Operation Safe Corridor, Nigeria’s home-grown program for providing recruits with a voluntary exit route from Boko Haram, was created in 2016, reflecting the recognition by the Nigerian government that it could not defeat the jihadist movement by military means alone. But despite some success, the program faces serious problems.
Authorities channel into Safe Corridor far too many civilians fleeing Boko Haram areas, unjustly mislabelling them as jihadists, clogging the system and putting off donors. Even more jarring are allegations of the terrible treatment that many program participants experience after they enter Nigerian government custody, which is both a concern in its own right and a deterrent for those who might follow their path.
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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.
Safe Corridor appears to be far from reaching its potential. In order to persuade low-level Boko Haram associates to defect in sizable numbers and attract significant international support, Nigerian authorities will need to demonstrate that the program can guide internees to graduation and reintegrate them back into society safely and securely.
To make the program more attractive to both donors and potential defectors, the government will need to better screen out civilians, improve detention standards and more effectively reintegrate graduates into society. It should also work harder to persuade the public of the program’s merits while at the same time addressing the legitimate demand for justice from the public and Boko Haram’s victims, including by prosecuting captured militants such as high-level commanders or those involved in atrocities.
Operation Safe Corridor has the potential to play a central role in getting the number of Boko Haram defectors to rise, but unless its problems are fixed, the program could lose external support and domestic viability.
This piece was put together by Africa International Crisis Group