Thousands of Boko Haram Members Surrendered. They Moved In Next Door.
MAIDUGURI, Nigeria — For over a decade, the extremist group Boko Haram has terrorized northeastern Nigeria — killing tens of thousands of people, kidnapping schoolgirls and sending suicide bombers into busy marketplaces.
Now, thousands of Boko Haram fighters have surrendered, along with their family members, and are being housed by the government in a compound in the city of Maiduguri, the group’s birthplace and its frequent target.
The compound is next to a middle-class housing development and a primary school, terrifying residents, teachers and parents.
“We are very afraid,” said Maimouna Mohammed, a teacher at the primary school, glancing at the camp’s wall 50 yards from her classroom. “We don’t know their minds.”
Nigerian military and justice officials say that in the past month, as many as 7,000 fighters and family members, along with their captives, have left Boko Haram, the largest wave of defections by far since the jihadist group emerged in 2002.
The turning point for its fortunes appears to have been the death of Abubakar Shekau, Boko Haram’s longtime leader, who blew himself up in May after being cornered by a rival faction.
However weakened Boko Haram may be, though, it does not necessarily mean an end to terror for the people of northeastern Nigeria, hundreds of thousands of whom have died, and millions of whom have fled.
Fighters from Boko Haram’s rival splinter group — the Islamic State West Africa Province, or ISWAP — are moving into the vacuum, observers in the region say, ferrying truckloads of military equipment from their strongholds in the Lake Chad area southward to Mr. Shekau’s former dens in the Sambisa forest. ISWAP broke off from Boko Haram in 2016, and claimed an affiliation with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
Journalists are not allowed into the compound hosting the Boko Haram defectors, a facility known as Hajj Camp, formerly used by Muslims making the pilgrimage to Mecca. But we were able to interview six people who surrendered in the past month, who each managed to leave the camp for a few hours. They spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.
Most described a surrender largely for practical reasons — because they were leaderless, because the weapons supply had dried up, because they were tired of living in the bush, because they feared for their survival, or because they felt the choice was between surrendering to the government or going over to the Islamic State West Africa Province, where they feared they might be treated as slaves.
“We are leaderless,” said a man who identified himself as a khaid, one of the top ranks of commander. “What do we do?”
The khaid said he had witnessed Mr. Shekau self-detonate, blowing up other Boko Haram members and men from the Islamic State West Africa Province, who had ambushed him in his stronghold in the Sambisa forest.
“It was devastating,” the khaid said, his hand over his face, eyes shifting behind his fingers. “Sambisa was silent. Not even the sound of the flour grinder. The whole place was in mourning.”
The khaid had joined Boko Haram because he wanted revenge on a soldier who had beaten him up, he said, and had risen to be the head of the hisbah, Boko Haram’s morality police, married to four women with 14 children.
And he left because he realized he could do it without fear of dying.
He went home after Mr. Shekau’s death to the village he had left years before, and tried to start farming. Recently, he said, one of his sons found a leaflet hanging on a thorn tree in the field. He took it to a friend who could read, who told him it was an offer of clemency from the government.
He’d been under the impression that the government executed all Boko Haram members or took them to Giwa barracks, a military detention center notorious for mass shootings, torture and starvation. Certain that he would be killed if he stayed on his farm, he jumped at the chance to surrender.
He handed himself and his family in, he said, swearing three times on the Quran that he would never go back. When the military officer asked him why he was surrendering, he produced the leaflet.
“Oh, so it’s useful,” the officer said, surprised.
“Print more and throw them into the bush,” the khaid replied. “It’s very useful.”
In Hajj Camp, living alongside commanders like the khaid are some of their former hostages, some abducted as children and married off to fighters. They are keeping as low a profile in the camp as possible, still fearful of being raped.
Also in the camp are legions of Boko Haram fighters waiting to be interrogated by the Nigerian government. There are fighters who joined the group willingly, often lured with gifts of money and motorcycles, but also those who were forced or brainwashed into signing up.
One fighter was a hafiz, someone who has memorized the entire Quran. But, he said, he never knew how to interpret the words he could recite so well.
In his early teens, he listened to Boko Haram’s leaders preach that the whole world had turned to wayward living and that they needed to stand and fight.
