A clandestine Nigerian government programme is reaching out to senior jihadist fighters in the bush to encourage them to abandon their goal of building a caliphate by force of arms, and to defect.
Malam Aliyu* lives in a neat, two-bedroom house in Nigeria’s northern city of Kaduna. Squeezed into the small living room is a large, brand-new sofa set, still in its plastic. A plasma TV is on the wall. Outside, in the yard, is an area where he plans to raise poultry.
It’s the home you might expect of a mid-level public servant, maybe a teacher – probably not that of a senior ex-jihadist commander.
- At a glance: Doing deals with jihadists
- A top-secret programme, known as sulhu, is encouraging senior jihadist commanders to defect and providing them with government benefits.
- Some have almost certainly committed atrocities but are unlikely to be prosecuted.
- The Bama massacre in 2014 killed hundreds of civilians, but one of the commanders involved is now living free on the government’s payroll.
- Security officials believe sulhu could open the door to a peace deal, ending a stalemated conflict that is now in its twelfth year.
- Critics argue such a deal would reward mass killers.
Aliyu has a new life now. The old was the decade he spent fighting with Boko Haram and then with the breakaway Islamic State of West Africa Province (ISWAP) in the scrubland of the northeast. It’s the two wives and four children he left behind when he defected, and the power he once wielded as a jihadist rijal – literally a “man” – in zones under the insurgents’ control.
In his early thirties, with a wispy goatee, Aliyu has remarried to a forthright woman from the northeastern city of Maiduguri. She is also former Boko Haram, and they have been set up with the rent-free house in Kaduna, a business license, and a small monthly stipend provided by Nigeria’s domestic spy service, better known as DSS.
The price of this largesse: to work for DSS to turn other jihadists under a clandestine project known as sulhu – Arabic for peacemaking. It’s so controversial that no government representative would go on record to discuss it, and given Abuja’s increasing hostility to independent reporting on security matters, few Nigeria-based civil society figures wanted to be named either.
Sulhu is applauded by its supporters as smart warfare – a means to remove senior jihadists from the battlefield more effectively than the stuttering orthodox military campaign. “We have a proof of concept; it’s working,” said an Abuja-based analyst, who wouldn’t agree to be identified beyond that description. “It’s depleting the enemy’s fighting force.”
But the men on the sulhu programme are almost certain to have been involved in atrocities. They have not been granted a formal amnesty, but neither have they been held to account for any crimes committed in a brutal conflict that is now in its twelfth year. It’s a war that has killed 35,000 people – 350,000 if you include the victims of the accelerating humanitarian crisis – and upended the lives of millions more, according to the UN.
“These are mass killers, yet on a programme sponsored by Nigerian taxpayers,” explained a former government-Boko Haram intermediary. He has been in touch with the movement almost from the start, when it was still a local religious sect led by a young cleric, Mohammed Yusuf, before it declared war on the Nigerian state in 2009.
Sulhu grew out of the behind-the-scenes attempts to free the more than 270 Chibok schoolgirls seized by Boko Haram in 2014. After years of painstaking contact-making through a network of mediators, it dawned on the negotiators that not only did they have an opening to secure the release of some of the schoolgirls, but there were also mujahideen signalling they might be open to dialogue – a potential breakthrough in a deadlocked conflict.
A total of 150 mujahideen have surrendered their weapons and crossed over since 2019, according to people familiar with the programme. In the last few weeks, there has been a separate surge, related to internal feuding within the jihadist movement following the death this May of Abubakar Shekau, who had led Boko Haram since 2009.
Some of those mujahideen, like Aliyu, were commanders, known as qaid – in charge of several districts. Such was the importance attached to the initial group that they were invited to Abuja, where they met representatives of President Muhammadu Buhari.
Under sulhu, defectors are enrolled in a six-month “deradicalisation” course in the military’s demobilisation and reintegration centre in Mallam Sidi, in northeastern Gombe State. After promising to renounce violence and be good citizens, they are issued with a graduation certificate, signed by a high court judge – and some have then gone on to set up businesses, from cap-making to chicken-rearing.
Sulhu is run by DSS and the military, but is separate from the army’s much larger disarmament, demobilisation, and reintegration initiative, known as Operation Safe Corridor (OSC) and also based in Mallam Sidi.
OSC is aimed at low-risk former combatants, although as many as 75 percent of those on the programme may never have held a weapon – just villagers snagged in the military’s catch-all dragnets, with years spent in detention without trial.
