Interventions for Boko Haram Deserters in the Lake Chad Basin

Fonteh Akum

Boko Haram continues to rely on communities in the Lake Chad Basin area for combatant recruits

DDRR – connecting security and development interventions

There needs to be careful consideration given to how to socio-economically rehabilitate and reintegrate deserting Boko Haram combatants amid ongoing counterinsurgency operations. Thinking around this issue has largely been within the broad framework of innovating DDR programmes in a way that development interventions build upon security considerations.
While fist-generation DDR focused on combatants present within military structures, second-generation programmes have incorporated communities more broadly affected by armed conflct into policy planning.
A third generation of context-sensitive DDR interventions targets the demobilization and disengagement of violent extremists. This approach integrates lessons learnt from DDR and CVE operations to develop a heuristic framework for demobilizing and disengaging combatants within contexts of violent extremism.
The four countries in the Lake Chad basin area have so far approached the issue of deserters in different ways. While it is beyond the scope of this report to look at these disparate ad hoc responses, it does advocate the need for regional baseline harmonization that emphasizes synergies and information sharing, while at the same time guarding against one-size fi all national approaches and methods. A uniform approach will not respond to the specific drivers of recruitment and manifestations of Boko Haram in the four countries in question.
Although it is important to gain a deeper understanding of desertion patterns and flaws from the current pool deserters, the immediate focus should be on developing DDR strategies and approaches in sync with the objectives of interim stabilization.
Despite the sporadic and haphazard nature of desertion, it is necessary to approach de-incentivisation both individually and collectively. Processes of deincentivisation hence simultaneously provide the basis for preventing and countering violent extremism during interim stabilization. Meanwhile, rehabilitation and reintegration are complex interactive processes. With the support of their community and social networks, rehabilitation and reintegration processes seek to transition an individual or a group from combatant status to one that implicitly denounces violent extremism, and to work towards their emotional, socio-economic and psychological stability on a path of re-entry into their community and society at large.

Desertion: push and pull factors

Operations aimed at preventing and countering Boko Haram’s violent extremism seek to pre-empt and react to the group’s resilience and adaptability. However, understanding how the push factors result in desertion from the group is as important as understanding the pull factors that continue to lure recruits, including the potential for recidivism. This is especially important, as both conditions coexist within the complex conflct environment in the Lake Chad Basin. Understanding these should help deal with dilemmas that state and non-governmental actors face when confronting the phenomenon of desertion.
A third generation of context-sensitive DDR interventions targets the demobilization of violent extremists In this context, desertion implies the act by individuals or groups of disengaging from violent-extremist groups without having been discharged by higher command.
When engaging with deserters, however, there is the need to establish whether they were forcefully or voluntarily recruited into the group and the roles they played in the organisation. These factors are important considerations throughout the entire socially negotiated and validated DDRR processes. Given the societal and relational implications of people joining violent-extremist organisations, opting out of these groups also has far-reaching consequences for affected communities and society at large. Understanding the complex coexistence of push and pull factors influencing Boko Haram members is therefore an important aspect of DDDR processes in the area.

Push factors

Two interrelated structural factors seem to explain the push phenomenon underlying Boko Haram desertion. Firstly, on a strategic level, military successes achieved by the MNJTF in its operations have inflicted combat losses on the violent-extremist group. This has resulted in a large number of captured ex-combatants. Boko Haram’s territorial losses have brought both areas and populations under the control of national armies. At the same time, high-profile internal rivalry between the Shekau and al-Barnawi factions within Boko Haram has altered the group’s strategy and tactics. Both pledged allegiance to Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), although ISIS recognised al-Barnawi as the leader of its West Africa Province. This ideologically, economically and strategically rooted rivalry, which came to a head in August 2016, provides insight into the factionalized nature of the group, and a wave of desertion seems directly attributable to it.
Strategic and organizational contexts may have shaped individuals’ reasons for deserting, but the implications of deserting are determined by which side of a national borderline deserters end up on. Although Boko Haram’s main bases of operation are in north-eastern Nigeria, deserters have turned themselves over to state authorities in all the Lake Chad Basin countries. This means that dealing with deserters is both a national and a regional issue.
Secondly, and on the individual level, whether they were forced or voluntarily recruited into joining Boko Haram, disillusionment within the group – borne of unfulfilled promises – and fear of death on the battlefild have been the main push factors for deserters. 28 Many of them were promised economic opportunities for which they did no need a formal education, but they did not sign up to die. With its loss of territory, the caliphate that Boko Haram promised its recruits appears as a metaphorical mirage rising out of the Sahelian heat.
Security and development actors in the Lake Chad Basin area are acutely aware that despite their interventions, desertion push factors from Boko Haram continue to coexist with inflences that pull combatants into the group’s ranks. Looking at kidnappings, for example, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs noted that the number of children forcibly recruited to participate in violent attacks had reached 83 by September of 2017.

