Enhancing Post-Boko Haram Transitional Justice Processes in Northeast Nigeria

Transitional justice (TJ) is becoming increasingly relevant for reconciliation, healing, and national cohesion across Africa. In Nigeria, despite a flawed and limited experience with this practice, transitional justice and its constitutive elements are gaining traction as a non-military response to the Boko Haram crisis in the Northeast. Nonetheless, there is a notable understanding gap between TJ implementers and the process’ intended beneficiaries, with the latter’s view of the process being progressively negative. This article, which is based on extensive fieldwork in Nigeria’s Northeast between October 2022 and June 2023 explores this misalignment and proposes recommendations for optimizing TJ implementation in response to the crises in the region.

To an average Nigerian, transitional justice is becoming reductively synonymous with amnesty for belligerents.

To an average Nigerian, transitional justice is becoming reductively synonymous with amnesty for belligerents. This widespread perception owes to the historic perpetrator-focused interpretations of transitional justice, notably in the Amnesty program to militants in the Niger Delta crisis, and more recently, the Federal Government’s Operation Safe Corridor to tackle the Boko Haram insurgency. The aforementioned interventions were initiated by the government to forgive and receive voluntary defectors from armed groups as an attempt to initiate a gradual return to peace by disarming, rehabilitating, and reintegrating “low-risk” ex-combatants into society.

Against the background of the Boko Haram crisis, the government justified its reliance on DDR-styled programs like Operation Safe Corridor and the Borno Model due to the continued loss of territory to the violent extremist group despite increased military spending. The protracted nature of the Boko Haram conflict and its manifestations made conventional post-conflict processes like the declaration of a cease fire and the signing of a peace agreement impracticable, hence the resort to deradicalisation and reintegration programs.

Following some successful military campaigns that forced the extremists to move to the peripheries, the government introduced Operation Safe Corridor (OSC) in 2016. This led to a significant number of defections with over 50,000 Boko Haram defectors and escapees surrendering to the government by March 2023. The perceived success of this non-kinetic approach reduced emphasis on military might. The OSC scheme, however, was not the only factor responsible for the mass defection. Boko Haram’s forceful conscription model, internal dissents and the death-by-suicide of the then-leader Abubakar Shekau, also contributed to the voluntary dissociation from the group.

Victims and survivors of the conflict consider that their needs are relegated to the back burners of government-led transitional justice process. Thus, the government’s approach is criticised for allegedly being perpetrator friendly.

Despite the seeming progress in the fight against Boko Haram, it comes at a disconcerting cost to victims, survivors and the overall efficacy of transitional justice and peace building processes. Victims and survivors of the conflict consider that their needs are relegated to the back burners of government-led transitional justice process. Thus, the government’s approach is criticised for allegedly being perpetrator friendly. This criticism is based on the mediatised privileged treatment received by OSC participants who are housed, provided with livelihood skills, and undergo a deradicalisation and rehabilitation program before being ceremoniously re-integrated back into society. Victims, on the other hand, continue to allege a lack of governmental support.

Disconcertion with the TJ process across all three priority states in the Northeast–Borno, Adamawa, and Yobe—revolved around the alleged preferential treatment of former Boko Haram associates in comparison with victims and survivors. For example, in Yobe North Senatorial district where the insurgency has caused a high number of internally displaced people, the community criticizes the government’s focus on perpetrators in its post-conflict processes, expressing that these processes are detrimental to their own well-being.

This prevailing perception, exacerbated by the government’s lack of clear communication, has resulted in transitional justice taking on a derogatory outlook in Nigeria’s Northeast. According to a Borno state official, the government is not oblivious to this damaging perception around its efforts for peace. Consequently, there have been measures to ensure that in communities where Boko Haram ex-associates are reintegrated into society, there is a double ratio of livelihood support programs implemented for victims and survivors of the conflict.

A critical review of the above-described measures however reveals that transitional justice efforts remain perpetrator-driven as support accruing to victims is still largely determined by the support that perpetrators receive. It also seems tokenistic in its approach rather than holistic, balanced and synergized. In the current constellation, there seems to be a continuous trade of justice for peace. This is one of the reasons why the Borno state government signed the Social Investment Bill into law in September 2023.  The Bill was designed to enable the government to provide special support to victims of Boko Haram attacks.

Given these challenges, domesticating and incorporating the values of the 2019 African Union Transitional Justice Policy (AUTJP) in transitional justice processes could lead to sustainable peace, security and justice in Nigeria’s Northeast. Informed by African experiences, the AUTJP provides a framework for AU Member States “to develop their own context-specific policies and interventions for sustainable peace, justice, reconciliation, social cohesion, and healing. With eleven pillars rather than the traditional five pillars of TJ (Truth, Justice, Reparations, Memorialisation and Reforms), the AUTJP also includes elements on redistributive justice, peace processes, African Traditional Justice Mechanisms and diversity management. All which are very critical to the Boko Haram conflict situation.

Mainstreaming the AUTJP’s principle on Synergizing, Sequencing & Balancing could also be of real value to the context in Nigeria’s Northeast. As described here, there is a growing tension between the government’s efforts to assure peace and the victims’ need for justice. In a fragile post-conflict setting like Nigeria’s Northeast, interventions must strike a balance and compromise between peace and reconciliation on the one hand and responsibility and accountability on the other. The AUTJP provides guidelines to ensure that TJ efforts are synergized, sequenced and balanced in a way that does not reawaken tensions.

Furthermore, given the reticence towards government-led interventions and the mistrust for governmental processes, the use of African Traditional Justice Mechanisms as recommended by the AUTJP could offer real value. For example, the Sulhu-Alheri Ne TJ-themed program of the Centre for Democracy and Development in Northeast drew upon cultural and religious values of reconciliation, grace and forgiveness with some degree of success.

Effective strategic communication is also crucial for educating local populations about the significance of TJ measures. Communication efforts should acknowledge the magnitude of destruction and injustices while highlighting that government support for victims, though present, falls short. This could help victim communities grasp the aims of TJ in the Northeast and dispel misinformation about government inaction towards survivors and victims. Through strategic communication, the government should make credible promises, thereby, fostering trust in post-conflict peace processes.


This article first appeared on CDD West Africa