An Exit from Boko Haram? Assessing Nigeria’s Operation Safe Corridor
In 2016, Nigeria launched a program to help Boko Haram defectors reintegrate into civilian life. Rare interviews with the “deradicalisation” facility’s graduates reveal some encouraging signs but also troubling patterns that – if not addressed – could endanger the initiative’s future.
What’s new? Operation Safe Corridor, Nigeria’s home-grown program for providing recruits with a voluntary exit route from Boko Haram, has had some success. But it still faces resistance among the political class and ordinary citizens alike. It also suffers from serious problems that are testing donors’ confidence and likely deterring potential defectors.
Why does it matter? Operation Safe Corridor reflects Nigerian authorities’ growing recognition that they cannot beat Boko Haram by military means alone. Improving the program would serve the federal government’s objective of facilitating the defection of recruits. But unless its problems are fixed, the program could lose external support and domestic viability.
What should be done? Authorities should improve intake procedures to filter out civilians who do not belong in the program. They should take urgent steps to ease conditions of confinement and do more to smooth program graduates’ reintegration into society while winning more public support, including by prosecuting some jihadists captured by security forces.
Operation Safe Corridor was established by the Nigerian government in 2016 to receive voluntary defectors from factions of the jihadist group Boko Haram. Part of a national strategy to degrade militant activity in the country’s north east, the program faces problems. Authorities channel into Safe Corridor far too many civilians fleeing Boko Haram areas, unjustly mislabelling them jihadists, clogging the system and putting off donors. More troubling are accounts from program participants who have seen sometimes deadly conditions at the facilities they pass through on the way into Safe Corridor – both a concern in its own right and a deterrent for those who might follow their path. Despite improvements, the reintegration of defectors into society can be bumpy. The program is also controversial, with critics arguing that it amounts to amnesty for terrorists. For Safe Corridor to thrive, the government will need to better screen out civilians, protect participants and more effectively reintegrate graduates into society. It should also work harder to persuade the public of the program’s merits.
The Nigerian government created Safe Corridor in 2016 after concluding that it would not be able to defeat the Boko Haram insurgency, which it has been battling since 2009, by military means alone. The program’s core target group is low-level jihadist recruits who perform combatant and/or non-combatant roles and are important to the daily functioning of Boko Haram’s two main factions – Jama’tu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad (People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad, or JAS) and Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP). There is ample reason for these recruits to seek an exit. When defectors leave the jihadist factions, it is normally due to mounting scepticism of the insurgency’s prospects, exposure to atrocious violence, the danger posed to them and their families, aversion to the factions’ unfair and brutal internal politics, the lack of material gain after years of service and, for some, the desire to escape a movement they were coerced into joining.
But while some donors and officials hope the program might be able to facilitate thousands of defections, it has struggled to bring in the right people. To date, of the hundreds of individuals who have gone through or are currently in the program, many are not from the target group. Rather, they are civilians who threw off Boko Haram’s yoke and who, after detention by security forces, were mistakenly categorised as militants and channelled into Safe Corridor. The program has also been something of a catch-all for a wide range of other individuals, including minors suspected of being child soldiers, a few high-level jihadists and alleged insurgents whom the government tried and failed to prosecute and who say they have been moved into the program against their will. Some donors, worried Nigeria is not spending their money on the target group, are therefore cautious about further investment in the program.
Even more jarring are allegations regarding the terrible treatment that many program participants experience after they enter Nigerian government custody. Many former Safe Corridor internees have reported enduring horrific conditions, particularly in the network of detention centres where they were held prior to reaching the program’s facility, Mallam Sidi camp in Gombe state. Some of those who voluntarily defected found themselves held in government facilities for as long as three years in total and often without any contact with family members for long periods of time. Some died in confinement. Even at Mallam Sidi, where conditions are better than at regular internment sites, former internees report that they were sometimes left short of food and given no certain timeline about when they might be integrated back into society.
