Security: Should repentant terrorists face the law?

On the face of it, Nigerians would be happy that their fellow citizens who have gone astray to sin violently against the state and its people should repent. Recently, about 1000 terrorists including their families, from the Boko Haram and ISWAP groups surrendered to the Nigerian Army.

Army spokesperson, Brig-Gen. Onyema Nwachukwu said they renounced their membership of their criminal groups and turned themselves under serious pressure of military operations against them. They will be processed and handed over to the relevant authorities, he added. Soon after, another group of 45 terrorists have reportedly surrendered.

 All these are happening on the platform of the ‘‘Operation Safe Corridor’’ created by the Buhari government in 2016 or thereabouts, ostensibly to encourage Boko Haram terrorists surrender and undergo a severely controversial programme of de-radicalisation, rehabilitation, and re-integration (DRR). Over the years, the criminals have trickled in: For example, 132 in July 2019, and 25 in February 2020. No one will quarrel with any workable, reasonable and justice-based carrot -and -stick strategy to win the war against terrorism. But, it must be justice-based.

Brig-Gen. Onyema

Indeed, it is morally and legally justifiable to repent one’s sins, no matter how heinous. Nonetheless, for the avoidance of doubt created in the mind of whomsoever and  for whatever reason, repentance is one of three steps an offender must take to earn deliverance from the burden of ‘sin’ and receive pardon. The other two are restitution and forgiveness from the offended.

Under the extant laws of Nigeria, specifically, the Constitution and the Nigeria Terrorism Prevention Act, terrorism is a crime that attracts severe punishment. In the context of the former, it is an act that violates several provisions of Chapter IV on ‘‘Fundamental Human Rights.’’ Various sections of the 1999 Constitution grants every person the right to life and other basic, universally recognised freedoms that include ‘‘personal liberty,’’ ‘‘of thought,  conscience and religion,’’ ‘‘to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference,’’ ‘‘to associate with other persons’’ and ‘‘to move freely throughout Nigeria and to reside in any part thereof.’’

Boko Haram opposes what it perceives as the westernisation (and corruption) of the society especially through the education system and it seeks to replace this and other structures of the Nigerian state with the Islamic structure, system and thought and to which all Nigerians will be, without choice, subjected.  To this self-defined end, the religio-political group has levied war against the state for more than a decade. Thousands of innocent citizens have lost lives and property; millions have been displaced from their homes and places of work. In sum, the Boko Haram group has committed the crimes first, of violating the constitutional rights of basic freedoms of millions of Nigerians and second, of waging war against the state.

These are ingredients of an ‘‘act of terrorism,’’ as defined in the extant law of the land. The relevant act says  terrorism is ‘‘an act which is deliberately  done with malice  afterthought and which may seriously harm or damage a country or an international organisation; is intended or can reasonably be regarded as having  been intended  to unduly  compel  a government  or international  organisation  to perform or abstain  from performing any act.’’  The law also states that ‘‘an act of terrorism involves or causes (i) an attack  upon  a person’s life, which may cause serious bodily harm or death; (ii) kidnapping of a person’’ …or ‘‘an act  or omission in or outside  Nigeria  which constitutes  an offence  within the  scope  of counter-terrorism Protocols  or Conventions duly ratified  by Nigeria.’’

 Terrorism is considered as so heinous a crime by the Nigerian state that a convict will spend at least 20 years in jail, or even be executed. This then is the crime committed by terrorists of the Boko Haram and ISWAP groups but which the current government of Nigeria thinks  deserves not repentance,  forgiveness and  restitution but ‘‘de-radicalisation, rehabilitation and re-integration.’’ A batch of 151 was run though a 52-week ‘‘de-radicalisation and rehabilitation’’ programme that taught them trades.  A beneficiary, Kyari Buguma from the Damboa Local Government Area of Bornu State  reportedly said that ‘‘apart from  skills acquisition training, we leant  true teachings of Islam…many of us here who were illiterate, now  learnt how to read and write…’’. In a manner that defies commonsense, the aggressor is receiving better attention than the victims, from the very government they sought to violently overthrow.

