Nigeria tar­gets Boko Haram top brass

Kuwait Times - - ANALYSIS -

It was a case of in­stant cap­ti­va­tion when Sha­gari first heard Boko Haram’s founder de­liver a ji­hadist ser­mon a decade ago. Gripped by the mes­sage, Sha­gari swapped life as a fa­ther and elec­tri­cian to join the mil­i­tants and rose rapidly through their ranks, his as­cent mir­ror­ing the group’s own grow­ing stature. He took eas­ily to the ex­trem­ism and bru­tal­ity. “If I saw a man wear­ing some­thing like shorts and a T-shirt, I would be ready to fin­ish him be­cause of his cloth­ing,” the 42-year-old told the Thom­son Reuters Foun­da­tion in an in­ter­view.

The diehard re­cruit was re­warded with rapid pro­mo­tion - el­e­vated from re­searcher to re­cruiter to re­gional leader as he joined the fight to carve out an Is­lamic caliphate in Nigeria. Boko Haram has killed about 20,000 peo­ple and up­rooted 2.7 mil­lion since un­leash­ing its bru­tal insurgency eight years ago. The army has re­taken much of the ter­ri­tory once held by Boko Haram, yet the group con­tin­ues to carry out bomb­ings and raids in north­east Nigeria, as well as in Cameroon, Chad and Niger. Their at­tacks have ramped up in re­cent months, with sui­cide bomb­ings, kid­nap­ping and rape used as ev­ery­day weapons of war. Once Sha­gari was a will­ing foot sol­dier, ready to kill for the cause. But now he has once more cho­sen a new di­rec­tion, the prod­uct of a rad­i­cal gov­ern­ment pro­gram to reach out to Boko Haram’s top mil­i­tants in the hope of re­form­ing its un­der­lings.

Man of Peace?

“My views on killing changed,” said the one-time mil­i­tant, a mar­ried fa­ther of seven from north­east Nigeria. Sha­gari asked for his cur­rent lo­ca­tion and full name to be with­held for fear of re­tal­i­a­tion from Boko Haram, hav­ing cut ties with the in­sur­gents as part of his new life. The about turn had its roots in 2011, when he was ar­rested for his role in the insurgency and jailed in the cap­i­tal Abuja.

Held with fel­low group mem­bers, Sha­gari was seg­re­gated from other pris­on­ers. For three years, life was joy­less. Then, in 2014, a state-run de­rad­i­cal­iza­tion project changed ev­ery­thing. “The dis­crim­i­na­tion stopped,” Sha­gari said. “Peo­ple started in­ter­act­ing with us, and we started go­ing out of our cells. “We were treated like hu­man be­ings,” he added. “I was able to do away with all the ide­ol­ogy and be­come a nor­mal per­son.” Since his re­lease from prison in 2015, Sha­gari has helped to de­rad­i­cal­ize oth­ers, and en­rolled in se­condary school with the aim of go­ing to univer­sity and work­ing in con­flict res­o­lu­tion. En­gag­ing with such high-rank­ing Boko Haram mem­bers is key to re­form­ing its fol­low­ers and rein­te­grat­ing them into so­ci­ety, said Fa­tima Ak­ilu, the psy­chol­o­gist who ran the state pro­gram. “We needed Sha­gari to get through to the other Boko Haram mem­bers (in prison) be­cause he was their leader,” said Ak­ilu, now ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of the Neem Foun­da­tion, an anti-ex­trem­ism group. “We could not have done it with­out his help.”

Be­long­ing and Brother­hood

Poverty is of­ten seen as the main driver for those join­ing Boko Haram, yet a sense of be­long­ing, brother­hood and power tend to be big­ger fac­tors - es­pe­cially for young peo­ple, Ak­ilu said. “Boko Haram’s idea of the caliphate fired the imag­i­na­tion of a lot of young peo­ple,” Ak­ilu said. “They (young peo­ple) want to be part of his­tory, to form their own so­ci­ety and way of life ... to wield a lot of power and re-imag­ine the world in a way that they want it,” she added.

Derad­i­cal­iz­ing peo­ple who buy into Boko Haram’s ide­ol­ogy - un­like those who join the mil­i­tants for money or out of fear - there­fore presents a huge chal­lenge for the Nige­rian gov­ern­ment. Nigeria last year launched a new pro­gramme to re­ha­bil­i­tate re­pen­tant fighters, of­fer­ing sup­port and skills rather than lock­ing them away. Of­fi­cials could not be reached for com­ment.

For Sha­gari - who says he has sur­vived three as­sas­si­na­tion at­tempts by Boko Haram for re­fus­ing to re­join the group since his re­lease from prison - re­turn­ing home has been far from easy. Although he val­ues his free­dom and ed­u­ca­tion - and is proud to have en­rolled six of his chil­dren in school - Sha­gari said the temp­ta­tion to go back to Boko Haram has of­ten proved strong. “If not that I had changed whole­heart­edly, I would have gone back be­cause of the tough times,” he said. “Some peo­ple did ... be­cause of lack of a sin­gle penny. Some have been killed.” —Reuters

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