Haram insurgency in 2009, providing psychological support to terrorists instead of punishing them is insensitive.
They warn that Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration (DDR) programmes such as the OPSC are difficult to implement on violent extremists whose target groups and demands are unknown.
Some stakeholders argue that if the approach could lead to waning of Niger Delta militant activities, it can also work for the military in the northeast.
But a counter school of thought contends that those comparing the programme with the amnesty for Niger Delta ex-militants miss the point, because ex-militants had clear agitation and demands, while terrorists engage in ideological warfare.
Freedom Onuoha, professor of Political Science at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, argued in one of his publications that OPSC lacks the buy-in of local communities because it failed to mainstream their concerns in its policy and programming.
He warned that if the flaws in the programme were not addressed, the government would continue to reel out figures of “repentant Boko Haram fighters” without a corresponding proper reintegration.
The International Crisis Group (ICG), an independent organisation working to prevent wars, said in a 2021 report that the OPSC needed more public support to thrive.
“To strengthen the programme, the authorities, with donor support, should beef up public awareness campaigns to persuade Nigerians of Safe Corridor’s merits and to overcome any hostility to the idea…
“In doing so, the government should strive to balance the assistance it is giving to former jihadists…and a measure of justice to victims of Boko Haram atrocities”, the group said.
It said putting captured militants such as high-level commanders or those involved in atrocities on trial would bring a sense of justice to victims and affected communities.
Security experts agree with the ICG that the scheme has the potential to incentivise Boko Haram recruits to defect from an ideological warfare that many have come to consider pointless.
However, for it to have the support of local communities and continue to enjoy collaboration from local and international non-governmental and multilateral organisations, its screening and reintegration processes should be reviewed.
In June 2022, ONSA reviewed its Policy Framework and National Action Plan on Prevention and Countering Violent Extremism (P/CVE).
The government said the review marked the beginning of a process that would not only counter the propaganda machine of violent groups but also prevent them from attracting fresh recruits.
More importantly, the policy framework highlights access to justice, human rights, the rule of law and community engagement to prevent and counter violent extremism.
Stakeholders say those important provisions should be applied in both the prosecution of terrorists and the reintegration process for those considered de-radicalised.
Stakeholders advise that though complex both prosecution and de-radicalisation should be combined in a manner that they will not pose a threat to the success recorded against terrorism.
Organisations such as Human Rights Watch favour the retention of prosecution of Boko Haram suspects while the OPSC reintegration programme in so far as authorities ensure due process and victim participation.
They advise authorities to prioritise the prosecution of high-ranking members and the de-radicalisation and reintegration of those down the ladder.
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