Receptivity and Reintegration of Ex-Boko Haram Associates in the Lake Chad Basin Region

Photo: UNICEF/Mulugeta Ayene

The recent mass exits from Boko Haram present an inevitable yet unique opportunity to take stock of earlier efforts to encourage defections from Boko Haram factions

Over the past 18 months, the Nigerian government has estimated that some 90,000 people have left Boko Haram areas. The large numbers of new arrivals has put stress on the infrastructure to reintegrate low-risk defectors from the group in Maiduguri, overwhelming existing facilities and support structures. The recent mass exits from Boko Haram also present an inevitable yet unique opportunity to take stock of earlier efforts to encourage defections from Boko Haram factions and promote community reconciliation and reintegration with former group members. 

Miriam1This story was told by Miriam – a pseudonym – and confirmed by several other women who participated in focus groups and shared their stories with the research team in September 2022. and her family had been waiting until the right time to flee Boko Haram. After the death of its leader Abubakar Shekau and after hearing the Governor of Borno’s radio message encouraging them to come out, Miriam’s husband saw their chance and decided to leave the bush. They split up and left the same night. Miriam, her co-wife, and their five young children followed a different route so that a crying baby would not give away their husband’s location to Boko Haram. After walking for two nights, eating leaves along the way, and asking other Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) for directions, they waited until daytime and surrendered to the military in a nearby town. They were eventually transported to Maiduguri, where they were reunited with their husband in the Hajj transit centre, a makeshift facility holding thousands of families like Miriam’s.  

Surveys across the Lake Chad Basin show that the public is receptive to the return of low-risk ex-associates of Boko Haram, particularly in Nigeria

The Secretariat of the Regional Strategy for Stabilisation, Recovery and Resilience, United Nations (UN) University, and the UN Institute on Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) have been working to bring robust evidence about how and why people are exiting Boko Haram’s factions and what interventions help them to fully and sustainably reintegrate into civilian society. A recent report details a regional study with ex-combatants, formerly associated individuals, and non-affiliated community members across Nigeria, Chad, Niger, and Cameroon. The report presents evidence that can inform current policy and programming discussions on how to effectively resolve the conflict and build peace in the region.

Surveys across the Lake Chad Basin show that the public is receptive to the return of low-risk ex-associates of Boko Haram, particularly in Nigeria. Many people know someone in their family or community associated with the group. When confronted with a returning family or community member, people are generally quite welcoming. This is not to say that there are no important concerns regarding stigma, especially for particular profiles, but in general, receptivity to return is high.

The question, then, is how do we build on the public’s willingness to receive people back and bolster peace? Although receptivity to return is fairly high, it is important to consider those who are resistant to returns. The research shows that they were more likely to accept returnees if they felt those coming out of Boko Haram were repentant, held accountable, and/or if  their preferred accountability measure was put in place. Public preferences for accountability varied from criminal justice approaches (e.g., prosecution), to those more commonly associated with transitional justice (e.g. a public apology). This highlights the need for effective screening for violent crimes and robust battlefield evidence collection – both of which are extremely difficult on the scale required in this conflict – to ensure criminal and transitional justice decisions are properly targeted and calibrated. There are more reasons than public preferences, however, to ensure justice and accountability measures are in place for ex-combatants, including for addressing the needs of victims, promoting community reconciliation, and enhancing the rule of law. 

While the public may differentiate between different ex-associate profiles when asked hypothetical questions about returns (e.g. those that fought and killed for Boko Haram compared to those who cooked for the group), in reality, the public may not know. They may not know how people came to be with Boko Haram in the first place, whether they committed crimes, or how they came to return to the community. There is low public knowledge of the various programmatic streams available to defecting Boko Haram associates, which makes it difficult to understand what it means to “graduate” from them, and trust in the process. Greater emphasis on strategic communications around exit processes and what programmatic interventions are involved will likely improve public trust in them. 

Women and girls coming out of Boko Haram and its factions are often under-supported as they are not seen as a security threat

Our report highlights that to promote the reintegration of ex-Boko Haram associates in civilian life, programmatic support needs to cover objective needs and manage expectations. Women and girls coming out of Boko Haram and its factions are often under-supported as they are not seen as a security threat. As many have children in their care, they are left especially vulnerable once they exit. To avoid frustrations, calibrated messaging around support that is realistic in terms of timetables for release and follow through on promised support is key. Lastly, support must be calibrated both to needs, but also to the aspirations of those for which it is intended. 

It is notable that many of those exiting the group cite basic needs support (e.g., food, clothes, shelter) as the most helpful to them. While this speaks to the conditions of life with Boko Haram, it is crucial to recognise that much of the population in the Northeast has similar needs. The region is still suffering from violent conflict, a humanitarian crisis – including large scale food insecurity and displacement, and climate change is exacerbating these challenges. Reintegration support cannot be effective if it is deployed in a vacuum. Rather it needs to be part of a larger strategy that addresses all conflict actors (including community security providers like the CJTF and vigilantes). Such a comprehensive strategy needs to ensure that communities are informed, engaged, and supported, so that their needs are met and they remain receptive to returns. With policymakers in the region working together and across the humanitarian, development, and peacebuilding nexus, the next wave of policy and practice can help bolster a suitable environment for reintegration and building peace. The Regional Strategy for the Stabilisation, Recovery & Resilience of the Boko Haram-affected Areas of the Lake Chad Basin Region, particularly its third pillar on Disarmament, Demobilisation, Rehabilitation, Reinsertion and Reintegration of Persons associated with Boko Haram, provides the framework for how countries in the region can come together at every level to operationalise this collaborative and evidence-based approach.  

In his recent remarks at the High-Level Conference on Managing Exits from Armed Conflict (MEAC) organised by UNIDIR, on 27 March 2023, the Executive Secretary of the Lake Chad Basin Commission and Head of Mission of the Multinational Joint Task Force, Amb. Mamman Nuhu called for an integrated, comprehensive, and regional approach and urged actors and stakeholders to recognise the contextual specificities of the region in finding solutions to its challenges. He also emphasised the imperative for a hybrid approach that recognises the complementary roles of criminal and transitional justice in managing sustained exits from Boko Haram in the region.  

Dr. Siobhan O’Neil, is the project leader for UNIDIR’s Managing Exits from Armed Conflict (MEAC) project.

Dr. Chika Charles Aniekwe, is a senior advisor and the head of stabilisation for the UNDP Lake Chad Basin Programme.

Article by:

Dr. Chika Charles Aniekwe
Senior Advisor and Head of Stabilization for the UNDP/LCBC Lake Chad Basin Regional Stabilization Strategy
Dr. Siobhan O’Neil
Project Lead of the Managing Exits from Armed Conflict initiative