The Safe Corridor program has yet to overcome continuing public hostility and opposition from some politicians
The program could also do more to help graduates reintegrate into society after they leave Safe Corridor. When it first launched, authorities had given little thought to this matter, leaving many former internees without a smooth path back into civilian life. State and local authorities have since become more actively involved with their reintegration. Some returnees still face suspicion from communities and local security forces, however. The program also has yet to overcome continuing public hostility and opposition from some prominent politicians, who characterise it as providing amnesty and support to terrorists or criminals who should instead be punished.
To strengthen the program, the authorities, with donor support, should:
- Fix screening systems so that they more effectively identify Boko Haram recruits who are in the program’s target group. Civilians who have escaped from Boko Haram areas, who are more likely than former recruits to find immediate acceptance back home or in displacement camps, should be screened out quickly and moved through separately so they can make a speedy return to society.
- Accelerate work to improve detention conditions, adding better safeguards to protect internees from abuse after surrendering and creating better systems to move defectors swiftly out of interim detention centres and into the Mallam Sidi camp. The camp leadership at Mallam Sidi should tighten up management of food supplies so that internees are well nourished and secure more resources for the training and psycho-social support key to internees’ return to society.
- Augment efforts to coordinate the return of Safe Corridor graduates with state authorities and local security services to help smooth their arrival back into society. Working with donors, they should also intensify plans to offer material support to host communities and their members, in order to give them incentives to accept former Boko Haram recruits into their fold.
- Beef up public awareness campaigns to persuade Nigerians of Safe Corridor's merits and to overcome any hostility to the idea of rehabilitating former Boko Haram recruits. In doing so, the government should strive to balance the assistance it is giving to former jihadists to start new lives with initiatives that can afford comfort and a measure of justice to victims of Boko Haram atrocities, notably putting on trial captured militants such as high-level commanders or those involved in atrocities.
Crisis Group’s Consulting Senior Analyst for West Africa Vincent Foucher conducts field research in Maiduguri, north-eastern Nigeria.CRISISGROUP/ Jorge Gutierrez Lucena
II. Creating an Exit from Jihad
Operation Safe Corridor is the result of several years of discussions within the Nigerian government about how to encourage voluntary defections from Boko Haram. As early as 2013, four years into the insurgency, the authorities started to recognise that a military response alone would be insufficient to dismantle the group. In September 2015, soon after his electoral victory, President Muhammadu Buhari set up a committee led by the defence chief to develop methods to persuade insurgents to defect. In 2016, federal authorities established Safe Corridor, a military-run and now partly donor-funded program providing a way out for Boko Haram recruits. Its facility is at Mallam Sidi in Gombe state, adjacent but not too close to the insurgency’s epicentre in Borno state. There, for what is supposed to be a period of six months, internees receive what the state calls “deradicalisation” instruction, as well as other education, vocational training and psychological support.
The targets of Safe Corridor are low-level insurgents, both combatant and non-combatant recruits integral to supporting Boko Haram factions’ operations. While casting a broad net, the program aims to draw in only those recruits who are not so tainted by atrocities that their reinsertion into society would cause backlash from those who might accuse the government of handing out amnesties to war criminals. In doing so, it aims essentially to strip Boko Haram of as many of these men as possible, while military operations continue against the hardline core. Mallam Sidi’s camp commander General Musa Ibrahim insists that Safe Corridor is “a non-kinetic approach to warfare, not an amnesty program”.
The program has evident potential. Its very existence provides an incentive for Boko Haram recruits to defect from a fight that many of them have come to consider futile. Several graduates interviewed by Crisis Group explained that Safe Corridor public information campaigns via radio broadcasts or leaflets dropped by Nigerian military aircraft were critical factors in pushing them to defect, an option they had not previously considered, fearing they would be executed by security forces upon turning themselves in.Knowing that there was a way out persuaded a number of those who were disillusioned by endless war, the violence committed by the factions to which they belonged, the danger of internal purges and punishments, and the injustice and poverty they experienced while jihadist leaders and their protégés enriched themselves.