Those on the sulhu initiative are the turbaned rijal seen in the low-res YouTube videos, exultant in victory, killing without remorse. Before joining ISWAP, prior to the 2016 split from Boko Haram, these men had been obedient to a maximalist “takfir” creed, promoted by then-leader Shekau, who declared that anybody living outside their zone of control was an infidel, punishable by death or enslavement.
More than 1,000 Boko Haram fighters have surrendered to the army in the last few weeks – handing over the weapons they carried. (Image taken from social media)
ISWAP is militarily on the front foot, but there can be exhaustion with the years of conflict for any number of reasons, explained a Nigeria-based researcher, who asked not to be named so they could speak freely. “Some [defectors] have lost faith in their leaders, accusing them of corruption; some have even forgotten why they were fighting; others just want their children to go to school.”
But allowing jihadists to return to civilian life is clearly problematic. The military’s far more limited OSC initiative, resettling low-risk Boko Haram, has run into a wall of criticism – including from some senior politicians who misrepresent Mallam Sidi as a holiday resort where “killers” are pampered.
And there’s no appetite from the government to even begin to publicly discuss sulhu. “There’s a lack of buy-in and a lot of pushback from sections of the military and political office holders who don’t see the need for this process,” said an Abuja-based lawyer.
Yet almost 60 percent of people surveyed across the northeast in 2018 said they could agree to reconciliation with repentant jihadists if that was a path to peace: though acceptance was far lower in areas hardest hit by the conflict, and among women – the victims of so much sexual violence.
Aliyu feels relatively comfortable in big cities like Kaduna and Maiduguri. But there are places where he knows he would receive a far rougher reception. “People suffered,” he acknowledged. “They lost a lot [because of us].”
Calling the (less) faithful
For DSS, sulhu makes strategic sense. Aliyu, for example, is a so-called “pioneer”, an early member of Boko Haram as well as a qaid – this means he has a deep and intimate knowledge of the movement and the men he fought with.
Since he crossed over two years ago, his job has been to find other rijal wavering in their commitment to the jihadist cause. He says he has personally persuaded more than 20 of them to slip into frontline northern towns like Geidam, make pre-arranged contact with the military, and then start their journey into the sulhu programme.
All he needs is a cell phone and recharge card. When his connections pop up, sometimes in Cameroon, Chad, and Niger – the rear bases of the insurgency – he pumps them for news and gossip. Then, when he judges the time is right, he badgers them to quit.
It’s not an easy conversation. Uppermost in any potential defector’s mind is the fear of being sent to Giwa Barracks, a notorious detention facility on the edge of a quiet Maiduguri suburb. “Everyone is afraid of that place, and the people in the lake [Chad] don’t trust the government [won’t send them there],” said Aliyu. “If it wasn’t for Giwa, more would come – [the abuse that happens there] is the biggest mistake the military has made.”
The conversations aren’t one-way, either. Aliyu’s former comrades bait him, reminding him of the life he led in the dawla – the territory ISWAP administers under shariah law and regards as independent from Nigeria. In this zone, in the far north of Borno and Yobe states, beyond the reach of the military and aid agencies, rijal have almost total power over at least one million villagers they refer to as awam – or “commoners”.
“They say when you were in the lake [a region controlled by ISWAP], you were somebody important, now you have nothing,” Aliyu explained, and you can feel the loss of prestige irks him.
The logo on his otherwise clean t-shirt is loose, and the seam in the crutch of his faded black trousers is coming apart. But there is still an air of entitlement about him.
He was mock scandalised by the price of a bottle of water in the quiet restaurant where The New Humanitarian first interviewed him, and he feigned outrage that motorbike taxis were not allowed into the middle-class district. “I will always fight injustice wherever I see it,” Aliyu said grandly, seemingly the qaid – in his own mind at least – he once was.
Mothers and sons
It’s unclear why Aliyu chose to run. There was a suggestion by some close to jihadist networks that he and some of his men had rustled cattle in the Lake Chad region and he was about to be punished. ISWAP considers stealing from Muslims a crime. Unlike the more predatory Boko Haram under Shekau, it has tended to think more about civilian hearts and minds.
Aliyu denied he was at fault. Instead, he described a falling out with ISWAP’s then-commander of the army, Mustapha Kirimima, whose aggressive hardline stance persuaded others to also leave. Kirimima is reportedly in detention after a leadership shuffle earlier this year that made Abu Musab al-Barnawi – the eldest surviving son of the founder of Boko Haram – the interim leader.