“I totally believed them,” he said, seated on a carpet, compulsively rubbing the sole of his foot over and over with stubby fingers. “I trusted them and anything they said, I agreed.”
He killed 17 people, he said, and he did it joyfully, seeing it as a blessing.
Around the time Mr. Shekau killed himself, the hafiz began secretly listening to recordings of sermons by imams preaching a completely different, and peaceful, interpretation. Distraught, he plotted his surrender.
“I want forgiveness. But I don’t know how God will forgive me,” he said.
Another, a 28-year-old spy, said he had joined Boko Haram when he was 13 and was part of a group of 400 people who decided to surrender together. Despite admitting to killing at least 10 people with his own hands, and causing the deaths of “countless” others through his spying, he felt he might have a chance at being accepted by the community.
“Top military officials assured us we would not be killed,” he said. For the first time, he saw an opportunity to live an ordinary life, he said.
When they arrived in Hajj Camp, the khaid said, a senior military officer assured them they would be protected. They would be given training and capital to start trades, and ID cards so they could travel.
“We know he will not lie,” the khaid said.
Another promise, he said, was that their children would be educated, something he welcomed.
This is quite the turnaround. Boko Haram literally translates as “Western education is forbidden.” The group’s most infamous crime is the abduction of hundreds of schoolgirls from their dormitory in the village of Chibok — girls that Mr. Shekau vowed he would sell in a market in one of his frequent video diatribes. (All of the Chibok girls not released were married off to fighters, the khaid said.)
At the Ahmed Jaha nursery and primary school, next to Hajj Camp, Ms. Mohammed and other teachers struggled to believe that the surrendered fighters, who arrived last month haggard and hungry in green and white school buses, had really repented.
When she saw them playing football over the low wall that separated them from the school perimeter, she thought about how she would get her tiny pupils in their purple checked uniforms to safety. “If something happens, how are we going to carry the children?” she asked.
The low wall surrounding Hajj Camp was a problem.
Soon after they were moved in, around 20 of the defectors scaled it and fled, according to Bunu Bukar, the head of a local militia, who helped the military fight Boko Haram for years.
A new wall was built, and topped with shiny barbed wire. Police built bunkers out of sandbags in a field alongside the camp and trained their guns on that wall.
But the residents of 1000 Housing Estate, a large government housing development for civil servants next door to Hajj Camp, still do not feel safe.
Some moved out as soon as they could. One, a nurse once driven from his home by Boko Haram, who lost everything but had found refuge in the estate, has started sleeping with a cutlass under his bed.
Many worried that it was just Boko Haram’s latest trick to attack Maiduguri. If so, they argued, from the terrorists’ point of view Hajj Camp couldn’t be better situated — very close to the airport, an air base and an artillery barracks.
“Is it true? How safe, how secure are we?” Those are the questions that Aji Kyari, secretary-general of the residents’ association of 1000 Housing Estate, gets over and over from petrified residents. He said they had received no warning about Hajj Camp’s new occupants.
“Our concern now is, suppose the unrepentant ones decide to attack those who have repented. That’s where we have a problem, as a community,” he said. “It’s a war. ”
This is not the first time Boko Haram fighters have defected. Hundreds of Boko Haram members have gone through Nigeria’s deradicalization program, Operation Safe Corridor, though mixed up among them have been many civilians.
But never before have thousands surrendered, as they have now. Boko Haram is so shadowy that estimates of its size have ranged from as few as 1,500 fighters to what one high-level defector said was about 40,000 people, including fighters and their entourage of family members and captives.
Government officials refused multiple requests for interviews for this story. Babagana Zulum, the governor of Borno state, of which Maiduguri is the capital, has imposed a ban on any official speaking to the press. But he called the mass defections “a very welcome development, unless we want to continue with an endless war.”
“I see no reason why we should reject those who are willing to surrender,” Mr. Zulum said last month after meeting with the president.
Mr. Kyari has been trying to calm the residents of 1000 Housing Estate, pointing out that the defectors came to Hajj Camp willingly. But privately, he has his doubts about their change of heart.
“Have they truly repented, or is it a war tactic to come back into the community?” he said. “That question mark is big.”