Boko Haram’s resilience highlights the limits of a purely military solution to the conflict. In the near term, neither a complete military defeat nor a political settlement is likely. Although the Nigerian government has announced that it has been in talks with Boko Haram about a possible ceasefire, the scope and nature of these negotiations are unclear. In the absence of a political deal, a key priority is to incentivize more Boko Haram fighters to defect—and to successfully rehabilitate those who are captured or manage to leave the group.

Over the past two years, Nigerian officials and international partners repeatedly have emphasized the need for a disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) strategy.[1] Yet so far, the Nigerian government’s efforts in this regard have been disjointed. State authorities have set up a small-scale rehabilitation program for low-level fighters, as well as for low-risk women and children previously affiliated with Boko Haram. However, the program operates with little transparency, and the military’s criteria for screening detainees are opaque. Thousands of suspects remain in military detention, held without charges and often in overcrowded and unsanitaryconditions.

Saskia Brechenmacher is an associate fellow in Carnegie’s Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program, where her research focuses on gender, conflict, and governance, as well as trends in civic activism and civil society repression.

In December 2017, the Nigerian government, with the support of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), adopted an initial Action Plan for Demobilization, Disassociation, Reintegration, and Reconciliation for those associated with Boko Haram. The Nigerian government’s Office of the National Security Adviser will likely endorse a more detailed strategy soon.[2] Yet such a strategy faces significant implementation challenges. To be effective, it must ensure that the military has robust eligibility and vetting criteria in a context of ongoing conflict. It must also provide incentives for Boko Haram associates to reintegrate into communities—an effort that will have to include building local support for the effort and providing parallel assistance to vigilante groups that have emerged during the conflict. A piecemeal approach that neglects any part of this complex sequence risks perpetuating insecurity and creating new lines of conflict.


Under the current system, suspected Boko Haram members captured during military operations are subjected to an internal military screening process, and those deemed to pose a security risk are placed in military detention. Yet the screening criteria and evidence used to detain these suspects are opaque. Human rights groups have criticized the Nigerian military’s approach for being too indiscriminate: particularly before 2015, Nigerian security forces often arbitrarily arrested villagers in areas suspected of harboring Boko Haram fighters. Individuals caught in areas not secured by the military are automatically considered suspects, partly because of the operational difficulties of verifying information about their backgrounds.[3] Mass trials of suspects began in late 2017, but the large caseload and insufficient or unreliable evidence against many detainees has slowed the court process considerably.

Since 2016, the Nigerian government has also operated Operation Safe Corridor, a small intergovernmental program aimed at rehabilitating low-risk, “repentant” Boko Haram fighters. This program is currently the only sanctioned mechanism for combatants to exit the group. Men who are deemed eligible undergo several weeks of religious reeducation, psychosocial support, and vocational training at a military-run facility in Gombe State. In Maiduguri, the government has also set up a rehabilitation center for low-risk women, children, and elderly individuals associated with Boko Haram—a group that in practice includes both former Boko Haram members as well as those who had been abducted by the group or were arrested for living in an area controlled by the group.

From the onset, Operation Safe Corridor generated controversy. For example, it is unclear what criteria the military uses to categorize individuals as “low-risk” versus “high-risk”—a distinction that determines who is cleared for rehabilitation, who is kept in detention, or who is informally released. As a result, Boko Haram affiliates have no way of knowing whether they will be deemed eligible after surrendering. Those familiar with the program suggest that it has a very narrow scope, as the military is cautious in classifying any suspected Boko Haram affiliates as low-risk.[4] Moreover, to date only those deemed to be “defectors” have been cleared for entry, although it is possible that those released for rehabilitation by the courts may also be transferred to the Gombe facility in the future.[5] Many others who were arrested in the earlier years of the insurgency remain in detention, even though large numbers likely had little or no connection to Boko Haram.

Operation Safe Corridor currently also lacks a clear reintegration strategy. In part because politicians fear being seen as lenient toward extremist groups, the government has done little to build popular support for the scheme or clarify the misconceptions surrounding it.[6] As a result, many people view Operation Safe Corridor with frustration—they are skeptical that those who surrender are truly repentant, and resent that the government provides assistance to former insurgents while neglecting the victims of the conflict. Fears of community retribution have repeatedly delayed plans to release the class of ninety-six individuals who have completed the program. Women and children who have returned to their communities from the rehabilitation center have faced ostracism and rejection.