Aliyu is trying to rebuild his life. He’s in school, learning to read and write English, and keen on it. He attends a regular mosque – nothing radical – and is close to his new wife. “One day, they [the community] will find out we are Boko Haram, but if we are together, we can bear [the stigma],” he said.
“If all mothers could welcome their sons, those in the forests, tell them no harm will come to them, they will come home.”
His mother is clearly a force in his life. Sitting cross-legged on the carpet in her living room in Kaduna, her violet hijab matching the colour of the walls, she explained that after her divorce from Aliyu’s father when he was six, Aliyu grew up on the streets of Maiduguri as an almajiri – a child assigned to a religious teacher. He came under the sway of Boko Haram when it was still just a radical sect in the city.
When the group declared jihad in 2009, she tried to stay in touch and would appeal – on the few occasions he managed to get through to her – for him to quit. Their contact gradually became more frequent. “No matter what your son has done, he is still your son,” she said, Aliyu seated by her side.
“If all mothers could welcome their sons, those in the forests, tell them no harm will come to them, they will come home,” she added – although she had much less to say about her eldest daughter, still with Boko Haram in the bush.
The Bama massacre
Bama is the second largest city in Borno, home to about 270,000 people before the war began. It’s only 70 kilometres from Maiduguri, but after what feels like just a 15-minute drive south from the state capital, there’s a dip in the road known as “Shekau’s bridge”. At the height of the war, beyond that landmark, it was Boko Haram territory.
In 2014, with the army poorly trained, under-equipped, and demoralised, towns were falling one after the other – Gwoza, Banki, Dikwa, to name just a few. In September, it was Bama’s turn.
In the early days of Boko Haram’s insurrection, the vigilante group known as the Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF) had managed to chase its followers out of Bama. The CJTF then went on to nearby Banki and did the same thing, rooting out insurgent cells and killing members.
“There is no God but Allah”. Boko Haram was pushed out of the town in 2015.
When Bama was finally captured by Boko Haram, that was not forgotten: Many of the men taking part in the battle had come from the town. “When we entered, we came with that grief,” said Idris Osman*, a former cameraman with Boko Haram’s media unit. “We didn’t differentiate who was CJTF; we took everyone to be our enemies. This wasn’t about religion; this was revenge.”
Some of what happened was filmed by Osman. One clip released a few months later to local media is of men being thrown off a pick-up truck on the town’s bridge. They are then executed, and their limp bodies pushed through the railings, falling to the water below.
Another video is of men lying on the floor in the dormitory of the prison barracks. They are shot, with the gunmen stamping on their bodies to make sure they are dead.
A commander speaks directly to the camera to explain: “As you can see here in this video, we have made sure the floor of this hall is turned red with blood, and this is how it is going to be in all future attacks and arrests of infidels. From now, killing, slaughtering, destruction, and bombing will be our religious duty anywhere we invade.”
Boko Haram had initially gone house-to-house looking for men still in hiding, shooting anybody they could find. But after a few days, a truce was declared – negotiated by the town’s women – and all remaining men were ordered to report to the palace of the Shehu (the traditional ruler), which had become the insurgent’s HQ.
From there, they were taken to the town’s prison to await sentencing by Shekau in his Sambisa Forest base, 40 kilometres away. He announced his decision after a few days: Everybody in Bama was declared an infidel – so all surviving men were to be killed, all marriageable women enslaved, and all property forfeited to the dawla.
The killings took place in the prison dormitory; at the prison well; as well as at the bridge. Only the elderly, the children, and the disabled were spared. Hundreds died, according to survivors, and were buried by the town’s women. “I still remember the smell of the blood, and it makes my head spin,” said Osman.
Aliyu doesn’t deny he was in Bama, but insists he took no part in the killings. Instead, he said, he was nursing a hand wound from a battle a few days earlier at a key road junction 18 kilometres from the town – from where Boko Haram captured the armoured vehicles they used in their final assault. When the order came to kill the captives, he was sick and resting, he said.
Aliyu didn’t want to dwell on the events during the seven months of Boko Haram occupation, but he did want his version known. “I’m a good man,” he insisted. “The elderly, the young, and the vulnerable – I help them during Eid [after the holy month of Ramadan].” Rather than civilians, “I deal with the military and CJTF – those I kill,” he said.
Aliyu was a munzir at the time, a rank below qaid, but close to Shekau, according to Osman, who had been Aliyu’s protégé after he recruited him in Banki. “Yes, he followed the order to kill,” Osman said. “Later, he might have regretted it. But at the time, he would have killed without feeling.”
