On the morning of September 6, a 78-year-old man climbed aboard a green-white-green “Borno State Government Free School Bus”.
Alkali Musa Kukawa is returning home for the first time since 2014—to his family, the two wives and 34 children he’d been torn away from.
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“I’m happy, I’m so happy,” he says, his voice strained with emotion, tears brimming in his age-worn eyes.
The time in-between had been spent in Boko Haram captivity, then on military camps where he underwent de-radicalisation, was rehabilitated and is now ready to be reintegrated into society.
He is not alone. His 25-year-old son Ali, who had shared captivity and rehabilitation with him, is going also.
A total of 300 men who have lived the same experience are also going back to Borno.
They have been labelled the “repentant Boko Haram fighters”.
At least 300 more are left behind, and this is their rehabilitation journey.
Operation Safe Corridor
The Boko Haram insurgency in the north east is being fought on many fronts. Nigeria’s response is twofold: a kinetic and a non-kinetic response. The kinetic is the hard-knock Operation Lafiya Dole; the non-kinetic is the soft-slap Operation SAFE CORRIDOR.
And an orientation camp for National Youth Service Corps in Mallam Sidi, Gombe, has now become the heart of intense efforts to de-radicalise, rehabilitate and re-integrate hundreds of men who have had contact with Boko Haram insurgents, the so-called “repentant Boko Haram members” who have been on the news a lot.
Operation Safe Corridor is what its name says: providing repentant members a “safe corridor” to return to society. It is different from the amnesty programme that followed conflict in the Niger Delta.
The “repentant” are actually former abductees of Boko Haram and terrorist suspects, and they are called “clients”, not suspects.
The Camp has so far graduated a few in two pilot batches since 2016 and a special batch in 2019. That same year, 290 more clients came on 22 November 2019. Kukawa and his son were among that number.
On 14 December, another 316 clients were taken into the camp. Kukawa’s two other sons were among them. They would swell the numbers to 606.
Right place, wrong time and a 15-day walk
Kukawa, from Maiduguri, was living in a little Cameroonian border town when he was taken hostage by terrorists and shoved into Sambisa Forest. He witnessed the weeks before the group split into two factions: Shekau and al-Barnawi.
“One of the factions kept us. I have been praying to God to make a way for me to escape,” he says. “God finally answered my prayer.”
The answer was his son Ali, also taken hostage by the terrorist. He was 25, a father also and a husband. Father and son sit side by side in the camp’s green slacks and white t-shirt narrating their ordeals. It is Friday, a half free day, and sports is scheduled for later in the day.
Ali had been planning an escape ever since the al-Barnawi faction took them.
“In planning for the escape, I was not escaping to come and surrender,” Ali recalls.
“I was not even aware the government had a clemency deal, neither was I aware of the process.”
Ali had been working for the group after being taken hostage for years. He had risen in profile to leadership among the forced workers. When Abba, a fellow forced worker was in danger, he planned Abba’s escape and got him on a vehicle to Lagos.
Abba was caught, taken to Maiduguri and secured at Giwa Barracks. That’s the location where men who have escaped Boko Haram, or rescued by the army are processed. Abba would later work with the army, giving human intelligence on Boko Haram locations, including battles in Sambisa, before his eventual freedom in Maiduguri.
Ali wasn’t going to have it easy. He was already known as working for Boko Haram. On request Abba connected him to a senior military officer who got him working as an informant. He got asked to go to Maiduguri, but declined.
“I have my father, my mother, my children, my wife and siblings. It will not be possible for me to escape with them all at once. And it will also not be possible for me to leave them behind,” he recalls his response.
The eventual escape spanned 15 days of trekking and sprung him and his relations— father, mother, kids, younger siblings—from Boko Haram captivity.
They trekked to Geidam, then boarded a vehicle to Damaturu.
He carried his father piggyback when the old man got too weak to walk. Damaturu was selected because he was already marked in Maiduguri.
