Boko Haram: On the Road to Damascus or making a beeline for Kandahar?

By Osmund Agbo

Few stories carried in the Bible rival the thrill of Paul’s conversion as described in Acts 9:1-19 and retold by Apostle Paul in Acts 22:6-21. The richly chronicled Damascus Christophany, was an awe-inspiring account of how the power of Jesus changed a heart full of bile to a superhero brimming with love. Peter would later become one of the greatest evangelists of all time, spreading the gospel of Christ throughout the world.

Paul, known as Saul at the time, was a Pharisee, born in the ancient Roman city of Tarsus. He was very proud of his Jewish heritage and so zealous to the extent that he felt that a natural way for him to show his devotion was to persecute Christians. And so, Saul went ahead to obtain permission from the high priest to arrest any followers of Jesus in the city of Damascus and the Bible described him as “breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples.”

On the Road to Damascus, however, Saul together with his companions were struck down by heavy lightening, out of nowhere. He looked up and heard a voice that cried, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” When Saul asked to know who was speaking, the voice answered back: “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.” And Saul, now christened Paul did exactly just that.

In a surprising turn of events, what started out, looking like Paul’s conversion on his way to Damascus when Amir Abu Darda, Boko Haram’s IED expert and twenty of his co-conspirators renounced their membership of the terror organization, soon ballooned into a bumper harvest of supposedly repentant Jihadists. One day after another, thousands of dare-devil and battle-tested terrorists continue to file out from their hideouts in the murky terrain of the Sambisa Forest.

As at the time of writing this piece, Guardian newspaper reported that more than 3000 Boko Haram terrorists and members of their families have surrendered. Out of this, about 1, 300 terrorists surrendered in Cameroon while 1,816 went to the Nigerian Army Theatre Command, Operation Hadarin Daji, to renounce fighting.

For a group that have visited mayhem, killing, maiming, beheading, displacing innocent citizens in their thousands and turned the entire nation on its head, the news of such surrender should be exciting right? Well, that is to the extent of your belief in the alchemist’s ability to extract gold from egg yolk. To many Nigerians especially in the Christian south, the sudden surrender is raising more questions than answers.

The people are terribly worried and for good reasons. They are questioning whether what we are witnessing today is indeed a genuine repentance on the part of the blood-thirsty terrorists or just a cleverly hatched plan to infiltrate the Nigerian civil society and then be in a vintage position to relaunch an attack from within. In the wake of the recent happenings in Afghanistan where the country has once again come under the tight grips of the jihadists, the people are scared to death that the sudden surrender in large numbers by the Boko Haram militants is starting to look like a page taken out of the Taliban’s’ playbook.

At the peak of the war with the United States and her NATO allies, many Taliban fighters, as a survival strategy, temporary suspended their militancy and dissolved into the Afghan civil society. A good number of them were believed to have even joined the Afghan military. Of course, the soul of those militants for the entire time remained with the extremist Islamic group. They only bided their time until the US forces left before re-joining their ranks in the Taliban. In Nigeria’s current situation, our nation’s military high commands, however, are telling us that such is not the case.

Nigerian military and terrorism expert believe that what we are witnessing today is as a result of a highly coordinated effort and the combined operations of the Nigerian Army, Air Force and Navy. Their operations, they claim have destroyed terrorist logistics and arms supply bases in several locations and are smoking them out of their safe havens in the Sambisa Forest and the Lake Chad fringes.

The Nigerian Army we are told, are now in possession of heavy battle artillery and armored tanks with heavy munition launchers capable of destroying mountainous enclaves and penetrating inner caves. With the aerial support provided by the NAF fighter jets, including use of surveillance aircraft for night time operations, Navy gunboats and other military hardware were able to seek out and destroy terrorist’s bases in the Tumbus and tributaries through which the terrorists launch sporadic attacks on Borno and Yobe states communities.

Another major reason stated was that a combination of natural disasters such as flooding as well as blockade of food supply by Nigerian troops have made it impossible for the terrorists to access food and other desperately needed supplies which they depend on for daily survival. The death of their leader, Abubakar Shekau, originally believed by the group to be invincible, did not help with their morale. All these might be true but who amongst President Buhari and his henchmen have earned our trust.