Mala Musa*, 66, still lives in Bama – a former wealthy businessman, his home was next door to the house Aliyu had requisitioned during the occupation. Musa specifically remembers Aliyu driving through the streets, flanked by bodyguards on motorbikes.
He didn’t personally witness Aliyu shooting anybody, but his heartfelt assessment was: “All Boko Haram kill. They’re wicked. Anybody saying otherwise is lying.” And it’s not just the killing he grieves over. As the Nigerian army was about to retake the town in 2015, Boko Haram trucked all the women they had forcibly married – or intended to in the future – to Sambisa.
“They took even underage girls, some as young as 10 or 11,” said Musa. Among those abducted were his wife and all of his daughters, none of whom he has seen since. Then they torched the houses, Musa’s included. “I lost everything,” he said. “Those were terrible months.”
The bigger picture
Sulhu advocates argue that atrocities like Bama – deplorable as they are – should not obscure the bigger picture. “Obviously, for the people of Bama, [impunity] is not the right outcome, but in the broader sense it’s a part of the equation [sending a message to those still in the bush],” said the researcher.
“If the justice system was functioning, that would be different. But the country has brought to trial very few people,” he said. “They will just rot in jail. On the other hand, [if a senior commander joins sulhu] and it leads to a momentum of guys coming out… [isn’t that better?].”
Supporters of sulhu also stress it is not an amnesty programme. The slate, they say, has not been wiped clean for crimes committed. President Buhari has awarded them clemency, not forgiveness, and that can be withdrawn at any time.
Sulhu offers a way out for those looking to quit. It’s a peace deal made with the individual combatants, and protects them from either being possibly killed by the military if they are caught defecting independently, or indefinite detention in Giwa barracks. “A bullet or Giwa is not much of a choice,” said the researcher. “Sulhu is a much better option.”
Neither is sulhu like the transactional “cash-for-guns” pacification schemes used in other Nigerian conflicts that essentially incentivises violence. It uniquely also welcomes the wives and children of the former fighters, who are given vocational training and psychological support in a Borno State-run centre in Maiduguri.
For rijal weighing whether to leave the bush, the fact that families are kept together provides a strong inducement, said Aliyu.
But civil society groups are highly critical of a process that favours perpetrators at the expense of their millions of victims. “From a human rights point of view, they should have been brought to justice,” said the Abuja-based lawyer. “This is helping impunity to grow.”
Those on the sulhu programme “melted into the crowd – there was no attempt at [implementing the] truth-telling, reparations, or accountability mechanisms that’s mentioned in the sulhu agreement,” added the lawyer.
“If the justice system was functioning, that would be different. But the country has brought to trial very few people.”
The former government-Boko Haram intermediary, meanwhile, was also concerned that sulhu – a well-funded but opaque programme – is being promoted as a winning strategy within the security establishment, when he believes it will have little real impact on the war.
“Eight out of 10 of those who defected did so because they [had committed a crime] in the bush, not because they want to stop killing, or have changed their ideology,” the intermediary told The New Humanitarian. That limits their influence over the mujahideen that fight on.
Aliyu, for example, was in a group of 21 that initially crossed over, but only 15 made it to the sulhu programme. Three instead joined bandit gangs in the northwest, and three returned to the dawla. Two of those men were killed, accused of espionage by ISWAP. “I told them not to go,” was Aliyu’s matter-of-fact response when shown the video of their execution.
Looking for a political solution
Years of gradual contact-making with Boko Haram through a network of mediators, facilitated by the Swiss government and overseen by DSS, led to the release of 21 of the Chibok girls in 2016; another 82 were freed in 2017.
Then, in 2018, just a month after they had been abducted by ISWAP from Dapchi, in Yobe State, the same network negotiated the return of all 105 schoolgirls (except the sole Christian girl, 14-year-old Leah Sharibu) – a success helped in no small measure by the condemnation of the kidnapping by so-called Islamic State.
The focal point of those contacts was ISWAP’s top cleric, Mamman Nur, a senior ideologue within Boko Haram from the time of Mohammed Yusuf. He and al-Barnawi, Yusuf’s son, were key to ISWAP’s breakaway from Boko Haram in 2016. Most of the initial qaid that joined sulhu – Aliyu included – were linked to people in Nur’s network.
Advocates of sulhu see it as more than just a counter-insurgency tool. According to Mustapha Zannah, a former barrister who helped broker the release of both groups of Chibok girls, the larger goal has been to find a sliver of common ground that could be built upon to reach a political settlement – a potential way out of the conflict’s cul de sac.