Many of those who have passed through Safe Corridor told Crisis Group that they value the program, although there were differences in opinion as to how much they benefited from the various types of education and services they received. Graduates especially appreciated literacy classes, as well as the psycho-social sessions offered to them, which helped them prepare for the difficulties of reintegration into society. Civic education and training about drug abuse were also generally well received. While most internees also liked the vocational training in skills such as carpentry and shoemaking, a few, notably those who had held positions of higher status in Boko Haram, felt demoralised by the idea of taking up such humble trades.
Entering and moving through the Safe Corridor has been a haphazard and often dangerous affair.
Graduates did not praise all aspects of the curriculum, however. Some thought the “deradicalisation” classes pointless, given that they had defected and abandoned Boko Haram thinking anyway. Several also questioned the commitment and expertise of the religious specialists – often military chaplains –who came to teach.
Notwithstanding any misgivings, those former Boko Haram members who do leave Safe Corridor with a good experience – and Crisis Group spoke to several – can become useful advocates for the program. But getting members of the target group safely into and out of the program has proven an elusive goal. To date, entering and moving through the corridor has been a haphazard, difficult and often dangerous affair.
The informal economy is typical in the streets of Maiduguri. The area has been at the epicentre of the decade-long fight between the insurgent group Boko Haram and the Nigerian military. CRISISGROUP / Jorge Gutierrez Lucena
III. Missing the Target
The number of low-level insurgents who have passed through Safe Corridor is low. So far, of the 920 people admitted into the program, only a small portion have been in its target cohort, thereby barely affecting the strength of the two Boko Haram factions, which control thousands of people at any one time. Indeed, 23 former Safe Corridor internees interviewed by Crisis Group stated that at most one quarter of the cohort at Mallam Sidi are from the low-level but committed jihadist recruits who form the program’s target group of defectors.
Most of the others in the program at Mallam Sidi are civilians who fled areas controlled by Boko Haram and whom authorities then mistakenly categorised as jihadists and detained before sending them into Safe Corridor. Locals in Boko Haram-controlled areas refer to these civilians as awam, a word derived from the Arabic for “commoners”. While some awam, if only to ensure their own survival, become local officials under the group’s authority or can perform minor support roles, notably as traders, they are normally passive subjects of Boko Haram rule. With Mallam Sidi packed with awam, the camp has thus largely become a refuge and exit ramp for innocent civilians fleeing Boko Haram – a worthy outcome since it at least secures their release from prolonged captivity and forced labour under the militants’ thumb. But the program is by contrast struggling to draw in rijal, a word derived from the Arabic for “men”, and which the low-level recruits use to describe themselves.
Former Safe Corridor internees say this outcome is due to authorities’ poor screening procedures for those fleeing territory under Boko Haram’s control, flaws that are reportedly exacerbated by custodial abuse. Once they have escaped from Boko Haram territory, both rijal and awam run into security forces or pro-government militias, who take them into custody and introduce them into a circuit of detention sites. They are finally brought together at the notorious Giwa Barracks military detention centre in Maiduguri, capital of Borno state. At Giwa (discussed further below) the inductees are screened by a Joint Investigation Committee consisting of intelligence officers from various security services. Based on its determination of the risk each inductee poses, the Committee recommends one of three resolutions to his case: release, “deradicalisation” in Safe Corridor or referral to the judicial system.
