The Nigerian government's efforts to reintegrate former Boko Haram militants has seen hundreds of fighters go through rehabilitation. But it also gets pushback from the conflict's victims, who want the militants to be held accountable. At a conference in the capital, women from the conflict-affected areas are getting support to head up reconciliation between the former terrorists and their communities.
Some 45 women from Nigeria's northeastern states of Borno, Adamawa and Yobe file in for a two-day conference in Abuja.
They're here to discuss a sensitive subject - the reconciliation and reintegration of ex-Boko Haram fighters into their communities.
The conference is a joint initiative by the non-profit Center for Humanitarian Dialogue in Switzerland, U.N. Women and the International Organization for Migration (IOM). It’s designed to promote women-led community peacekeeping in the northeast, said Millicent Lewis-Ojumu, director at Center for Humanitarian Dialogue.
"We know and from experience have seen that when the women are involved in the conversations, peace building, in helping to resolve issues relating to how to reintegrate and rehabilitate former combatants or person's associated with Boko Haram, that they are very effective," said Lewis-Ojumu.
Since launching the safe exit program, “Operation Safe Corridor” for repentant fighters in 2016, authorities say the program has met with resistance from host communities.
The scheme was launched as part of a growing awareness for the use of amnesty to persuade terrorists to lay down their guns. Nearly 1,000 ex-fighters have been rehabilitated under the government's program.
But very few are successfully living in communities. Most of them eventually rejoin Boko Haram due to rejection.
Hamzatu Alamin is one of the participants at the conference. She started talking about reconciliation 10 years ago when her community was hit hard and young men were coerced into joining Boko Haram.
But she said her efforts attracted some unwanted attention.
"You can be arrested by state actors and accused of being an accomplice. And secondly, the boys (Boko Haram), if you make a mistake, you can be their target,” she said.
Women like Alamin here said they hope to improve their community's acceptance of former jihadists after the conference.
But attending the conference along with other women also lifts the burden of being negatively labeled with terrorists.
"I have been communicating with them. I am now able to say it freely because I know that even the government is communicating with them. The government and security forces are using many of the boys I communicate with as outlets to get the people they're rehabilitating,” she said.
Maria Quintero, program manager at IOM Nigeria, said women also need socioeconomic stability if the program is to succeed.
"The Nigerian women are very strong. What we have found as well is that they're very influential in the decision of the males. Women have a role to play especially when it comes to males coming back to the communities,” said Quintero.
More than 35,000 people have been killed and millions displaced since the start of the Boko Haram insurgency in 2009. Boko Haram, which opposes Western education, has frequently targeted schools.
By Timothy Obiezu