That began to take shape as a proposed ceasefire, a demilitarised buffer zone, and an enclave within Nigeria, said Zannah – a “live and let live” approach backed by some within government.
But it came off the rails when Nur was executed in August 2018 by his own movement. Evidence had been found of suspicious financial transactions on his phone: He was accused of unauthorised contact with the Nigerian government, and finally treason by the hardliners who had taken control of ISWAP.
ISWAP’s period of instability may now be easing. Al-Barnawi was made interim leader in March, with the backing of IS, and two months later scored a sensational victory against his arch-rival, Shekau. Cornered in his Sambisa Forest base, the veteran jihadist blew himself up rather than surrender – his death radically changing the conflict landscape in the northeast.
There is excitement by some in the Nigerian security establishment who view al-Barnawi as a moderate – albeit in large quote marks – and potentially open to exploring the contours of a peace deal, as Nur had done. “He may be dogmatic, but he’s rational,” said the Abuja-based analyst.
But Zannah, the barrister, who also runs a school for war orphans and struggling families in Maiduguri, is certain any settlement acceptable to ISWAP would be a tough sell to most Nigerians.
“They are in a religious war. There’s no way you can tell them, ‘Stop’,” he said, speaking to The New Humanitarian in the compound of his school project. “You might be able to talk to them about a buffer zone, and humanitarian access, but they won’t give up their dawla.”
The Abuja-based analyst knows that but is still upbeat: “Other sects have their space [in Nigeria],” they said. “[An enclave] can exist under the constitution, so long as they don’t hoist their flag, and they agree to live in peace.”
However, the intermediary, who was also involved in negotiations over the release of the Chibok girls, sees this as deliberate wishful thinking. “It’s politically impossible for the government of Nigeria to recognise these people,” he insisted. “ISWAP are in an ideological war against [what they term] dar al-kufr [the land of the infidel] – nothing less.”
But some see a more fundamental problem. “So long as ISWAP is winning – and ISWAP is on a roll at the moment – I don’t see them caving in [and agreeing to a settlement],” said Vincent Foucher, a Boko Haram-watcher at France’s National Centre for Science Research.
“Deals happen when both sides are exhausted, and ISWAP is not there at all, and neither is the Nigerian state and military.” The sad truth is that this conflict “doesn’t threaten [Nigeria’s political] core enough – to either gear up to properly prosecute the war, or to cut a deal.”
Muna Garage, on the eastern edge of Maiduguri, is the final stop for villagers fleeing towns like Bama, Dikwa, Konduga, and Marte. Around 40,000 people are crammed onto a small patch of land – the space between their flimsy white nylon tents well below international humanitarian standards. The deprivation is pretty standard for the two million people made homeless by this war.
Malam Abba*, once a wealthy farmer and local leader, has been in Muna Garage for five years. He led over 100 people here escaping from their village of Boboshe – 90 kilometres from Maiduguri – and the terrifying control of Boko Haram. They drugged the children with cough medicine and carried them on their backs all night until they were clear of danger.
Aliyu was munzir for Boboshe, and Abba remembers him well. His men forced the villagers into daily religious lectures, banned women from leaving their homes, and took whatever they wanted, including their only generator, which pumped water from the nearby Yedseram river. Aliyu loaded it one day onto a vehicle, and it was gone, Abba said.
Not obeying the rijal meant flogging or possible execution, with death automatic for anyone caught trying to run – a sentence carried out on Abba’s brother, a primary school teacher, whose throat was slit.
Abba is angry about the life he lost when Boboshe was a well-to-do farming community. He’s bitter about the life he now leads, the hardship, and demeaning dependency on aid. And he’s scathing about the army, who detained several members of his family as they tried to reach Maiduguri. Some are still in Giwa, though he doesn’t know whether they are alive or dead.
But above all, he’s exhausted by the war and just wants it to end. “If sulhu allows us to go back to our farms and villages, and the government says we must accept, then I will,” he said.
It’s a complicated set of emotions. For Abba, it’s certainly not outright forgiveness. There’s little in his bare tent beyond a mattress, a nylon bag stuffed with a few old clothes, and a torch. For this, he squarely blames Boko Haram. “They are the ones that caused all this suffering,” he said.
And yet, “for the sake of peace” – and by that he means a chance to restart his stalled life – he says he would even shake Aliyu’s hand. In his yearning to see an end to the war, he took that thought a step further: “Let him come – we could even stay together in Boboshe.” Culled From New Humanitarian