Pull factors

Preoccupation with desertion, however, often occludes the more pernicious problem of active and ongoing Boko Haram recruitment on the islands of the Lake Chad Basin as well as the structural conditions that led to the mushrooming of the group in the first instance. Some security-focused state responses to the group have had the effect of thwarting local economies, exacerbating economic vulnerabilities in the area.
Internal rivalry between the Shekau and al-Barnawi factions within Boko Haram has altered the group’s strategy and tactics. The continuous presence of Boko Haram sympathizers among communities in the Lake Chad Basin area also preoccupies state and local authorities, and their humanitarian and development partners, vigilante groups and development actors. The group’s resilience is largely linked due to its adaptability, given its rootedness within communities in the area. Said one participant: ‘It is impossible to tell who is Boko Haram and who is not Boko Haram on the islands. There are a lot of people who are fishermen, traders or farmers by day, and Boko Haram by night.’ This poses a problem in terms of trying to identify the threat among communities.
It also remains extremely difficult to accurately capture changing levels of voluntary Boko Haram enlistment within the communities around the lake. Another complex problem, and one with strategic implications, is understanding how alliances between Boko Haram and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, in the region, and ISIS globally, have contributed to attracting foreign fighters to, or deterring them from, the Lake Chad Basin theatre.
Accurately mapping these coexisting push and pull factors is important in terms of understanding how to complement military successes with winning the hearts and minds of communities in the region.
Desertion: categorizing deserters, stragglers and family units While the MNJTF puts the number of deserters across the Lake Chad Basin area at around 3 500 as of November 2017, they also note three observations relating to categories of deserters that may skew these numbers.
Firstly, after deserters turn themselves in and are taken into custody by state authorities, they are supposed to go through a sorting process. However, the only country in the area where this seems to occur systematically at the moment is Niger.
The very nature of this sorting process remains shrouded in the opacity of national security
The purpose of the sorting process is to categories people according to their degree of involvement and their role within the terror group. Those considered to have deliberately targeted civilian populations are supposed to face prosecution through a special judicial system.
However, the very nature of this sorting process remains shrouded in the opacity of national security.
There are also legal loopholes pertaining to where individuals confess to have committed attacks. There are
cases, for example, of individuals who were sent back to their communities in the Lake Region of Chad after having confessed to taking part in Boko Haram attacks in Nigeria. These people, who are neither reintegrated nor prosecuted, despite being welcomed in their communities as ‘returnees’, largely elude accountability for crimes committed while with Boko Haram.
Meanwhile, in Diffa, Niger, the Goudoumaria repentants’ camp, set up by the High Authority for Peace Consolidation (HACP), holds voluntary Boko Haram returnees locally referred to as ‘repentis’ (to use the French term). The camp holds these individuals for DDR processing. This discrepancy in the way Boko Haram deserters are treated poses a challenge that states in the region need to resolve.
Secondly, while among the deserters there are ex-combatants, there are also women and children – many of whom are under 10, who were most likely born to spouses of Boko Haram combatants. Gendersensitive eligibility for participation in interim stabilization DDRR programming should incorporate this category of deserters. Such programming should be gender and age-sensitive, while seeking as far as possible to maintain the integrity of family units and counter the stigmatisation of this particular group of individuals.
Thirdly, the sorting process has turned up stragglers who claim to be members of Boko Haram so they can benefit from the food, shelter and clothing available in the ex-combatant holding areas. This is especially the case when stragglers believe that by turning themselves in to the authorities, they will also benefit from rehabilitation and reintegration programmes. The fact that some pretend to be part of the terror group so that they can receive aid draws attention to the dire socio-economic conditions that continue to prevail in communities vulnerable to both Boko Haram attacks and recruitment.

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