Although Operation Safe Corridor has made a valuable attempt to offer low-risk fighters a way out of extremist groups, it suffers from significant shortcomings. A more effective DDR strategy in northeast Nigeria will have be much larger in scope to match the scale and urgency of the problem. Yet these reintegration efforts face five particular challenges.

Clarifying Eligibility

In most conventional DDR contexts, peace agreements lay out the eligibility criteria for amnesty and rehabilitation. In Colombia, for example, the peace accord with the FARC guerrilla movement established a tiered system: rank-and-file fighters are eligible for amnesty provided that they were not involved in war crimes or crimes against humanity, while those who exercised command responsibility or were otherwise implicated in serious crimes have to stand trial.

In northeast Nigeria, the absence of a peace agreement means that it is not easy to determine who should be eligible for rehabilitation on what criteria and on what terms. The Nigerian government has at various times floated the idea of a general amnesty to incentivize defections and a cessation of hostilities. Yet many communities in the region oppose such a deal unless it also provides for the victims of the conflict. President Muhammadu Buhari’s most recent announcement that the “government is ever ready to accept the unconditional laying-down of arms by any member of the Boko Haram group” once again triggered pushback from civil society groups, who argue that a general amnesty will perpetuate impunity. At the same time, channeling thousands of detainees through the criminal justice system will likely create further backlog and delays. Because many of the alleged insurgents were arrested based on questionable intelligence and denunciations by local militia groups, the prosecutable evidence against them is scant or nonexistent. An initial round of secretive mass trials launched held in late 2017 and early 2018 reportedly resulted in 250 convictions, while approximately a thousand people were ordered to be “released for rehabilitation” because of lack of evidence. According to the justice ministry, some of these defendants had been held without trial since 2010.

A more realistic alternative would be to expand the current two-track system: a rehabilitation path open to low-risk fighters and persons associated with Boko Haram (whether or not they have defected), and a criminal justice path for higher-risk combatants and commanders.[7] Doing so will require the Joint Investigations Committee, which oversees the military vetting process, to establish more consistent, reliable, and transparent screening criteria to determine an individual’s level of risk and degree of affiliation with the group, ideally subject to oversight by human rights experts. International partners are currently working with Nigerian authorities to establish databases that will help government agencies capture and share information about all individuals processed through the system, including in the initial screening phase. The hope is that such a database will also help speed up and improve the verification of information provided by detainees.[8] Yet ultimately, the government must ensure greater policy coherence: a strategy aimed at rehabilitating defectors will have limited impact as long as the military detains thousands of suspects with only tenuous ties to Boko Haram.

Any effort to establish systematic screening criteria has to grapple with the complexity of people’s relationships to extremist groups, as well as the difficulties of collecting and corroborating information in a context of ongoing conflict. Some Boko Haram members willingly joined the group, yet later were unable to leave; some were forcibly abducted. Many others’ pathways fall somewhere in between volition and coercion, with social and economic pressures playing significant roles. And although some played active combat roles, others filled various nonviolent support functions under duress, or merely lived under Boko Haram rule, having been unable or unwilling to flee. Erasing these nuances—for example, by referring to those who merely lived in Boko Haram–controlled areas as “repentant Boko Haram members,” and by grouping them with low-risk Boko Haram associates—risks reinforcing stigmatization and fueling the misconception that Operation Safe Corridor is an amnesty for violent terrorists.

Tackling (De-)radicalization

A second challenge concerns the relationship between countering violent extremism (CVE) and rehabilitating Boko Haram fighters and associates. What types of deradicalization programs should be included in rehabilitation efforts to minimize chances of recidivism? Merging deradicalization measures into DDR processes is a relatively new field of practice, with little rigorous evidence to support particular efforts or initiatives. Yet a number of emerging findings from the CVE field may nevertheless help guide more effective programming.

In Nigeria, the 2014 National Security Strategy called for a “soft approach” to counterterrorism that would include, as part of a comprehensive CVE strategy, a prison-based deradicalization process for sentenced and pretrial prisoners, as well as after-care for those released by the courts or through an amnesty. One prison-based deradicalization program was piloted in 2015, consisting of religious reeducation, vocational and language training, sports, art therapy, and psychosocial support for forty-five Boko Haram affiliates. Yet despite tentative positive results, other prisons do not appear to have expanded or replicated this program. Operation Safe Corridor includes a similar mix of deradicalization programs for low-risk defectors, though current programming seems to emphasize religious retraining over other services.