At this point, at least in theory, the Committee distinguishes actual Boko Haram associates (a category more or less corresponding to rijal) from civilians, with only the former going to the Safe Corridor camp, but in practice it often does not work this way. Coercion appears to be a big part of the problem. By this stage, former internees told Crisis Group, security officers have beaten and intimidated many inductees into saying they are Boko Haram associates. For this reason, the Committee wrongly labels many awam as Boko Haram associates. In any case, however, the Committee may struggle to determine who is rijal and who is awam. It is not always an easy call to make. Men in Boko Haram-controlled areas occupy a complex variety of roles, including non-fighting sympathisers, opportunistic traders or providers of key services (notably mechanics or welders). Some may also be linked to Boko Haram through kinship or marriage. Also, the authorities sometimes simply lose interview slips as they shuffle detainees through the chain of custody, leaving the Committee with the task of having to make an assessment without access to previously collected information.
Compounding these problems, some donors express concern that authorities have sometimes treated the program as a catch-all for individuals who do not belong there. For example, the first batches of internees included teenage boys who were suspected of having been child soldiers in Boko Haram. Authorities had also sent to Mallam Sidi individuals previously suspected of belonging to Boko Haram but whose prosecutions had been dismissed during judicial review. The lawyer representing one of them argued, with no success, that a stay in the camp would amount to unlawful detention. On at least two occasions, authorities sent to Safe Corridor small groups of Boko Haram defectors that included senior jihadists who had negotiated freedom in exchange for intelligence cooperation and were thus outside the target group of low-level recruits.
Returnees from Boko Haram were initially sent to displaced persons’ camps such as this one near Maiduguri in north-eastern Nigeria. They had little or no preparation and in some cases encountered public hostility.CRISISGROUP / Jorge Gutierrez Lucena
IV. A Brutal and Tortuous Path
Given that so many defectors keep in touch with those who stay with the insurgency, it is critical that those who find their way into Safe Corridor have a positive experience so that they can persuade more rijal to leave the jihadists’ ranks. While the services provided to internees at Mallam Sidi are certainly appreciated by many who pass through the system, the experience of getting from the point of defection to the camp itself is often extraordinarily brutal, protracted and dangerous. The poor detention conditions raise humanitarian concerns and threaten to taint the program in a way that could put donor funding at risk.
Former Safe Corridor internees, both rijal and awam, interviewed by Crisis Group testified to a long journey through a network of often gruesome detention facilities. Their ordeal began once they left Boko Haram-controlled areas to turn themselves in. They were first taken to detention centres, often prisons within the nearest local military barracks, for screening. There, almost all of them were subjected to threats, beatings and torture while being interrogated by security officials or members of pro-government militia groups, notably the Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF).
After some time in these initial detention centres, internees were moved to other detention facilities, again often for long periods of time. Most of them eventually reached Giwa Barracks, the military detention centre in Maiduguri, where Nigeria’s task force fighting Boko Haram is headquartered. Transport conditions on the way to this notorious facility could be brutal, with people bound so tightly some still bear scars. After undergoing screening by the Joint Investigation Committee in Giwa, a few detainees were eventually sent to detention centres run by the Nigerian Correctional Service, for instance at Kainji (in Niger state, in the country’s north west) or Kuje prison in Abuja.
Conditions of confinement in some of these facilities were abysmal, and unlucky internees could spend several months – and sometimes almost a year – in detention from the moment they defected to the moment they entered Safe Corridor. Indeed, interviewees report that poor conditions, including the lack of food, air, water and hygiene, killed many at Giwa and Kainji while they waited for final transfer to Mallam Sidi. “Conditions were so bad that people died every day. In our cell, it was two or three people a week who died”, says one former Giwa Barracks detainee. Several interviewees say they would have thought twice about defecting if they knew the prolonged hardship they would have to endure just to get to Mallam Sidi.
Even in Mallam Sidi, described by many former Safe Corridor internees as a very comfortable place by comparison to the previous camps, conditions could be difficult and the stay lengthy. Many former internees claimed that food was at times scarce in the camp; they said they believed that some camp officials were misappropriating or withholding food. As a result, they said, a handful of people died from malnutrition.While no interviewee mentioned being the victim of physical abuse at Mallam Sidi, other credible sources report the recent unexplained disappearance of at least one Safe Corridor internee.(Safe Corridor officials acknowledge that some former internees have died, but they insist that the deaths resulted from accidents or pre-existing medical conditions. ) Other internees expressed frustration at being held for so long at Mallam Sidi, especially after being held in other detention camps, and losing contact with their families. Some internees have gone as far as to go on hunger strike to protest their prolonged stay in the camp.