“It was at Damaturu that I was taken to a place called ‘Guantanamo’ where I spent a week. From there, I was taken to Giwa Barracks, where I spent a year and three months. From Giwa Barracks, they brought me here—to DRR camp.”
DRR not amnesty
The DRR camp is “a non-kinetic approach to warfare, not an amnesty programme,” says Brigadier-General Musa Ibrahim, commandant of the De-Radicalisation, Rehabilitation and Re-Integration camp of Operation Safe Corridor in Mallam Sidi.
“The amnesty programme done in these other parts of the country in comparison to what we are doing in Operation Safe Corridor has no basis for comparison. When you are rehabilitating, de-radicalising and re-integrating. Those are just disarming and resettling.”
Established in 2016, the camp’s personnel are drawn from 17 ministries, departments and agencies to provide a range of services packed into the rehabilitation process.
- Office of the National Security Adviser
- Defence Headquarters (Defence intelligence, army, navy and air force)
- National Intelligence Agency (Information gathering and intelligence support).
- Department of State Security (Information gathering and intelligence support).
- National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (Drug abuse therapy).
- Nigeria Correction Service (Spiritual and psychotherapy, counsellors).
- National Orientation Agency (Public sensitisation, interpreters and counsellors).
- Nigeria Immigration Service (Profiling and repatriation of foreign ex-combatants).
- Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps (Security and intelligence support).
- Federal Ministry of Women Affairs and Social Development (Family reunion, home visit and follow-up services).
- Nigeria Police Force (Security, EOD and Intelligence support).
- National Identity Management Commission (DNA, Biometry, National ID Card).
- National Directorate for Employment (Vocational Training Support).
- Federal Ministry of Justice (Administering of Transitional Justice).
- Federal Ministry of Human Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development (Coordination of all Humanitarian Support).
- North East Development Commission (Provision of all kind of support).
- Operation LAFIYA DOLE (Disarmament and screening of eligible OPSC clients).
Bringing disparate units of military and paramilitary agencies together was a lesson in both sensibilities and geography.
Brigadier-General Ibrahim is only the third commandant of the camp. The camp was meant to be in Jigawa where land was allocated but funding to develop the land was not forthcoming.
Major-General BM Shafa, coordinator of Operation Safe Corridor, Brigadier-General Musa Ibrahim, the third commandant so far of the DRR Camp, put heads together with other authorities to get the camp sited in Gombe.
“Gombe is the centre of the north east. From Gombe, you can go to any part of the north east. Looking at it in this aspect, this is the best place and it wasn’t easy and still not easy,” says Brigadier-General Ibrahim.
“This used to be the NYSC camp and they still need their camp and we are now inconveniencing them to make things work.”
Working for good
Getting to work begins even before clients arrive in Mallam Sidi. The Giwa Barracks in Maiduguri is a detention centre where the men are sorted. Category A is for innocents caught in the web of battle. Category B is those who willingly surrender and are open to rehab. Category C is hardliners beyond rehab who will remain in Giwa.
Only one client in Mallam Sidi has been re-categorised to C and returned to Giwa. The others fall into categories A and B. The categories also inform how psychologists access their states of mind.
The men haven’t seen families in years, and the disconnect is the first step in their psychological first aid, says Nandom Ibrahim, a psychologist working with Operation Safe Corridor on the camp.
Psychological education follows, to help the men recognise the symptoms they are exhibiting. Then they are placed in groups, depending on the severity of their cases.
“The most common psychological problem is stress,” says Nano Ibrahim, a Psychologist working in the camp for over two years. “Stress can lead to depression, anxiety. Worries when you are moved from one place to another. Uncertainties when you are leaving Maiduguri [Giwa] and coming to this camp. You don’t know what’s going to happen.”
The psychological tools and treatment plans on hand help with post-traumatic stress disorder, life skills, re-integration, anger management, stigma, suicide.
