The news of the release of 1,400 terrorism suspects by the military has reopened the debate on the appropriate law enforcement response to captured insurgents. Although the Borno State government was at pains to explain that the freed suspects were actually not hard core Boko Haram jihadists, but relatives of terrorists “or persons found in the wrong place at the wrong time,” the failure to diligently prosecute these deviants despite their 10-year-long orgy of violence in favour of an ill-defined de-radicalisation programme, is wrong-headed. The responsibility of the state to punish mass murderers should not be influenced by political considerations and amnesty not backed by law.
Had the authorities been prosecuting terror suspects in proportion to the scale of the Islamist destruction, the advertised release of thousands of these detainees would not have raised eyebrows. But prosecutions, except they are being held in secrecy and the outcomes classified, have been few and far between. While atrocities by Boko Haram, Islamic State in West Africa, Fulani herdsmen/militants and bandits have spiked, prosecutions have been few and convictions even rarer. This makes the regular release of suspects, the official obsession with granting amnesty and dubious de-radicalisation of terror suspects offensive.
Explanations given by Onyema Nwachukwu, Defence Headquarters spokesman, gives great cause for concern: “ … So far, about 800 ex-Boko Haram fighters who would have unleashed unimaginable terror on citizens have been admitted and out of which 287 of them have been successfully rehabilitated and reintegrated into society, with many still undergoing the DRR programme.”
According to the Borno State Commissioner for Information, Babakura Jato, the 1,400 terror detainees were released in three tranches between 2018 and early this year under the Operation Safe Corridor programme that aims to reintegrate fringe operators back into society. Releasing the innocent is right, but re-gorging acknowledged fighters back into society is fraught.
For reasons ranging from incompetence, partisanship, sympathy for, and ignorance of the salafist ideology that motivates Islamist terrorists, the jihadists are thriving. But “salafism,” says the Global Terrorism Index, “is an ultraconservative, fundamentalist strain of Islam that aspires to return to the religion’s supposed original ways.” It breeds fanatics committed to global jihad, the creation of a worldwide caliphate and inspires extreme acts of violence and cruelty. For this reason, de-radicalisation and reintegration schemes have met with very limited success in the West and elsewhere.
Priority should be to apprehend terrorists and prosecute them swiftly. Terrorism and banditry have rendered Nigeria one of the world’s most miserable places on earth to live in. Apart from regular massacres, beheadings and slaughter of Nigerian soldiers, some recorded and uploaded on the internet, terrorists have rendered the North-East region a wasteland; bandits have spread out from Zamfara State to render the North-West and North-Central regions unsafe and Fulani herdsmen’s murderous tentacles now cover most of the country.
With all this, it is baffling that prosecutions are still so few despite frequent claims of arrests and parade of suspects by security forces. There are a slew of laws on anti-terrorism, murder, arson and sundry violence, including prescription of death penalty. They are rarely used. In October 2017, the authorities said that of about 600 suspects tried secretly, 45 were sentenced to jail terms of between three and 31 years, 468 were to undergo de-radicalisation.
Before and since then, no other major trials have been made public. Other countries confronted with such deviance act promptly. In June 2018, Iraq ordered the execution of hundreds of convicted terrorists in response to the horrific atrocities of the Islamic State. It had before then and since continued to prosecute, jail or execute hardened jihadists. Jordan hanged 10 convicted terrorists in March 2017, and China does not spare terrorists, executing 10 in December 2017. The United States speedily prosecutes terror suspects, as do European Union member-countries. The average jail sentences in the EU in 2018, where the death penalty is abolished, ranged from five years (Germany and Belgium) to 16 years (Greece).
In the first eight months of 2019, about 615 military personnel were killed by Boko Haram, said the GTI. In 2018, “Fulani extremists were responsible for the majority of terror-related deaths,” GTI said.
De-radicalisation should not be confused as an excuse to illegally pardon killers and release them back to the society. By 2009, 34 out of its 192 member nations had de-radicalisation policies, said the United Nations; more countries have joined, but the world body admits that results have not been encouraging.
The United States and EU have guidelines where the goal is to prevent radicalised youths who had yet to commit atrocities from taking the leap and, along with those who provide material support, marry or run errands for terror groups and are remorseful, reintegrate them into society.
Saudi Arabia provides jobs and helps find wives for repentant militants, but these measures do not apply to hardened fighters who have committed violent acts; these ones are rigorously prosecuted. The US authorities emphasise prevention and are prompt in prosecuting suspects. EU countries also make a distinction between killers and misguided youths lured by a false utopia.
Unlike Chad, that raised penalties for lesser terrorism offences to life imprisonment in 2017, reintroduced the death penalty, and enforces them, Nigeria’s political leaders are slow to prosecute suspects, instead is desperate to placate mass murderers as befitting only of a failing state.
The Federal Government should navigate the murky terrain of de-radicalisation with extreme caution and arm itself with adequate knowledge and intelligence. It is demoralising for the soldiers and vigilance group fighting and dying in the brutal insurgency, the traumatised populace and the country to treat terrorists and other deviants with kid gloves; it emboldens criminals. De-radicalisation policies should be targeted at vulnerable youth, drawn by joblessness or coercion into violence and girls or women married to militants. There should be swift and decisive prosecution of terrorists and other criminals; this is an irreducible minimum responsibility of the government.