Research suggests that radicalization and entry into extremist groups tends to be a highly individualized process. It often results from a combination of structural “push” factors like relative deprivation or political grievances, and “pull” factors like appealing ideologies, charismatic recruiters, and material or social benefits. Interviews with former Boko Haram members echo these insights: some young people joined to deepen their religious knowledge, whereas others saw the group as a pathway to get aheadeconomically. Many highlight the influence of friends, relatives, and colleagues.

Ideally, deradicalization programming should thus be individually tailored: not all those who need rehabilitation also need deradicalization or religious retraining. For those who played minor roles within the groups or joined for nonreligious reasons, obtaining training and psychosocial support to make a transition back to civilian life is most crucial. For those radicalized and recruited through social networks, deradicalization efforts may be more effective if delivered jointly to relatives or peer groups rather than in isolation. However, proper program tailoring requires in-depth information and monitoring of all program participants, which in turn demands greater resources, staff training, and capacity. At the moment, for instance, international assistance providers know little about the backgrounds and deradicalization needs of those detained in military facilities.[9] Systematic record-keeping on all those passing through the system—including those cleared for rehabilitation and those awaiting trial—will be essential for deradicalization programs to succeed.

A second insight from past deradicalization efforts is the importance of credible interlocutors and detention conditions. Government officials or religious figures who detainees do not trust to speak on religious questions are unlikely to be in a position to challenge extremist narratives, not least because hereditary religious hierarchies and government abuses have been important drivers of radicalization. Anecdotal evidence from Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia, as well as from the pilot deradicalization program in Kuje Prison in Nigeria, suggests that fostering trust and mentoring relationships between detainees and program officials can increase the likelihood of positive behavioral and ideological change. Abusive prison or detention conditions, by contrast, have been shown to increase the likelihood of radicalization. These findings underscore the risks of the current system, in which many detainees are subjected to prolonged pretrial detention periods in difficult and abusive conditions. Lastly, postrelease support and monitoring is likely to be essential to prevent retaliatory attacks, marginalization, or a return to violence.

Preparing for Sustainable Reintegration

The reintegration of former combatants into civilian life is often the weakest link of DDR programs. Whereas dissociation and demobilization involves a set of relatively standardized activities, reintegration has multiple complex and decentralized transitions, from helping combatants rebuild civilian identities to strengthening interpersonal trust and restoring livelihoods in war-affected communities. Ongoing conflict further complicates reintegration: civilians are more likely to distrust returnees and defectors when the militant group itself remains active, and returnees themselves may be at risk of retaliatory violence.

Despite these risks, Operation Safe Corridor currently lacks a clear reintegration component. Low-risk detainees have been released back into IDP camps with little preparation or follow-up; others appear to have been held in continued detention at the Gombe facility even after completing deradicalization programming out of fears that they will face retaliatory violence upon release.[10] A recent study by the Kukah Centre and Conciliation Resources found that in places where people associated with Boko Haram had been returned, members of the community were not informed in advance, a failing that has fueled misconceptions and resistance that threaten the long-term viability of reintegration efforts.[11]For example, women and girls who were abducted or lived under Boko Haram strongholds often face suspicion and distrust upon their return. Many people view them as a direct threat, fearing that they have been radicalized and could recruit others.[12] Men associated with Boko Haram experience even greater hostility, as they often are assumed to have been voluntary and active combatants.

Of course, the views among local communities are not uniform. Many recognize the long-term need for reintegration but feel that it is too soon for former fighters to return. They demand a longer rehabilitation process, and greater support for the affected communities as a whole. Others find it hard to envision living side-by-side with those who killed their relatives or destroyed their village, particularly as long as the needs of victims are left unmet. As one community worker said in Maiduguri, “If somebody shot your father and ran away, how can you accept them back?”[13]

In response, several international and local civil society groups have been pressing for community participation in reintegration and reconciliation issues. Community-based rehabilitation models can take different forms. Some simply combine support to former combatants and those associated with armed groups with parallel assistance for affected population groups, such as youth with similar socioeconomic profiles, IDPs, and other vulnerable groups. Others go further and integrate forums for community decisionmaking to ensure that the DDR process fosters understanding and is embedded in traditional conflict resolution mechanisms. Underlying these efforts is the assumption that former combatants and returnees must be socially accepted in order to prevent them from returning to violence. A locally owned reconciliation process may also help overcome the multiple cleavages that have emerged during the war, not only between Boko Haram fighters and civilians but also between different religious and ethnic groups, IDPs and host communities, citizens and security forces, and those who fled Boko Haram and those who stayed behind.

