Inside Nigeria's centres for jihadists and their captives


Inside Nigeria's centres for jihadists and their captives

On an arid plot of land in northern Nigeria, veiled women hurry past vegetable stalls and men idle outside endless rows of tarpaulin tents in what, at first glance, appears to be a typical camp for displaced people.

In reality, Hajj Camp in Borno State is a centre for processing tens of thousands of jihadists, their families and those who lived under their control.

In exchange for freedom, the government persuaded them to turn themselves in -- a move aimed at ending an insurgency by Boko Haram and the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) group that has killed thousands and displaced over two million more since 2009.

But an investigation by AFP points to major failings in the screening and deradicalization process, while the need for justice has been set aside.

In May 2021, a key event gave the authorities an opportunity.

Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau died after rivals ISWAP invaded his hideout demanding he pledge allegiance.

After his death, his fighters and their captives had a decision to make: either join ISWAP or flee.

The government acted fast. Flyers were dropped from helicopters over their camps in the "bush," vowing that if they emerged from hiding, they would be safe.

"We will not hand you over to the military. We will take care of you and your family in a camp in Maiduguri for four or five months and then you will be released," was the message.

In many ways, the tactic worked.

More than 90,000 people formerly associated with Boko Haram and, to a much lesser extent, ISWAP defected.

Most have transited through Hajj and some through Shokari or Bulumkutu, which are similar centres. A number of women and children were taken directly to ordinary camps for those uprooted by the fighting.

The large majority of those who turned themselves in are not former fighters but rather men, women and children who lived under jihadist rule. Even so, the centres' potential to usher in peace has attracted global attention.

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