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How Buhari Government Spends Taxpayers' Money On 'Repentant' Boko Haram Commanders Under Secret Programme—Report

The top-secret programme, known as Sulhu, meaning peacemaking in Arabic, is encouraging senior jihadist commanders to defect while the government provides them with benefits, a report by The New Humanitarian said.

The Nigerian government under President Muhammadu Buhari, spends taxpayers' money to lure 'repentant' members of deadly terrorist group, Boko Haram in a special programme called 'Sulhu'.

The top-secret programme, known as Sulhu, meaning peacemaking in Arabic, is encouraging senior jihadist commanders to defect while the government provides them with benefits, a report by The New Humanitarian said. 


With Sulhu, despite the atrocities committed by the terrorists, they are unlikely to be prosecuted, the report said. The Department of State Services (DSS) hopes to convert other jihadists under Sulhu. 

The Bama massacre in 2014 led to the death of hundreds of civilians and over 26,000 people were displaced by fighting, but one of the commanders involved is now living free on the government’s payroll, according to the report. 
One of the former Jihadists identified as Malam Aliyu (not real name) has a new life now. He once served as a militant fighting with Boko Haram and then with the breakaway Islamic State of West Africa Province.

He remarried a former Boko Haram woman from the northeastern city of Maiduguri. The couple have been set up with the rent-free house in Kaduna, a business license, and a small monthly stipend provided by the DSS. 

Sulhu has, however, generated controversies though it enjoys some support from some quarters who have described it as a smart warfare – a means to remove senior jihadists from the battlefield more effectively than the stuttering orthodox military campaign. 

“We have a proof of concept; it’s working. It’s depleting the enemy’s fighting force," an Abuja-based analyst told the New Humanitarian.

But the men on the Sulhu programme are almost certain to have been involved in atrocities. They have not been granted a formal amnesty, but neither have they been held to account for any crimes committed in a brutal conflict that is now in its twelfth year. It’s a war that has killed 35,000 people – 350,000 if you include the victims of the accelerating humanitarian crisis – and upended the lives of millions more, according to the UN.

Sulhu grew out of the behind-the-scenes attempts to free the more than 270 Chibok schoolgirls seized by Boko Haram in 2014. 

Under Sulhu, defectors are enrolled in a six-month “deradicalisation” course in the military’s demobilisation and reintegration centre in Mallam Sidi, in northeastern Gombe State. After promising to renounce violence and be good citizens, they are issued a graduation certificate, signed by a high court judge – and some have then gone on to set up businesses, from cap-making to chicken-rearing.

Sulhu is run by the DSS and the military but is separate from the army’s much larger disarmament, demobilisation, and reintegration initiative, known as Operation Safe Corridor (OSC) and also based in Mallam Sidi. 

OSC is aimed at low-risk former combatants, although as many as 75 percent of those on the programme may never have held a weapon – just villagers snagged in the military’s catch-all dragnets, with years spent in detention without trial.

Those on the sulhu initiative are the turbaned rijal seen in the low-resolution YouTube videos, exultant in victory, killing without remorse. Before joining ISWAP, prior to the 2016 split from Boko Haram, these men had been obedient to a maximalist “takfir” creed, promoted by then-leader Shekau, who declared that anybody living outside their zone of control was an infidel, punishable by death or enslavement.

ISWAP is militarily on the front foot, but there can be exhaustion with the years of conflict for any number of reasons, explained a Nigeria-based researcher, who asked not to be named so they could speak freely. 
“Some [defectors] have lost faith in their leaders, accusing them of corruption; some have even forgotten why they were fighting; others just want their children to go to school.” 

And there’s no appetite from the government to even begin to publicly discuss Sulhu. Yet almost 60 percent of people surveyed across the northeast in 2018 said they could agree to reconciliation with repentant jihadists if that was a path to peace: though acceptance was far lower in areas hardest hit by the conflict, and among women – the victims of so much sexual violence.

For DSS, Sulhu makes strategic sense. Aliyu, for example, is a so-called “pioneer”, an early member of Boko Haram who has a deep and intimate knowledge of the movement and the men he fought with. 
Aliyu claimed since he crossed over two years ago, he had found other rijal wavering in their commitment to the jihadist cause and persuaded more than 20 of them to slip into frontline northern towns like Geidam, make pre-arranged contact with the military, and then start their journey into the sulhu programme.

The conversations aren’t one-way, either. Aliyu’s former comrades bait him, reminding him of the life he led in the dawla – the territory ISWAP administers under shariah law and regards as independent from Nigeria. In this zone, in the far north of Borno and Yobe states, beyond the reach of the military and aid agencies, rijal have almost total power over at least one million villagers they refer to as awam – or “commoners”. 

“They say when you were in the lake [a region controlled by ISWAP], you were somebody important, now you have nothing,” Aliyu explained.

However, it is unclear why Aliyu abandoned the Jihad. There are speculations that Aliyu and some of his men had rustled cattle in the Lake Chad region and he was about to be punished. ISWAP considers stealing from Muslims a crime. 

Aliyu denied he was at fault. Instead, he described a falling out with ISWAP’s then-commander of the army, Mustapha Kirimima, whose aggressive hardline stance persuaded others to also leave. Kirimima is reportedly in detention after a leadership shuffle earlier this year that made Abu Musab al-Barnawi – the eldest surviving son of the founder of Boko Haram – the interim leader.

Aliyu is trying to rebuild his life. He’s in school, learning to read and write English, and keen on it. He attends a regular mosque and is close to his new wife.