While stories of internees enduring hardship continue to emerge, there are signs that things are improving. Partly as a result of pressure from local human rights defenders and global organisations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, conditions for Boko Haram detainees have improved overall, although they still have far to go. Wardens in Giwa Barracks have at least begun placing those they think should be sent to Safe Corridor into a separate cell, away from the other detainees, which at least lowers the chances they will suffer abuse while they are awaiting transfer to Mallam Sidi. Following the cases of hunger strikes at Mallam Sidi, administrators also sped up the release of batches of internees from the Safe Corridor program.
Major General Bamidele Shafa, who has headed Safe Corridor since 2016, told Crisis Group that he has wanted to step up a campaign to sensitise security forces on how to treat defectors humanely and channel them into his program, in order to make it more effective. This is a welcome idea, though implementation is uncertain as the new chief of defence staff has recently implemented a major shake-up in the officer corps and it is not yet clear that General Shafa will stay in charge of Safe Corridor.
V. Reintegration: Out of the Corridor
For those who make it safely into and out of Operation Safe Corridor, the next challenge is reintegration into Nigerian society. While civilian life is not always easy for Safe Corridor graduates, the same is true for many in impoverished, conflict-affected north-eastern Nigeria, and for the most part graduates seem to survive with the little they have, without returning to the life of an insurgent. In many cases, returnees are welcomed back into their communities, which are often camps for displaced people in Borno’s main towns. None of the awaminterviewed mentioned problems reintegrating and their stay in Mallam Sidi, when known, raised no alarm.Most rijal also reported finding a degree of acceptance in society.
For those who make it safely into and out of Operation Safe Corridor, the next challenge is reintegration into Nigerian society.
In Safe Corridor’s early days, the process of reintegration was messy. When the first batches of graduates were released from the program, the Borno state government had to improvise, setting up graduates at the Umaru Shehu rehabilitation camp in Maiduguri, a facility run by the Borno State Women’s Affairs Commission and hosting women and children formerly associated with Boko Haram. There were reports that some graduates applied pressure on female internees for sexual favours. Returnees were then sent on to their communities or to displaced persons’ camps around Maiduguri with little to no preparation. In some cases, graduates encountered public hostility when they arrived. In one famous episode, authorities tried to bring a large group of graduates originally from Gwoza local government area to a Maiduguri displaced persons’ camp and then to their homes, but in both places residents protested, forcing authorities to send the graduates again to Umaru Shehu, until they could be relocated again.
Things have improved since then, with authorities taking a greater interest in ensuring that those who leave Mallam Sidi have a softer landing in society. In advance of releasing them, authorities have stepped up efforts to connect those who will soon graduate with family members and with local officials, facilitating telephone calls as well as visits by relatives and local authorities to Mallam Sidi. A separate transit centre for Safe Corridor graduates, managed by the Borno State Women’s Affairs Commission, has now opened in the Shokari neighbourhood of Maiduguri with the support of some international partners, precisely with a view to avoiding a reprise of the allegations levied against them at Umaru Shehu. A government protocol adopted in 2020 details the respective responsibilities of Safe Corridor, which is a federal program, and of the states, which are responsible for handling reintegration.
As for material support, earlier batches of graduates received a small amount of money from Safe Corridor (20,000 nairas, about $60 at the December 2018 rate) upon exiting Mallam Sidi, and a bit more from the Borno state government (5,000 nairas, about $15) upon exiting Umaru Shehu, as well as foodstuffs and basic necessities (clothes, cooking utensils, a mat and a tarpaulin). Borno state authorities also gave the first graduates sewing machines to help them earn a living, but only one per grouping of three graduates; many sold the machines and split the money, as it was often impractical for them to start a business this way.
