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Keeping Former Fighters Tame Chancy

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, upon his arrival in Maiduguri, Nigeria,, May 3, 2022. Guterres said the reintegration of extremist rebels who have defected from the jihadi Boko Haram group is "the best thing we can do for peace."

As conflict-prone regions in Africa try rehabilitation and reintegration programs to reform ex-militants back into society, analysts say stigmatization and shame that returnees face could lead them to return to their extremist groups for acceptance.

In recent times, some West African states such as Nigeria and Niger have resorted to programs with the sole aim of turning violent extremists into peaceful, productive citizens.

Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation, after more than a decade of killings and bombings by insurgent groups such as Boko Haram and its offshoot, the Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP), is giving the rehabilitation route a try.

University of Maiduguri professor Khalifa Dikwa tells VOA that ''these (ex-militants) are victims of insurgency and they need to first settle down, begin to forget the past and pick up pieces of their lives.”

Dikwa stresses that these programs must be carried out with caution along with compassion.

''These victims were made to kill their relatives,” he said. “Some killed their own parents and uncles (while) under heavy drugs, and so it is okay to keep them somewhere else and not rush the concept of reintegration'', he says.

Paul Ejime, a Nigerian-born international affairs analyst, tells VOA that the depth, quality and length of such de-radicalization programs need an overhaul if the overall goal of rehabilitation is to be achieved. He cites religious extremism, poverty, economic problems and social rejection as some key drivers that force ex-militants to pick the gun again after years of insurgency.

''When (ex-combatants) are not properly demobilized, put into a frame of mind for re-integration, it is always a problem because it is like an addiction. As the saying goes, an idle mind is the devil's workshop, and so when they're not doing anything they're forced to return to their old ways'', he says.

The London-based analyst however adds ''I believe that they have good in themselves because after all those with medical issues enter rehabilitation centers and many get better.''

Africa Center for Strategic Studies' analyst Temi Ibirogba tells VOA that ''reshaping public opinion'' on the meaning of a re-educated or re-integrated insurgent in countries like Nigeria or Niger is critical.

''Public education should focus on reconciliation between these returnees and their communities to help their reintegration into society," she said, adding "Because this reconciliation aspect is not focused on enough in the reintegration process, these rehab programs have not been delivering the desired results'', she says.

''Communities tend to feel it is unfair that these programs are offering religious re-education, psychological and social support," she added, "as well as vocational training to former militants instead of offering these services to the victims of extremist violence.

This resentment "Further deepens the isolation these ex-fighters feel from their communities'', she notes.

Ibirogba adds that ''affected communities should have a reconciliation process that recognizes the concerns and opinions of victims so that they feel heard.''