Minister of Defence and former army general, Bashir Magashi, has been quoted to defend the programme, saying that government is ‘‘not protecting repentant terrorists but trying to make them more civil and fit into society’’: The very society that they so viciously destroyed? For obvious reasons, as expressed by the many opinions against this approach to so grave a threat to the state, it is difficult to make sense of it at all.

Minister of Defence and former army general, Bashir Magashi

Many opinions, except those within the federal government circle, cannot make sense of it either. Bornu State governor was apt: ‘We are in a very difficult situation over the surrender by insurgents…difficult  for anyone that has lost loved ones; difficult  for all of  us and  even for  the military whose colleagues  have died , and for  [members of the Joint Taskforce] volunteers’.

He continued so painfully: “No one  would find it easy  to accept killers  of his or her parents , children and other loved ones…we have lost  thousands of fellow citizens …we don’t know the whereabouts of thousands  of others; we don’t know  whether they are  alive or dead’.  Arewa Consultative Forum (ACF) leader Audu Ogbeh wondered if ‘I’m sorry is enough to bring relief to thousands of Nigerian [victims] or even those killed. What of all the men and women in uniform murdered by them? Who can count the thousands of widows and orphans they have created?’

Victims too have expressed dissatisfaction with the treatment being given to ‘repentant’ terrorists. A certain Ali Mohammed from Guzamala village who has been living in an IDP camp for seven years said: ‘‘it is difficult to forgive terrorists,’’ 18-year old internally displaced Salma lamented: ‘‘I’m a young girl but my life is ruined.’’ She doubts that communities of victims will want to live with their rehabilitated killers, naturally.

There is even doubt as to the genuineness of the ‘repentance’ so much bandied about. From the past experiences of governors Nasir el-Rufai and Aminu Masari of Kaduna and Katsina states respectively, it would, for a number of reasons, amount to credulity that government takes, hook, line, and sinker, whatever terrorists who are under military and other pressures avow. Indeed, the district head of Chibok, Engr. Zanna Modu Chibok is quoted as saying that ‘not long ago, we began to notice that those who claimed to have repented had gone back to bushes again…’  

First, there is a school of thought that many of the recent ‘repentant’ terrorists are disenchanted followers of the late Shekau who have lost out in the post-Shekau structure put together by ISWAP.

Second, the view has been expressed that those who are bailing out of the terrorist enclaves are not the fanatical terrorists but hapless villagers who were conscripted to fight in a cause they hardly understood.

Third, a perceptive Chief Modu said, ‘I’m skeptical if they truly repented or surrendered; it seems they are up to something, surrendering without a gun is questionable.’’ Similarly, a retired military officer, Salihu Bakhari,   asked: ‘why are they coming out without their weapons…where are [their] uniforms and other apparels…?’ The Army disagrees insisting that ‘…these people are handing over their weapons’.

In a sense too, the politically-motivated action of the executive in diagnosing terrorists as having repented and therefore deserving of rehabilitation rather than lawful sanction is a subtle erosion of judicial authority. In criminal prosecution, the judge is entitled to study the mien of the accused person and to draw a conclusion – if the accused has truly shown remorse among other circumstances – to mitigate his penalty. It will be patently wrong for the executive to combine this judicial function with its normal role. That will amount to being the accuser, the prosecutor and the judge at the same time, a clearly unacceptable principle.

This federal republic is under the rule of law. It must not be allowed to be subjected to the whims of some vested interest. Whosoever terrorises Nigeria and puts its citizens under such horrendous experiences as the Boko Haram and ISWAP members have done – and continue to do – should, nay must, be subjected to the due judicial process and visited with the fullest weight of condign punishment. Whatever the specious justification, to treat terrorists with ‘a slap on the wrist’ is to reward lawlessness, encourage other aggrieved persons to resort to such, acts and invite anarchy.