His mother is clearly a force in his life. She explained that after her divorce from Aliyu’s father when he was six, Aliyu grew up on the streets of Maiduguri as an almajiri – a child assigned to a religious teacher. He came under the sway of Boko Haram when it was still just a radical sect in the city.
”No matter what your son has done, he is still your son,” she said, Aliyu seated by her side. 
“If all mothers could welcome their sons, those in the forests, tell them no harm will come to them, they will come home,” she added, though her elder daughter is still in Boko Haram captivity in the bush.

In 2014, with the army poorly trained, under-equipped, and demoralised, Bama town fell to Boko Haram.
In the early days of Boko Haram’s insurrection, the vigilante group known as the Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF) had managed to chase its followers out of Bama. The CJTF then went on to nearby Banki and did the same thing, rooting out insurgent cells and killing members.

Idris Osman (not real name), a former cameraman with Boko Haram’s media unit said many of those who joined in bringing down Bama town had come from the town. 

“When we entered, we came with that grief. We didn’t differentiate who was CJTF; we took everyone to be our enemies. This wasn’t about religion; this was revenge.”

Some of what happened were filmed by Osman. A video captured by him shows men lying on the floor in the dormitory of the prison barracks. They are shot, with the gunmen stamping on their bodies to make sure they are dead.

Aliyu, on the other hand, said he took no part in the killings. Instead, he said, he was nursing a hand wound from a battle a few days earlier at a key road junction 18 kilometres from the town – from where Boko Haram captured the armoured vehicles they used in their final assault. When the order came to kill the captives, he was sick and resting, he said.
”I’m a good man,” he insisted. “The elderly, the young, and the vulnerable – I help them during Eid [after the holy month of Ramadan].” Rather than civilians, “I deal with the military and CJTF – those I kill,” he said.

Sixty-six-year-old victim and former wealthy businessman, Mala Musa recounts his experience of the incident. Musa said he remembers Aliyu driving through the streets, flanked by bodyguards on motorbikes.

He didn’t personally witness Aliyu shooting anybody, but his heartfelt assessment was: “All Boko Haram kill. They’re wicked. Anybody saying otherwise is lying.” And it’s not just the killing he grieves over. As the Nigerian army was about to retake the town in 2015, Boko Haram trucked all the women they had forcibly married – or intended to in the future – to Sambisa.”

Meanwhile, advocates of Sulhu argue that atrocities like Bama should not obscure the bigger picture, “If the justice system was functioning, that would be different. But the country has brought to trial very few people,” one of the supporters said. “They will just rot in jail. On the other hand, [if a senior commander joins Sulhu] and it leads to a momentum of guys coming out… [isn’t that better?].”

Supporters of Sulhu also stress it is not an amnesty programme. The slate, they say, has not been wiped clean for crimes committed. President Buhari has awarded them clemency, not forgiveness, and that can be withdrawn at any time.

However, civil society groups are highly critical of a process that favours perpetrators at the expense of their millions of victims.

An Abuja-based lawyer said, “From a human rights point of view, they should have been brought to justice. This is helping impunity to grow.”

Those on the Sulhu programme “melted into the crowd – there was no attempt at [implementing the] truth-telling, reparations, or accountability mechanisms that’s mentioned in the sulhu agreement,” added the lawyer.

The former government-Boko Haram intermediary, meanwhile, was also concerned that Sulhu – a well-funded but opaque programme – is being promoted as a winning strategy within the security establishment, when he believes it will have little real impact on the war.

“Eight out of 10 of those who defected did so because they [had committed a crime] in the bush, not because they want to stop killing, or have changed their ideology,” the intermediary told The New Humanitarian.

Advocates of sulhu see it as more than just a counter-insurgency tool. According to Mustapha Zannah, a former barrister who helped broker the release of both groups of Chibok girls, the larger goal has been to find a sliver of common ground that could be built upon to reach a political settlement – a potential way out of the conflict’s cul de sac. 

ISWAP’s period of instability may now be easing. Al-Barnawi was made interim leader in March, with the backing of IS, and two months later scored a sensational victory against his arch-rival, Shekau. 

There is excitement by some in the Nigerian security establishment who view al-Barnawi as “moderate" and potentially open to exploring the contours of a peace deal, as Nur had done. “He may be dogmatic, but he’s rational,” said an Abuja-based analyst. 

But Zannah, the barrister, who also runs a school for war orphans and struggling families in Maiduguri, is certain any settlement acceptable to ISWAP would be a tough sell to most Nigerians. 

“They are in a religious war. There’s no way you can tell them, ‘Stop’,” he said, speaking to The New Humanitarian in the compound of his school project. “You might be able to talk to them about a buffer zone, and humanitarian access, but they won’t give up their dawla.”

However, the intermediary, who was also involved in negotiations over the release of the Chibok girls, sees this as deliberate wishful thinking. “It’s politically impossible for the government of Nigeria to recognise these people,” he insisted. “ISWAP are in an ideological war against [what they term] dar al-kufr [the land of the infidel] – nothing less.”

But some see a more fundamental problem. “So long as ISWAP is winning – and ISWAP is on a roll at the moment – I don’t see them caving in [and agreeing to a settlement],” said Vincent Foucher, a Boko Haram-watcher at France’s National Centre for Science Research. 

“Deals happen when both sides are exhausted, and ISWAP is not there at all, and neither is the Nigerian state and military.” The sad truth is that this conflict “doesn’t threaten [Nigeria’s political] core enough – to either gear up to properly prosecute the war, or to cut a deal.”