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), for example, currently supports local-level dialogues to better understand the situation in each community that may end up receiving returning fighters and Boko Haram affiliates, in order to assess local needs and concerns as well as to evaluate potential livelihood options for returnees.[14] In addition, the IOM has been working with Nigerian authorities to implement a database that will keep track of all individuals who have passed through Operation Safe Corridor and returned to their communities. Closely tracking the trajectories of returnees—without alienating local communities—will be crucial to assess the effectiveness of rehabilitation programming and coordinate adequate follow-up support, particularly given the decentralized nature of the reintegration process.

Adopting a Gender-Sensitive Lens

Historically, DDR programs failed to integrate gender into their program design and implementation, thereby reinforcing women’s marginalization from postconflict development processes. Over the past several years, donors and policymakers have realized the need for a more gender-sensitive approach, although implementation often lags behind. In northeast Nigeria, the gender dimensions of the conflict—particularly Boko Haram’s reliance on female suicide bombers and the group’s targeting of women and girls—have received significant attention. Both international donors and local actors emphasize the specific vulnerabilities and needs of women and girls in the crisis. Yet studies of other conflict contexts caution against depicting women only as victims to be protected, and neglecting the ways in which gender norms also affect men’s wartime experiences and likelihood of reintegration.

Such an approach carries several risks. First, framing women only as victims of Boko Haram risks denying their political agency and erasing the complexity of their experiences. Although Boko Haram did indeed abduct many women and girls, others joined voluntarily or followed their husbands and family members. Interviews with female Boko Haram members suggest that some viewed the group as an opportunity to escape hard agricultural labor and receive a religious education, which was inaccessible to girls in many rural parts of northeast Nigeria. These experiences of structural marginalization have to be understood in order to address the reasons why women joined or supported Boko Haram in the first place, and to ensure specialized reintegration support.

Second, marginalizing women’s wartime roles and experiences can also perpetuate their exclusion from key decisions around the broader peace-building process. For example, restricting transitional justice processes only to civil and political rights violations may mean that the “forms and places of violation that may be of particular significance to women” are left unrecognized, such as violations that occur in private spaces. This risk is particularly acute in northeastern Nigeria, where women are largely absent from both government and traditional decisionmaking structures. For example, a recent study conducted in Yobe, Borno, and Adamawa States suggests that women may be more reluctant than men to embrace community-level reconciliation and reintegration, and more likely to stress the need for legal accountability for sexual violence. Rather than treating women only as subjects of DDR efforts, local gender expertise—through existing women’s movements and organizations—should therefore be integrated into all aspects of the design and implementation process, including in the community dialogues organized to prepare for the return of rehabilitated Boko Haram associates. Under the military’s purview, the DDR process to date has lacked even the most basic elements of gender sensitivity. For instance, international aid officials report that women and men have been detained together in overcrowded facilities, with inadequate protection and provisions for privacy.[15] In remote camps for internally displaced persons, women alleged to be sympathetic to Boko Haram have faced severe movement restrictions and have been specifically targeted for sexual violence by security forces.

Finally, it is crucial to expand the gender lens to include boys and men, and to pay attention to the role that masculinity norms play in the conflict. Despite increased attention to gender in postconflict peace-building, men and boys still are rarely considered as gendered subjects. Yet in the case of Boko Haram, some young men may have joined the movement because poverty excluded them from the “marriage market,” and Boko Haram filled a crucial gap by arranging marriages for loyal supporters. Similarly, changes in women’s roles and livelihoods during and after conflict can threaten the traditional gender norms that require men to be the providers for their household, which can complicate men’s social reintegration and exacerbate gender-based violence. As the scholars Dyan Mazurana, Roxanne Krystalli, and Anton Baaré note, “a gender-aware approach to DDR transcends getting women into DDR programs and requires examining how these programs imagine, address, and reconstruct masculinity, femininity, and relationships in the aftermath of conflict.”[16]

Demobilizing and Reintegrating Civilian Militias

Lastly, a broader question surrounds the future of the civilian militia groups, most commonly known as the Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF), that emerged during the conflict. Although their exact numbers are uncertain, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) estimates that around 25,000 to 27,000 such fighters currently are active in northeastern Nigeria.[17] Formed at the height of the insurgency to protect local communities, they assist the Nigerian security forces with intelligence collection and military operations, particularly in more remote areas. Given the lack of official Nigerian policing capacity, CJTF members also have taken over policing functions in some parts of Borno, often exerting significant control over IDPs.