It isn’t just on the camp. Each client is numbered according to what year and batch they came in. The final numbers are serial. Ever so often the International Office for Migration collects details of each client and reaches out to families left behind. The intent is to organise family visits.
“In interventions in extremism, psychosocial support is very key,” says Ibrahim.
“A lot of them haven’t seen their families for the past five, seven years. That keeps them up. They can’t sleep. One of the common problems here is insomnia. Having organised family visits helps.”
Social workers plug into the family link to tamper antisocial behaviour.
“The need is for them to know what family is all about the roles of family members, what peace is all about, the fundamental human rights of every citizen—like freedom of religion,” says social worker Emmanuel Bukams.
“Most, when they come, think that apart from Islam, there is no other religion. But everyone can practise his own religion, and they have to know that. So when they go back, they should be ready to stay with Christians, Muslims and pagans.”
They are also realising they too have been victims.
“Only few were members. Majority were victims of circumstances. They were in their villages and were captured and forced into the bush,” says Bukams.
“So when they found themselves out, they surrendered to the Nigerian Army.”
The National Orientation Agency (NOA) is on the ground to work on surrendered minds. It provides counsellors and interpreters, and the ‘white brigade’, a limited paramilitary agency to provide limited security. Civil defenders also provide security, but the bulk—the heavy guns guarding the hostels where the men stay—are military.
Counsellors teach national core values—patriotism, integrity, religious tolerance, surveillance, social justice.
They also teach national symbols—anthem, pledge, flag, coat of arms. And the National Identity Management Commission is on the ground to provide a national ID card, marking each client a national, giving them identities that can be traced.
Each client leaving the camp already has a national identification number.
Identity matters because not all the men are Nigerians. The Boko Haram insurgency has plagued the entire Lake Chad region, spanning fringes of Nigeria, Chad, Niger and Cameroon.
When Kukawa was taken hostage, he was in a village on the border with Cameroon.
Men taken hostage outside Nigeria are among the serial numbers arriving at Mallam Sidi.
Among the over 600 at Mallam Sidi at 14 foreigners—eight from Cameroon, five from Chad and one from Niger.
Nigeria Immigration Service is on ground to sort out their repatriation, says DSP Bulus Vandi Mbaga, head of the NIS department at the camp.
The choice is between repatriating them through the northeast quarter—that is, northeastern states bordering neighbouring countries—or through NIS headquarters, that is, handing them over to their respective embassies.
NOA also teaches hygiene and current affairs in a bid to help clients understand the past, present and future of Nigeria, says counsellor Caleb Benson, of NOA.
“Most are not educated. That’s why there was this opportunity for them to be influenced by Boko Haram. If they go back to their society, now they have understood the case. They can teach their children. They won’t allow their children to do as they have done.”
The drug question
The running supposition is that men who have worked with Boko Haram were induced by drugs.
“When they get in there [in Boko Haram captivity], they will be taught to take drugs to act violently,” supposes Victor Michael, head of department of NDLEA at the camp.
“A normal person can’t act the way they do, if you don’t take the hard drugs. That’s what gives you the highness. Ordinarily, you can’t come to say you want to shoot or kill me, if you are not high.”
The National Drug Law Enforcement Agency at DRR works on drug abuse therapy.
“Ninety percent of them are into drugs. When they leave, they will have nothing to do with hard drugs, because that’s what pushes them mostly into crime,” says Michael.
Religious ideologies and counter narratives
Mohammed Mala, from Madagali in Adamawa witnessed the clash of religious ideologies when he was taken hostage.
The terrorists struck on a Friday. He and his father fled.
The occupiers announced women in households whose husbands were not available would be taken into Sambisa and forcefully married off.
Mala was leaving behind his grandfather, mother, 17 younger siblings and wife who had given birth a day before the invasion. He and his father returned in the dead of night.