Over time, donors have tried to step up the support graduates receive and to attend to the communities into which they integrate. Since the end of 2019, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) has begun giving graduates individual business kits to help them set up retail booths, shoemaker’s shops or hair salons.To improve acceptance of graduates, IOM is working on a plan to distribute two additional kits to civilians in the receiving community for every kit issued to a graduate who takes up residence there. IOM is also working on establishing vocational training centres in host areas.
Meanwhile, some security forces, including the CJTF militia, have taken an interest in returnees, often monitoring their progress and behaviour. In some cases, the militia offers returnees the option of recruitment into its ranks. Some of the rijal graduates report feeling that they enjoy a level of protection from military authorities and the militia. As one of them put it: “The military in [my community] warned everyone – and people are afraid of the military – that they [the military] will do something to them if they [hostile civilians] do something to us”.
There are cases, however, where returnees face problems with security services. For example, local military officials refused to accept the abovementioned graduates from Gwoza even after the Borno state authorities had negotiated the entry of a number of them with the community itself. In another case, the local military unit expelled a group of Safe Corridor graduates who had just returned to Dikwa, another town in Borno. Resistance by locally deployed military officials may be due to institutional friction between the army, of which they are a part and which is in charge of anti-Boko Haram operations, and the defence staff, which supervises Safe Corridor. But it may also be caused by the revulsion that many military officials feel seeing Boko Haram associates brought back into society.
Senior politicians and the population oppose to the idea that any former Boko Haram recruit should benefit from government forgiveness and donor support.
Returnees also face a larger problem, which relates to opposition, from both senior politicians and the broader population, to the idea that any former Boko Haram recruit should benefit from government forgiveness and donor support, especially at a time when jihadists have been escalating their attacks. “The current arrangement where the repentant insurgents are granted amnesty without apologising to the victims and the state cannot bring about the required peace”, said Senator for Borno South and Chairman of the Senate Committee on the Army Ali Ndume in September 2020. This kind of opposition is likely to intensify following still more militant attacks, such as ISWAP’s March 2021 assault on a UN base and humanitarian aid hub, which has fed popular frustration with the military’s inability to contain the jihadists.
In another blow to Safe Corridor, Borno State Governor Babagana Umara Zulum has called for a review of the program, stating that he believes that some of those who passed through it have rejoined Boko Haram factions. Some Safe Corridor graduates think the governor has based his comments partly on the reported arrest of a small group of Safe Corridor graduates in the Borno town of Banki on suspicion of engaging in trade with insurgents. Crisis Group has not investigated these allegations in depth, but it has confirmed only one instance of a Safe Corridor graduate returning back to a Boko Haram faction. A number of Nigerian officials as well as policy experts involved with Safe Corridor, who were interviewed after Zulum’s allegations surfaced, share the view that virtually all the program’s graduates have remained civilians. They also have found only one solid case of someone who had passed through the program taking up arms once more.
A Civilian Join Task Force militia post in Maiduguri. In a few cases, the militia offers Boko Haram returnees the option of recruitment into its ranks.CRISISGROUP / Jorge Gutierrez Lucena[/PHOTO> VI. Repairing the Corridor
Operation Safe Corridor has the potential to play a central role in getting the number of Boko Haram defectors to rise. As noted, interviews with graduates make clear that the existence of the program was itself a reason for them to defect and suggest that many more in Boko Haram factions’ ranks are ready to abandon their posts as well. It is also clear that Nigerian authorities have been trying to address some of the program’s failings. But further work needs to be done.