Members of these community militia in some ways fall between categories: they do not qualify for existing reintegration programs, nor are they considered victims of the conflict. They also are not a homogenous group: although a small number of fighters have been trained, armed, and placed on the military payroll, others are armed but unpaid, and the overwhelming majority neither carry arms nor receive direct financial support for their services. Many of the latter are dissatisfied with their current status and seek to be formally integrated into state security forces.

To date, these fighters have not been formally discharged or demobilized. Yet the status quo poses several challenges. The first is the lack of framework for civilian protection and accountability. As noted above, most of the CJTF never received formal training; they often have little knowledge of existing legal frameworks and civilian protection norms. Given their lack of integration into formal chains of command, civilians have few effective channels to appeal the decisions of vigilante fighters, or demand justice for their abuses—including sexual exploitation, intimidation, aid diversion, and assaults on those suspected of being part of armed groups.

At the same time, CJTF fighters are mostly young men with few alternative livelihood options. Many have little or no formal education, and do not fulfill the minimum requirements that would enable them to be integrated into the formal security forces. Drug addiction and abuse problems are widespread and likely growing. Without a comprehensive reintegration plan, the Nigerian government risks sustaining a pool of young men with few opportunities yet significant experience wielding violence and authority. Ahead of Nigeria’s scheduled 2019 elections, reports suggest that politicians are already forging ties to CJTF leaders for electoral purposes, potentially to pay local militia to intimidate political opponents and mobilize votes.

Going forward, one option is to integrate the civilian militia groups into a broader community policing framework. This would allow security forces to continue tapping into their local expertise while also ensuring that the militias receive adequate training and are linked to community justice mechanisms. Yet the precise structure of such a program remains hotly contested: the Nigerian federal government has long resisted calls by state governments to establish security structures that challenge the center’s monopoly over the security sector. In the absence of an agreement on such a framework, current nongovernmental organization efforts center on connecting CJTF fighters to livelihood and educational opportunities, as well as psychosocial support and drug addiction treatment. Yet more systematic and longer-term support is urgently needed.


Over the past two years, Nigerian authorities have increasingly acknowledged that ending the conflict in northeast Nigeria will require more than a military response. Yet in practice, efforts to establish a transparent framework for rehabilitating and reintegrating low-risk Boko Haram affiliates while ensuring meaningful accountability for victims have been slow to progress.

In many ways, Nigeria epitomizes the challenges of implementing a DDR program in a context of violent extremism and ongoing conflict. Problems that plague all DDR efforts—such as how to determine and implement fair and consistent eligibility criteria, ensure equal access, prevent re-mobilization, and ensure community involvement—are exacerbated by access and safety constraints, a highly fluid operational environment, and a lack of alignment between civilian and military actors. Such a context also poses unique challenges for international actors seeking to support the process, as they have less control over who enters rehabilitation programs, who is released, and based on what criteria.

Yet implementing a broader demobilization, rehabilitation, and reintegration strategy also represents an opportunity to begin addressing the social cleavages that emerged over the course of the conflict. In practice, this means formally recognizing the diversity of victims in the conflict, which include individuals who lived in Boko Haram–controlled areas or were associated with Boko Haram in some capacity, and systematizing screening and evidence collection standards to adhere to human rights norms. It also means planning for sustainable reintegration, by consistently involving communities in the process, closely tracking returnee trajectories, prioritizing accountability and protection for those most affected by violence, and providing assistance both to receiving communities and those who fall through the cracks of formal rehabilitation programs. Any breakdown in this complex system—whether in screening and categorizing detainees, in preparing for their return, or in ensuring postrelease support—risks causing further cleavages and resentment.

Carnegie gratefully acknowledges support from the UK Department for International Development that helped make the research and writing of this article possible. The views expressed herein are the responsibility of the author alone.

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