Getting Goudoumaria right: are Boko Haram defectors reintegrating safely?
Since 2015, fighters, associates, and people trapped or kidnapped have been leaving Boko Haram. And since the death this year of Abubakar Shekau, leader of the Jama'atu Ahlis Sunnah lid-Da'wati wa'l-Jihad faction of Boko Haram, defections have increased dramatically – especially in Cameroon and Nigeria.
This has created a window of opportunity for the Lake Chad Basin countries in their fight against the terror group and its affiliates to encourage further defections and weaken the extremists.
In 2016 Niger's government called for Boko Haram members' voluntary surrender and amnesty in the Diffa region in the south-east. A reception centre for people associated with Boko Haram who voluntarily surrendered was officially created in Goudoumaria by Order of the Ministry of the Interior, Public Security, Decentralisation, Customary and Religious Affairs on 4 February 2019.
This order, based on the crisis exit strategy for the Diffa region and the framework document for the management of the surrender of Boko Haram associates, formalised the legal framework of the centre, whose construction had started in February 2017.
Regionally, the Lake Chad Basin states included the disarmament, demobilisation, rehabilitation, resettlement and reintegration (DDRRR) of Boko Haram associates as a priority in the 2018 regional stabilisation strategy. This was led by the Lake Chad Basin Commission, with the African Union's support.
Institute for Security Studies (ISS) research reveals that Niger's outreach has provided an exit route to some Boko Haram associates. To date, at least 375 ex-Boko Haram associates, including 30 women, have benefited from the centre's socio-economic rehabilitation programme.
Two years after the first group graduated, questions remain about the reintegration of the ex-associates in the host communities and the programme's future. Capitalising on this programme's results would help increase its impact on stabilising the regions affected by Boko Haram.
Since 2015, fighters, associates, and people trapped or kidnapped have been leaving Boko Haram
Placed under the supervision of the Ministry of the Interior, the Goudoumaria reception centre has a maximum capacity of 500 people. Its purpose is to welcome ex-Boko Haram associates and facilitate their social reintegration through religious re-education, re-socialisation and vocational training in various professional fields. The High Authority for Peacebuilding, attached to the Presidency, oversees the DDRRR process with the support of local authorities and development partners.
At the end of this training and psychosocial support, the ex-associates receive exit and professional training certificates, an installation kit and, in the case of the first group, an installation allowance of 50 000 CFA. They also take a collective Quranic oath to renounce violent extremism.
To facilitate the reintegration of ex-associates, and consider the host communities' needs, awareness-raising sessions were organised. A socio-economic support programme for 600 youth from the host communities was also implemented. These aimed to support and strengthen their resilience against violent extremism.
ISS interviews with the DDRRR beneficiaries after graduation from the centre and programme implementing partners and local authorities highlight numerous challenges.
Regarding the rehabilitation component of the programme, beneficiaries highlighted the lack of communication regarding the duration of their stay in Goudoumaria, and the slow pace of the programme implementation.
The first group of about 243 people stayed at the centre from July 2017 to December 2019. The length of their stay made some feel imprisoned and created frustrations that reportedly led to evasion attempts from the centre. Authorities said the delay was due to problems in raising finances to get the centre operational. The need to clarify the programme's legal framework and eligibility criteria, including those relating to amnesty, also added to the delay.
On the reinsertion and reintegration component, some beneficiaries said they didn't encounter any difficulties reintegrating into their host communities in Diffa.
Some interviewees said they could only access the programme as wives or daughters of combatants, not as full beneficiaries
Economically though, the ex-associates faced many problems. Most couldn't support themselves by practising the profession they were trained in. Some had sold their kit and were engaged in piecemeal activities to survive. Some professions they'd received training in weren't suited to the market, and in some cases, the crisis had already strained the economy. Others said the installation fees they received weren't enough.
This feedback has discouraged some people still associated with Boko Haram from defecting. It reportedly led two beneficiaries of the programme to return to the group. Others who had considered this changed their minds for fear of being executed by Boko Haram for treason.
Despite the establishment of a monitoring system based on communal peace committees and community leaders, the ex-associates also complained about the lack of support from the authorities and the lack of regular monitoring since their departure from the centre. This monitoring is even less effective for those integrated into remote Diffa communities.
Members of the regional monitoring committee interviewed said they operated voluntarily and didn't have the material and financial means to monitor the reintegration of the ex-associates adequately.
While women in Boko Haram play many roles besides reproductive and domestic, some interviewees said they could only access the programme as wives or daughters of combatants, not as full beneficiaries. This underestimation of women's roles in the group reflects deep-rooted stereotypes that could make the programme less attractive to women.
A lack of funding currently prevents the deployment of an adapted programme for the third group
In addition, despite the separation of beneficiaries according to gender at the centre, at least one case of rape was reported. This isolated case, according to the Nigerien authorities, demonstrates the need for specific measures to protect women and girls throughout the DDRRR process.
After the first group, a second of about 46 people joined the centre in October 2020 and left seven months later – a shorter stay compared to the first group. This resulted from a lack of and fluctuations in funding from the state and its partners, which had repercussions on the centre's operations and the programme.
The shorter period was also because of recommendations made at a December 2020 workshop in Diffa. These included the need to define the duration of the rehabilitation programme at the centre to ensure greater transparency and predictability.
For the second group, the number of vocational training options was reduced from nine to six following the end of the project to support the rehabilitation of ex-Boko Haram associates, which only secured funding for the rehabilitation of the first group. The second group also didn't benefit from psychosocial support, which is vital for dealing with possible trauma and helping them to reintegrate peacefully into their host communities.
A lack of funding currently prevents the deployment of an adapted programme for the third group hosted at the centre.
Nigerien authorities and those of other Lake Chad countries should consider the problems encountered in implementing the DDRRR programme, given that the programme weakens Boko Haram by depriving it of vital human resources.
This is vital to reduce the risks of recidivism and re-recruitment into Boko Haram, which would be detrimental to regional reconciliation and stabilisation.
Jeannine Ella Abatan and Remadji Hoinathy, Senior Researchers, ISS Regional Office for West Africa, the Sahel and the Lake Chad Basin
This article was published with the support of the International Development Research Centre, the UK Conflict Resolution, Stability and Security Fund and the Hanns Seidel Foundation.
Exclusive rights to re-publish ISS Today articles have been given to Daily Maverick in South Africa and Premium Times in Nigeria. For media based outside South Africa and Nigeria that want to re-publish articles, or for queries about our re-publishing policy, email us.
Photo: OIM Niger/Twitter