First, Nigerian officials need to improve the screening of awam and rijal. Too many people who are not rijal– the core target group of Safe Corridor – are ending up at Mallam Sidi, which has led some donors to question what they are paying for. All those who flee Boko Haram areas voluntarily and are picked up by security services should be immediately set apart from other detainees in detention centres and screened separately. Security forces should ensure that officials carrying out the screening have a background working with this population and understand the difference between awam and rijal. Nigerian authorities have been slow to recognise this distinction because of a propensity to treat all males emerging from Boko Haram-controlled territory as jihadists. Those who are identified as awam should be released promptly and receive social support they may need at home. The rijal should be moved directly and as quickly as possible to Mallam Sidi. To ensure appropriate screening, the government should boost the teams with select former rijaland staff who have worked in the Safe Corridor system.
Secondly, authorities should (with donor support) redouble efforts to tackle systemic detainee abuse problems and take concerted steps to protect Safe Corridor inductees as they move to Mallam Sidi. The experience of many internees continues to be poor, with many enduring dangerous conditions of confinement at the network of facilities that they travel through on their way to the camp. These conditions are deeply troubling from a humanitarian perspective and also pose reputational risks to a program whose success will partly rely on word of mouth among the rijal. Addressing this challenge means minimising the period of time during which internees are at transitory detention centres like Giwa before they reach Mallam Sidi and improving conditions at all such facilities.
Nigerian authorities should also aim to improve the situation at Mallam Sidi, where conditions, even if better than in transit camps, have been substandard. Authorities should examine allegations regarding the misappropriation of camp food, ensure that internees’ food needs are being met, and ramp up livelihood training and counselling. They should ensure that internees are able to contact their families who may have defected with them, to allow them to keep up morale and plan their reintegration together. The authorities should also abide by the six-month timeline for releasing internees. If the government can show that it is working effectively to achieve these objectives, it may find itself in a better position to request donor assistance to improve food, living conditions, psycho-social support, education and training for Safe Corridor.
Third are steps to minimise the problems graduates face in being accepted by local authorities once they return to civilian life. Officials who manage Safe Corridor internees and graduates should coordinate better with local security services and with Borno state authorities, which are in charge of reintegration in Borno, to help ensure that those who reintegrate into local communities are welcomed and not harassed by any local security services. Graduates who know that they are not welcome and thus move away from home should still be eligible for some form of assistance. Donors, meanwhile, should ramp up support for host communities to raise their incentives to receive Safe Corridor graduates into their fold.
Finally, key both to Safe Corridor’s domestic viability and its ability to attract donor funds is to convince Nigeria’s public and political class to accept a program that many would argue gives jihadists amnesty and rewards them on top of that. The federal government should accordingly intensify its public awareness campaign through mainstream media to sensitise citizens to Safe Corridor’s benefits. As part of this effort, the authorities should try to inform the public that those who join Boko Haram and its factions in the impoverished north east of the country often do so because they lack opportunities or are outright coerced and are therefore not inherently enemies of the state. At the same time, authorities should address the legitimate demand for justice from the public and Boko Haram’s victims. They could take a step in this direction by setting up a task force of dedicated judges to try a number of high-level captured (as opposed to defecting) Boko Haram associates through fair and well-publicised prosecutions that are based on solid evidence – a step that would be worthwhile irrespective of Safe Corridor’s fate.
The creation of Operation Safe Corridor was a welcome acknowledgement by the Nigerian government that, by itself, a military response to Boko Haram will not be enough to adequately degrade the jihadist group. Nigeria needs other tools. Yet Safe Corridor appears to be far from reaching its potential. In order to persuade low-level Boko Haram associates to defect in sizeable numbers and attract significant international support, the Nigerian authorities will need to demonstrate that the program can guide internees to graduation and reintegrate them back into society safely and securely. To date, Safe Corridor falls short of being able to offer those kinds of assurances with sufficient credibility. Improved screening procedures, detention safeguards, investments in reintegration and a public relations campaign to win political and popular support can make the program more attractive to both donors and potential defectors. The relevant branches of the Nigerian government should all invest the resources and attention that the program requires lest this vital corridor become a dead end.
Dakar/Maiduguri/Brussels, 19 March 2021