ISS TODAY: A risky return for ex-combatants into communities in Africa

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Residents read a Nigerian army poster of wanted Boko Haram suspects in Bayelsa, Nigeria 19 May 2016. EPA/Tife Owolabi

Continued human rights abuses and a lack of transparency are hindering the successful reintegration of defectors.

First published by ISS Today

Enabling violent extremists to defect from their terror groups to rejoin society is a vital strategy in preventing violent extremism in Africa. But amnesty and rehabilitation programmes for this purpose often fail because security forces target and abuse former combatants.

In Nigeria, Somalia and Kenya, the governments are in charge of these rehabilitation and reintegration processes. This is often necessary because of the high-risk nature of some former combatants who may need to be detained to prevent further attacks or radicalisation.

But several human rights and civil society organisations claim that Boko Haram suspects are routinely abused, tortured and extrajudicially killed in Nigeria. In July 2017, more than 1,600 Boko Haram suspects stood trial in Niger state, most of whom had been detained since 2009. In some cases, torture and ill-treatment are reported in the very rehabilitation centres meant to protect and reintegrate former combatants.

Because of the negative reputation around military and security forces, members of violent extremist groups are increasingly defecting instead to local civil society organisations working in the field of preventing and countering terrorism.

One practitioner in this field in East Africa, who wished to remain anonymous, said returnees and ex-combatants approached organisations wanting to return and be reintegrated into their communities.

Our organisation, and others, would connect them with the police (as to follow protocol), and then these people would disappear within two weeks. The government thinks that elimination is easier than rehabilitation,” the practitioner told the Institute for Security Studies.

As neutral actors, civil society organisations are often better placed to manage integrated demobilisation, rehabilitation and reintegration programmes than the state. In Nigeria, for example, a civil society organisation was asked by the government to help design the psychosocial support and trauma counselling element for the country’s rehabilitation and reintegration programme, Operation Safe Corridor.

However thousands of people remain in detention centres through processes that lack transparency, leading to distrust in the state’s involvement in amnesty, rehabilitation and reintegration programmes.

This lack of transparency in Nigeria and Kenya, with the long detention of suspects and the abuses committed in these rehabilitation centres, is leading to more Boko Haram and al-Shabaab defectors returning to their communities directly, avoiding the government’s amnesty and reintegration programmes.

The responsibility of dealing with these defectors is then informally placed on local civil society organisations, which face continuous challenges from the government as well as from communities.

In Kenya, the amnesty programme that included providing al-Shabaab defectors with motorcycles backfired when the disengaged combatants who had received the motorcycles were immediately called ‘terrorists’ by communities.

This ‘favouritism’, as it was labelled by locals, sparked outrage within communities and increased hostility towards the defectors. Not only were they not being punished for the crimes they were regarded as having committed while being part of al-Shabaab, but they were given special treatment and being provided with livelihood opportunities.

A similar reaction was seen in Cameroon, where the government distributed livestock including goats and sheep to repentant Boko Haram militants as a means to reintegrate them and counter unemployment.

So what is the way forward? Firstly, governments should consider the way in which they communicate about the violent extremist problems in their countries. Many states have a ‘we don’t negotiate with terrorists’ attitude, and the consequences of this are far-reaching. This attitude influences how the military and security forces deal with suspects. Changing the rhetoric around violent extremists could contribute to addressing the growing backlash over reintegration programmes.

Secondly, governments should consider the critical role of civil society organisations in the reintegration process, especially regarding ‘low-risk’ former combatants. Governments can help these organisations develop support systems to follow up with these individuals. Due to the high number of defectors in rehabilitation centres, involving civil society as stakeholders in the design, implementation and evaluation phases will add value to initiatives.

Because of the trust they have earned in communities, civil society organisations are also in a more strategic position to prepare communities to take back these individuals. Many organisations working in the field of preventing and countering violent extremism facilitate platforms for dialogue and reconciliation in communities.

Lastly, governments need to be more transparent in their rehabilitation and reintegration processes. This will increase the trust in defectors to surrender directly to the government.

If states fail to keep their security forces in check and shape their values around respect for human rights and appropriate rehabilitation, combatants will defect either directly to their communities, or not defect at all.

Raising the expectations of rehabilitation and reintegration programmes, and then exposing former combatants to abuse and torture by security forces, increases the risk of hostility towards the government – which is considered one of the main reasons for individuals joining groups like Boko Haram and al-Shabaab in the first place. DM

Isel van Zyl is a junior researcher, ISS Pretoria

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