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Zulum got it wrong on ‘repentant’ terrorists

By Editorial Board
24 February 2022   |   3:55 am
The recent statement by Governor Babangana Zulum of Borno State, claiming that 90 per cent of repentant Boko Haram terrorists are genuine, might have emanated from moral naivety.


The recent statement by Governor Babangana Zulum of Borno State, claiming that 90 per cent of repentant Boko Haram terrorists are genuine, might have emanated from moral naivety. Notwithstanding the good intention of the governor and his conviction about the genuineness of the purportedly repented terrorists, his assumption is tactless and too simplistic. It is very worrisome to admit what the governor contemplates and wishes to sacrifice for the sake of unsettled peace in Borno State and the North East in general.

Zulum, who was fielding questions from journalists at an event in Abuja, was quoted to have reiterated his earlier conviction about the turn-around of some terrorists. “While no process is perfect in the entire world, so far, so good; the process has yielded positive results,” Zulum said. “I believe that over 90 per cent of those that have surrendered are doing well and have given the government the necessary support. They are also calling their colleagues in the bush to come out and join the process of peace-building.”

The governor also reinforced this position by appealing that terrorists would not be encouraged to eschew violence if they see ‘repentant’ ones being prosecuted. He argues: “Prosecuting all the criminals (insurgents) would have been most appropriate, but if we insist on it we would discourage others out there that are willing to lay down their arms.” Therefore, “the terrorists’ ranks could swell and our innocent fellow citizens, particularly those in local government areas, could become more vulnerable to attacks and abductions.”

No doubt, Zulum means well for his people. Judging by his antecedents, his proactive disposition and sacrifices, including risks to his personal safety and comfort, it is evident that Zulum is a compassionate, fatherly and morally conscious administrator that wants peace to reign. This is very commendable for it builds trust, restores confidence, and encourages conviviality, all of which leads to development and progress. It is towards achieving this end that Zulum’s enviable qualities are oriented. However, when he claimed that 90 per cent of repentant Boko Haram members are genuine, the governor seemed to have extended this paternalism too far. By alleging that repentant Boko Haram members were genuine in their penitence did Zulum want them forgiven? If that was his supposition, then he was wrong on many grounds.

First, his claim suggests that he was careless with, and took too lightly, his utterance on the mathematics of ‘repentant’ Boko Haram members. How did he know that 90 per cent or more than 90 per cent are genuine? What did he mean when he stated that they had repented? Was it just by laying down arms? Given the ideological complexity in radicalising terrorists, how sure can one be of the genuineness of the ‘repentant’ Boko Haram members?  What kind of profiling, de-radicalisation, psychological screening, psycho-trauma competence-based exercise took place to arrive at the number he volunteered to the press?

Considering the politics around terrorism and repentance, it is not clear whether the terrorists are being encouraged to ‘repent’, in which case amnesty is foisted on them; or they are ‘repenting’ of their own will.  Whatever may be the case there is need for all well-meaning Nigerians to understand the intricacies involved in amnesty and repentance. Whereas in amnesty some authority makes the overture to forgive based on pre-established moral conditions, in repentance a wrong-doer apologises by showing remorse through expression of guilt, culpability and resignation from the act, as well as a deliberate attempt to desist from the wrong-doing.

Moral philosopher, Christopher Bennett, reflecting on South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, captures the essence of repentance when he writes: “Apology is important because, when sincere, it represents a change of heart on the part of the wrongdoer. It means that the person apologising has made some moral progress, moving from the position of simply, or perhaps defiantly, thinking that they were perfectly entitled to act as they did, to seeing that other people’s interests matter. They are moving towards being someone with whom the victim can resume a relationship.”

That does not seem to be the case of our ‘repentant’ Boko Haram terrorists and their communities. And this is where Zulum’s appraisal of the repentant terrorist is somewhat insensitive because it treats lightly the question of justice. Whilst it considers peace for the state, it glosses over the psychosocial state of victims of terrorists’ acts, who will not only mingle with their perpetrators, but also defer to some of them should the repentant terrorists be given superintending positions in their communities. He harps on the penitent terrorists “doing well and have given the government the necessary support,” but relays nothing about reconciliation, which if absent, will be inimical to peace. Some of the questions to ask here are: Do the people want the repentant terrorists in their midst? Does the government of Borno State consider the possibility of envisaged hostilities between communities and the repentant terrorists?

Zulum might have been a mind reader when he spoke on behalf of terrorists. A sincere apology cannot be done on behalf of repentant terrorists by Zulum. The terrorists must make that sincere apology themselves and must back words with actions. Such actions come through making amends or atoning for the material, emotional and moral damage they have caused. Whilst it does not guarantee that the terrorists are reformed, making amends disposes them to feel genuinely sorry for actions done; it enables the wrong-doer to see that the wrong done should not have occurred, and wishing he can undo it. It is an indicator of sincerity.

Furthermore, as this paper has authoritatively stated, the prerogative to ascertain the repentance or otherwise of terrorists does not rest on the executive. That terrorists have repented and deserving of rehabilitation and consequently re-integration into the community does not rest on administrative fiat of the governor. The process between ‘repentance’ of terrorists and their fitness for society is a long, painstaking and engaging one that involves a chain of competent authorities and experts, until a state certified authority makes a pronouncement, usually a judicial authority. This process should neither be hurried nor politicised.

Granted that a good number of the repentant terrorists have genuinely done so, that itself is not a sufficient condition for their rehabilitation and re-integration into the community. There is a need for some atonement through punishment after proper and diligent prosecution. This paper is convinced that punishment is the most potent form of making amends, and that is why it is essential to reconciliation. True reconciliation (between terrorists and the rest of the community) which fosters proper integration into the community comes when the terrorist who has repented expresses his repentance through some form of atonement that brings balance to the moral order. This order is only guaranteed through justice.

Barring Zulum’s moral scruples, it is instructive to state that repentance does foreclose the expiration of criminality. Whilst it suggests genuine turn-around from wrong doing, sin, criminal acts or whatever the transgression may be, repentance acknowledges this moral imbalance as a condition that must be atoned for through justice. Our society is more than an aggregation of interests; it demands more than peaceful living. It also requires justice.