GOMBE, Nigeria — Aminu Usman sat facing his interrogators and answered questions thrown at him about his life as a Boko Haram terrorist.
“We were told that we were in the service of God,” said Usman, 35, a laborer and father of five. “That if we die, we would go to paradise.”
Usman explained his journey to militancy not in response to the threat of torture by Nigerian military captors but to sympathetic listeners hoping to change his life for the better.
He is among 95 Boko Haram members trying to repent by surrendering their weapons and participating in a government program to de-radicalize the former fighters and assimilate them into society.
The program is part of Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari’s outreach to those who used to belong to the militant group, which has killed more than 20,000 people and displaced more than 2 million others in Nigeria and neighboring Cameroon and Niger.
Usman explained to the rehabilitation officers that Boko Haram forced him to join in 2015 as he was working on his farm in Borno state, the center of Boko Haram activities in northeastern Nigeria.
Boko Haram launched a deadly campaign of bombings, abductions and killings in 2009 to overthrow the government and create an Islamic state in this West African country.
In 2014, the terrorist group claimed responsibility for abducting 276 girls from a school in Chibok, prompting international outrage and a global social media campaign called #BringBackOurGirls. Some of the girls escaped or were later released, but more than 100 are still missing. The group also pledged allegiance to the Islamic State.
After Buhari’s election two years ago on a pledge to eradicate Boko Haram, his military pushed the militants out of their base and forced them on the run. Boko Haram commander Auwal Ismaela, who played a major role in the Chibok abduction, recently surrendered and confessed to several attacks and other useful information about the group.
Even so, Boko Haram has killed 400 people since April, according to a recent Amnesty International report.
Many Nigerians believe most fighters joined under duress. As a result, the government decided to help those who leave the group.
“The federal government has made arrangements for the re-integration of all surrendered insurgents,” said Maj. Gen. Bamidele Shafa, who is coordinating the program at a camp near Gombe.
“This is a clarion call and a corridor of opportunity to remaining insurgents that are still in the bush to heed,” Shafa said.
For Adamu Umaru, 47, who joined two years ago, the rehabilitation program was heaven compared to a Boko Haram location in Jibiya, where more than 2,000 abducted men and women were held hostage.
“We were escaping from the attack on Gwoza” in Borno state, Umaru told officers at the government-run facility. “We took refuge on the hills, but Boko Haram surrounded us and took us to Jibiya. I joined the group while at the camp.”
The officers first grill ex-fighters like Usman to learn vital information about the group’s activities. Then they begin the rehabilitation process, which includes counseling and vocational classes in tailoring, farming, auto repair and other skills. The aim is to allow them to earn enough so they’re not tempted to go back to Boko Haram.
Civil rights activist Tukur Musa Tilde believes the program is a good step toward healing in northeastern Nigeria. “The program will offer them another opportunity to turn a new leaf and contribute to national growth,” Tilde said.
But editorial writers at Punch, a popular local newspaper, recently questioned the rehabilitation program.
“Should terrorists who have shed blood and massacred thousands of people re-enter the society under the guise of de-radicalization?” the Lagos-based newspaper asked. “What of their victims, and the innumerable widows and orphans they have created?”
The rehabilitation efforts are a start, said Sesugh Akume, a spokesman for #BringBackOurGirls. “We fully endorse it,” he said. “Recall that some Boko Haram members were forcefully recruited against their wish.”
After a round of questioning, Usman grabbed a plastic plate and chilled water, then joined other former militants on wooden benches for lunch.
“It is a different experience,” Usman said. “We look forward to becoming better citizens.”
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