In 2016, the Buhari administration launched Operation Safe Corridor, an initiative meant to deradicalize and rehabilitate “repentant” Boko Haram members and have them reintegrated into society. Thus far, according to the Defense Headquarters, as many as 600 of those terrorists including 14 foreign nationals from Cameroon, Chad and Niger have already completed the program and had been reintegrated. As wonderful as the idea sounds, however, Governor Babagana Zulum of Borno state, while speaking at the North-East Governors’ Forum meeting in Bauchi cautioned that the idea hasn’t worked.

He remarked that many who passed through the Safe Corridor initiative, or have been deradicalized, ended up acting as spies and went back to rejoin the terror group. The Governor then advised the federal government to immediately prosecute the insurgents in accordance with the terrorism Act. His position was also that of many other stakeholders including the Arewa Consultative Forum (ACF) who warned the Buhari administration against accepting peace overture of terrorists. They made the commonsense argument that if deadly terrorist should be forgiven, then the government should set free every criminal in her custody.

The Federal government is yet to tell Nigerians what it plans to do this time, with the surrendered and surrendering fighters. But if anything, the interview granted to the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) on Friday August 20th by Nigeria’s Information and Culture minister, Alhaji Lai Mohammed while in an official visit to the US, provided a window to understanding the thinking of Buhari’s government about this matter.

The Minister warned that the call by many Nigerians to prosecute the militants and kill those found guilty rather than grant them amnesty was against global best practices. The government would rather reintegrate them into the society after they have been profiled to ensure that they have genuinely repented. He considers them Prisoners of War (POW) that should be protected by norms set forth by international treaties and conventions. It was laudable to hear the Minister copiously espouse democratic ethos but he remains the chief image maker of a government that didn’t feel the need to observe international laws and norms during the extraordinary renditions of Mazi Nnamdi Kanu. What a convenient line of argument to pursue?

President Buhari in both words and actions has not been able to assuage the fear of the skeptics of his terrorist rehabilitation program. He oftentimes seems to drag his feet when it comes to prosecuting the terrorists and their sponsors but was quick to find his mojo on issues of Kanu and Igboho. The President has a tendency to react differently to the same crime depending on who committed it and who the victims are.

In a recent utterly condemnable and barbaric killing of 22 Muslim travelers at Rukuba, Jos in Plateau State he was palpably upset and rightly so, demanding that the perpetrators be quickly fished out and brought to justice. In fact, we were told that upon hearing the news, the President couldn’t eat and he personally led a delegation to commiserate with the victims’ families. It was very surprising to see the same man who barely acknowledge scores of churches being burned or hundreds of Christians being massacred routinely at their places of worship, all of a sudden could show this level of empathy.

Not too long ago, about 400 alleged sponsors and financiers of terrorism in Nigeria were identified through a joint operation by Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), the Department of State Services (DSS), Nigerian Financial Intelligence Unit (NFIU), and the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN). On May 4 2021, it was widely reported that the Federal Government had concluded plans to prosecute them but we are yet to hear anything more regarding that.

As the Guest of the Week on a Liberty Radio program of Sunday August 2, 2013, Buhari reportedly accused President Jonathan’s government of killing and destroying houses belonging to Boko Haram members while the Niger Delta militants got special treatment. He was quoted to have stated that an attack on Boko Haram was an attack on the north.

Perhaps, Boko Haram reading meaning into all these in 2012, chose citizen Buhari among six prominent northerners, to mediate between the group and the Federal Government under President Jonathan even though Buhari at the time said he had no intention of following through on their request.

With President Buhari in the saddle and having ….an alleged Taliban sympathizer in his kitchen cabinet, why should Nigerians not worry that the whole idea behind the repentance, surrender and rehabilitation program for terrorists is part of the grand plan to conquer Nigeria. Why shouldn’t the rest of us fear that what is today a Federal Republic governed by a President might become an Islamic Emirate ruled by Jihadists?

The future holds the verdict of whether what we are witnessing today is a genuine repentance by depraved members of one of the world’s deadliest terror group or the group using the help of their sympathizers in government to undergo a strategic recalibration. These are certainly interesting times.

Dr. Agbo, a Public Affairs analyst is the coordinator of African Center for Transparency and Convener of Save Nigeria Project. Email: [email protected]