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Nigeria's ex-Boko Haram fighters threaten return to arms

Muhammad Al-Amin in northeastern Nigeria
March 6, 2024

Frustrated by not getting enough support, former Boko Haram fighters in Nigeria are threatening to rejoin the insurgency. The former Islamist militants accuse the government of neglect since they surrendered.

Assault rifles displayed on the ground with some visible people clasping their hands in the background.
Ex-Boko Haram fighters say they were better off in the bush than reintegration campsImage: Audu Ali Marte/AFP/Getty Images

Former Boko Haram militants in Nigeria have warned they might return to fighting if they don't get more support from the authorities.  

The ex-fighters, who now live in camps in Borno state, northeastern Nigeria, say they are frustrated that for months their essential needs had been ignored.

Some told DW that they were better off fighting for the militant group than living in the camps.

"Honestly, if the government does not fulfill what they promised us, there is going to be a serious problem," one of the former insurgents told DW. "Look at how I lost weight and lost my shape. Sincerely speaking, I prefer going [back] to the bush."

The Borno state and Nigeria's federal government promised Boko Haram fighters who surrendered that they would receive training and skills as an alternative to violence and militancy. The Nigerian authorities also pledged to provide start-off capital for the ex-fighters and reintegrate them into society if they laid down their arms.

But over the past two years, only few have benefited from what the government promised. There are over 100,000 former Boko Haram members living in various camps in Borno state awaiting reintegration.

Reintegrating Ex-Jihadists

Protests outside camps

Last month, some former members  — joined by their families — staged a protest outside Dikwa camp located in Borno state over their concerns. 

There were similar agitations in the Mafa camp, which also houses ex-Boko Haram fighters and other internally displaced persons. Former militants in these camps have all threatened to return to the bush if their needs are not met.

Some confided in DW that several former combatants had already returned to their forest enclaves.

"Most of them are saying they are better off when they are with the insurgents because they are doing well in terms of food and essentials," another former Boko Haram fighter told DW. " Most of them are willing to go back to where they came from."

Infografik Karte Nigeria mit Borno State EN
Image: .

Authorities dismiss threats

However, Babagana Umara Zulum, Borno state governor, insisted that the government is doing its best to support the ex-fighters. Zulum accused the former fighters of showing a lack of gratitude.

"No any administration be it federal or state has the capacity to provide food and non-food items to the millions of its people on a daily basis," Zulum told DW, adding that anybody willing to stay in the camp was welcome to do so.

"Anybody who is not willing to stay in the camp — he wants to go to the bush — allow him to go back to the bush."

The governor revealed that efforts are ongoing to address the issue of food shortages at the camps housing these former fighters and others.

He warned that anyone instigating the ongoing agitations to desist. "Anybody who is trying to sabotage this administration will be dealt with accordingly."

Ex-fighters a major security threat

Security experts and analysts have warned the government against ignoring the agitations and threats from the former fighters.

Major (retired) Muhammad Bashir Shu'aibu Galma told DW the threat of returning to the bush is dangerous for Nigeria and the entire Sahel region.

"To allow these people to go back to the fighting spirit is the worst thing," Shu'aibu said. "These people must have known enough now some of the military secrets, positions, even for the limited time they had and mingled with the society, it will be a setback," he added. 

Professor Lawal Jafar Tahir, a political analyst from Yobe State University Damaturu, agrees and expressed fears of Nigeria's security situation worsening should the ex-fighters opt to pick up guns again.

"They are more or less a time bomb now to society," Tahir said, adding that if the former militants return to the bush and continue the insurgency, it could be more dangerous.

A convoy of military vans with armed troops drive along a road.
Nigeria's army has been battling Boko Haram for nearly 15 yearsImage: AFP/Getty Images

According to him, the fighters "have now gathered reasonable information and opportunity to attack people, particularly the civilians."

Tahir urged the government to address their demands promptly. "When they revolt, it is going to be very hard for the government to control them," he added.   

Last year, the Institute of Security Studies (ISS) cited the Boko Haram insurgency as President Bola Tinubu's most challenging security threat.

The insurgency — in its fifteenth year — has shown no signs of ending despite efforts by Nigeria's military to curb it.

Boko Haram is most active in northeastern Nigeria, with footholds in Chad, Niger and Cameroon.

Nigeria: Villagers displaced by Boko Haram rebuild community

Edited by: Chrispin Mwakideu