“Traditionalists had taken the Boko Haram fight to be a religious fight. If you are a muslim, they would not allow you safeguard your life. They will say the insurgents are your associates, they will tie you in a sack and throw you in a lake,” Mala says.
He relives the story of Askira Uba, of corpses bound and floating in rivers and lakes. One of them was a mother and a child strapped to her back.
“There is death from both sides; We weren’t safe from Boko haram nor were we safe from the insurgents.”
The stay of the terrorists was temporary. The family stayed on, providing shelter to Christians, young women escaping forced marriages until the military came and took over Mubi and Michika. Mala had to leave town.
“If you run towards the hills the insurgents will kill you, because they felt despite living with them during their occupation you did not like or accept them. We had a car at home. The insurgent took the car and forcefully conveyed our family to Sambisa forest using it,” he says.
In the forest, everyone fends for themselves. No provision for food or welfare. Mala was the oldest male. He had to dig wells, farm.
“Sometimes we didn’t have food; we make do with leaves: we boiled and drank them and slept with nothing to eat.
During farming season, he ate vegetable soup without ‘tuwo’, because he needed to be strong.
“The insurgents will not force you to join the fight nor would they allow you to come to their side of the camp in the forest. We were just kept captive. However, if you are fascinated you can choose to join them,” he says.
But religious indoctrination is a challenge spiritual counsellors—both Islamic and Christian—are battling at DRR amp.
After four years and four months on the camp, Rev Staff Sergeant Ayuba Adamu has worked with 10 men forced to convert to Islam.
He leads church service for Christian clients and soldiers in the camp.
The opening sounds of Glory to God swells through camp’s multipurpose hall every Sunday morning.
The hall also serves as a meeting place, cinema where the clients binge on movies.
It is also the haloed ground where they sing the national anthem and pledge, some for the first time in their lives, as they swear allegiance to Nigeria.
“When they come to the camp, some renounce and return to their faith. They need religious guidance to return from the dilemma they found themselves in, because they were forced into a religion they accepted without their consent,” says Adamu.
“We deal with the ignorance in the concept of the counternarrative—that western education, government work, politics is forbidden, as is anything not in line with islam. We use the bible to counter the narrative, so they know the real meaning of what is democracy, the benefit of living together and what it can bring to them, and tell them the importance of education.”
The point of education is where educationist Mohammed Alhassan steps in. He is senior inspector at Nigeria Corrections Services posted to the camp.
Profiling each client helps determine their level of education, and where to place them in the overall literacy and numeracy classes offered on the camp, he says.
“It is to prove to them that the education they were told is taboo is not taboo; that education is important in the life of every individual.”
Tafsadeen Suleiman Isah is the camp imam, bringing together verses from the Qur’an and the Hadith to shed light on misplaced ideologies.
He presides over Friday prayers at a mosque on the camp. Men in white overalls take their spots at the call for prayers, right after lunch.
One goes right to the heart of the society Boko Haram tried to create with a disparate version of Islam.
“Someone is trying to bring Islamic sharia law into the society, and if people refuse to follow him, he goes with his family into the forest—and calls it hijra. Hijra is not like that,” says Isah.
“We brought Qur’anic verses to show them there is no migration after Prophet Muhammad’s migration from Medina to Mecca, and we tell them Prophet Muhammad said any kind of education is compulsory for men and girls.”
In 2014, Babagana Mairambi was already in his 50s and looking toward retirement at Bama local government education authority when Boko Haram terrorists captured the council headquarters.
He and his family were taken away.
“I stayed with them but I did not participate in anything they did. Because of my age, they respected my age and did not involve me in their activities,” he says
He spent two years in Sambisa until January 2016 when he made it out of the forest. He was returned to the council headquarters in Bama, then shunted off to Giwa Barracks.
In May 2016, he was moved into a maximum-security prison in Maiduguri, and spent three years and seven months there.
By 14 December 2019, he was moved into the DRR camp.
Before he was taken, he was already eyeing retirement. After years away from society, returning home is uncertain.
No hope of his job waiting for him, he has joined up with hundreds others in the camp to learn vocational skills.
He chose cosmetology, and has honed skills in making washing soap, bathing soap, air freshener, body lotion and tile cleaners.
“I am 57 now. Even then my retirement was close. I don’t know what the situation will be when I get there,” he says.
“If I am to continue, I will continue. But the cosmetology would be an aside. Even if I retired, I would continue.”
Among vocational skills on offer, farming and fishery are compulsory. Beyond those, clients can choose among barbing, cosmetology, cap making, laundry, tailoring, shoemaking, carpentry.
Mairambi who everyone calls ‘headmaster” is taking it in stride. He knows the camp is a hurdle he has to go through to get back, if alive.
His capture was in broad daylight and his first return was with his family before they were separated—women and children to camp for displaced people, him to Giwa Barracks.
“It was not our intention to be separated. Only because we have stayed there [with Boko Haram] a long time, whether we participated or not, we must go through this barracks [Giwa] before we return.”
Once a boko, always a boko
Association, even a flitting one, with Boko Haram spells stigma upon return into society. It is a stain that tarnishes children, women and men in different proportions: children born to rapes and forced marriages; girls and women married off or made pregnant; and men suspected to have worked for the group upon abduction.
The stigma lingers even after release. The men graduating out of DRR camp will have to contend with that burden.
Abdulwahab Usman, from Bama in Borno State, was guilty by association.
Usman’s journey to Operation Safe Corridor started in 2013 when he was arrested on the suspicion of being a Boko haram member because some of his friends were.
“I was arrested and taken to Giwa barracks. In 2014 Boko haram insurgents came and attacked the barracks and I was held captive and taken to the forest. In the forest I stayed there for 4 years, before my escape in 2018”.
The now 34 year- old says he was in his first year in a college of education training to become a teacher but now his life has taken a different trajectory.
Seven years later, he has graduated, not from a college but from the DRR vocational skills acquisition; cosmetology and barbing.
Usman went into captivity alone, but came out with two wives and two children – with one now deceased.
He met them after the insurgents raided Gwoza and Mubi respectively.
“I wasn’t arrested with a wife. I married my wife while I was in the forest. Because of the long stay in the forest I became familiar with them.”
“After a while I realized that what the insurgents were doing was not right. We found out the truth. Hence we left them. I escaped along with my family, we went and surrendered in Gwoza”.
From Gwoza he was taken to the DRR camp in Gombe where he is now referred to as the ‘GOC’. He is the leader of the over 600 clients.
“I am a people person, a crowd puller” he explains. “Even when I was in the forest I was a people person. And my understanding of some of the things here also came to play. I understand my fellow clients. That was how I was appointed GOC”.
He works with 10 ‘chairmen’ each representing one of the 10 hostels. They report to him and he reports to the camp authorities.
Just like Usman, Mairambi’s captivity has changed his trajectory and now faces a future that might be riddled with stigmatisation – but he is not shaken as he expects a warm welcome.
“if I hadn’t been taken to Giwa, I’d already have processed my career. My entire community knows how I was captured in the area. I was in the local government headquarters. All the people can bear witness. They are willing to welcome us,” says Mairambi.
His younger brother—left to care for Mairambi’s three wives and 17 children—had already been tagged by IOM and had visited Mairambi in the camp during a family visit. His entire family already knows of his presence on the camp in Gombe. That’s one part of the problem solved.
The other part of the problem is about men still with Boko Haram. In a quasi judicial setup in front of a judge, the men on the camp have sworn allegiance to Nigeria.
“Here at this camp we have been sensitised and we have sworn, we have been made to understand the things we did not know before, our families have come to visit us,” says Mala.
“The insurgents often told us the Nigerian government is our enemy. They told us it is about religion, but it is not, but not everyone understands this.
“The people in Sambisa forests, it is not that they don’t want to come out they are just scared that those who have come out have not been released by the government,” says Mala.
Sambisa is open to communication, so when news of their release getting round could change things.
“For instance, if I go back and speak at a radio station, they will see that this is how we were treated in Operation SAFE CORRIDOR, this is how we were treated by the soldiers that we have been told are our enemies.
“If they call and find out that I have been released, those who want to come out would come out and that is a success story.
“Those of us who are here we came on our own free will, we were not captured, if it is not because we want to live peacefully, we would not walk all the distance from the forest and surrender to Nigeria’s government.”
“We want the government to be just and fair to us and we have promised that we will not allow this insurgency to continue. When we know someone is working for Boko haram, we would inform the soldiers. There is no way I will be in town and I find out that you are Boko Haram and I did not inform the soldiers to get you arrested, then tomorrow when you come, I will be the one you will kill. If I don’t live peacefully with the people, I too will not have peace.”
Dark futures turning bright
“We are all poor people and we have been caught in the system. Our children are going to grow up without a future. We, we have lost already, should our children also grow up at a loss? We want to be able to put our children in school. Lack of education is part of why this insurgency took root.
“If we were well informed most of us would not do such. Among us here there are those who grew up in villages and have never seen a tarred road before – but now they can read and write letters. They are crying, saying their parents cheated them.”
Ready to graduate
The entire stay for the men ended well before September but the emergence of COVID-19 delayed their return to Maiduguri. Five have fallen critically ill. The others fill their day with breakfast, lunch and dinner.
In between, they play football in teams and take turns at tug of war. In their downtime, hundreds pack into the multipurpose hall to watch Bollywood blockbusters.
Military operations are top secret. Until now, Operation SAFE CORRIDOR has not been distinct from any other military operation anywhere in the country. Any communication from the military, handled by the Defence media organisation, is strategic.
Mallam Sidi has broken the mould in opening up parts of military operations to public gaze. It could also see the return of the camp to NYSC.
“We are praying and looking forward to that period,” says Brig-Gen Ibrahim.
“Once this Boko Haram crisis ceases, there will be no more Operation SAFE CORRIDOR, and once there is no Operation SAFE CORRIDOR, there will be no DRR camp. And what do we do? We return it back to Gombe state government.”
Next stop, reintegration
On the morning of 6 September, 300 men fill the multipurpose hall. They are dressed in white robes and green caps. Their feet are encased in white socks and shoes. It is a farewell to the brown trousers and shirts with serial numbers they have been wearing since last year.
Each man totes a holdall, containing their new national ID card, a certification of graduation, five changes of clothes, towels, sanitary products, N20,000 cash.
Borno’s commissioner for women affairs and social development Zuwaira Gambo has led a delegation to the camp the night before to take the men back early Sunday morning.
That’s the “reintegration” part of the DRR, and the ministry will be responsible for it. From a transit camp right into individual households, and monitoring regularly the men haven’t fallen out of order. Since the camp was established, it is yet to receive a report of any graduate client backsliding.
“I have sworn and I am saying it, there is no way I will work with a Boko Haram member because he offers me money and let him go,” says Mala.
“If I do that he will definitely come back and kill me. And we will let others know that if someone is a Boko haram member who keeps the insurgent informed, they should arrest such a person and hand them over to the soldiers.”
Five buses for school children in Borno line up on the grounds of the camp. But it is 300 surrendered and repentant former boko haram affiliates and captives who climb aboard.
Kukawa and his son Ali are among them, seated side by side in a row. The 78-year-old is finally going home, and is in tears. His son is breathless. A security van leads the way. The five buses follow in a row. Another security detail is at the end of the convoy that crawls out of the DRR camp in Mallam Sidi. The men are on their way back to Maiduguri.
There, the journey of their reintegration into society will begin.