Nigeria: Untold Story of Boko Haram Trial in Niger

18 February 2018

Ibrahim Usman, 25, stood glued to the spot gazing at the floor after a Federal High Court at the Wawa Cantonment of the Nigerian Army in Kainji, New Bussa, Niger State, freed him of charges of belonging to the Boko Haram sect.

Usman, who claims he escaped with his family members after months of captivity by the Boko Haram sect in Borno State in 2014, finally thanked the court after the clerk drew him back to the present.

The Nasarawa State-born farmer's reaction reflected the mood of several persons who would soon be reintegrated into society after being either discharged or awarded lesser sentences in federal government's fast track trial for suspected Boko Haram members.

The cantonment, set in a serene location on the outskirts of the town with the detention facility in an expansive compound with high walls, appears to be a perfect place for a person emerging from such a major crisis to cool off and reflect.

The facility, which was set up in 2012, has been described by a judge as one of the best detention centres in the country for its good feeding, decent cell rooms and medical centre.

Despite its ambience and serenity, the facility has done little to change the utter despair of the inmates. They are in a dilemma over an uncertain future: they face stigma by their communities when they are eventually released or death at the hands of the terrorists.

The entire vicinity is filled with scenes of indignation, emotions and some hope. Added to this is that most of the inmates lost contact with relatives in the transit between being held by either the Civilian Joint Taskforce (CJTF), the Nigeria police, the Department of State Services (DSS) or the Nigerian Army. However, this gap is expected to be filled by the comprehensive de-radicalisation, rehabilitation and reintegration programme in the office of the National Security Adviser (NSA). Presently, there is a skills acquisition centre in Gombe for the programme.

The trial is aimed at giving the inmates fair hearing and an opportunity for rehabilitation having spent some years in detention.

As a result, the federal government's window allowing suspects to plead guilty to secure lesser jail terms or unconditional release was utilised during the trial. Many of the suspects embraced it and their sentences were reduced taking into consideration the years already spent in detention.

Despite this disposition, some of the suspects remained adamant that they will return to the violent sect upon release. Among them, Abba Umar, sentenced to a 60-year jail term and Yusuf Mohammed, sentenced to 50 years jail term, openly boasted about this to the court. The court said Abba Umar, 22, is a product of excessive religious indoctrination.

Umar, who was arrested in 2014, after his bomb-laden Nissan car which he rammed into the Government Secondary School, Gombe, failed to detonate, told the court that he will only obey the leaders of the sect, Abu Mohammed, Ibn Muhammed and the leader in Nigeria, Al-Shekawi.

He said the group, Jama'atu ahli sunna li da'awatu wa Jihad, will continue to fight until the Boko Haram leader, Abubakar Shekau, is installed the president of Nigeria as the group does not recognise President Muhammadu Buhari.

"My occupation is Islamic warrior and commander in the Islamic Army. There are several warriors and lieutenants under me," he said.

Yusuf Mohammed, who was with the founder of the sect, Mohammed Yusuf, from the beginning before he was killed and witnessed the bloody crisis that erupted, stated, "if I happen to go out, I will still go and join the Boko Haram group and make sure I attack until people change and follow the religion and the sect."

There were those who were sober over the allegation against them. Among them, Mohammed Modu Gana, 80, who cried like a baby despite the fact that he was one of the oldest people in the facility. There were also Tijani Mele, 70, and Ahmad Mustapha, 42, both appeared sober. The court ordered that Mustapha, who suffered stroke in detention, be given adequate medical attention and rehabilitation.

Similarly, Mohammed Usman of Birnin Yero, Igabi in Kaduna State, could not control his emotions after he was discharged of allegations of receiving funds from a member of the Boko Haram sect, Alhaji Abdullahi, for the supply of groundnuts and maize to the group.

There are about 11 women at the detention facility, most of them lured into the sect's den by their husbands or relatives.

Maimuna Umar, 30, a mother of seven, admitted visiting Sambisa forest when her late husband's friend, a member of the sect, deceived her to follow him to her husband's family home. Security agencies identified the man's phone calls in her handset at a checkpoint in Mubi, Adamawa State, when she was returning from a ceremony in July 2014. She was sentenced to six years imprisonment for failing to report activities of the sect to the authorities.

Smart and quick-witted Hafsat Usman, 23, whose husband initiated her into the Boko Haram sect, was sentenced to five years imprisonment for the purpose of rehabilitation and to prevent her re-joining her brother, who is still fighting for the group.

There were about 40 under-aged persons charged with different offences bordering on terrorism. However, the federal government prosecutors adopted a policy to withdraw the charges to enable the court strike them out. The court regularly orders the minors to be sent for two to three years de-radicalisation and rehabilitation programme.

Abbas John Ajuji and Emmanuel Yakubu, said their membership of the sect was not voluntary. But the court sentenced the former to seven years imprisonment for belonging to the Boko Haram sect while the latter, a physically challenged person, bagged six years for working as an armourer for the sect.

Other interesting cases at the facility include: Sunday Abana, 37, who was jailed 60 years after he confessed to being a trained killer for the Boko Haram sect. The prosecution withdrew charges against Ikechukwu Zaiwaza Umar and Prince Bassey Otu, a psychiatric patient with the army clinic in the facility, who was handed over by church security operatives in Nasarawa State, after he was found loitering around in a Boys' Scout uniform during service in September 2014.

Bassey would not take his medication or interact with any other inmate except Mohammed Auwal Yusuf, a Sociology graduate and father of five. Yusuf, who was working as a car salesman at a company in Jos, Plateau State, sold a car to Boko Haram suicide bombers after they posed as genuine transport operators. The vehicle exploded in a botched suicide attack same day in Jos and investigators traced the car to his shop.

Army authorities said 95 suspects manifested psychiatric conditions similar to Bassey's when they were brought to the detention centre. But after treatment, the figure is now down to 45.

The programme was rounded off on Friday, February 16, with the release of 475 suspects whom the prosecution had no evidence against. Over 170 suspects were convicted during the five days trial.

In a statement at the start of the exercise on February 11, Othman Salhiu Isah, the spokesman of the Attorney General of the Federation (AGF) and Minister for Justice, Abubakar Malami, said there were1669 suspects detained at the facility.

In his assessment of the programme, the Director of Legal at the Defence Headquarters, Abuja, Air Vice Marshal Ibrahim Shafi'I, highlighted the milestone achieved by the fast-track prosecutions in terrorism fight, which he said has not happened in any other high profile detention facility in the world.

He stressed that the Nigerian military will continue to respect the human rights of citizens in its bid to secure the country.

But the First Vice President of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Caleb Dajan, faulted the mass arraignments. He said the association will be recommending immediate trial of any person arrested for such offences "rather than wait for many years to try them in one place."

"From my own observation, the trials have been fair," said Abdulrahman Yakubu, the Director of Protection and Investigation of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC).

"But if you look at other issues of concern, they have to do with the relationship between the suspects and their lawyers.

"There are other areas but I think another issue is providing the suspects with interpreters. The court has been doing so; the defendants have access to interpreters who interpret in the language that they understand. So that is a plus to the process".

To further improve the process in the future, Yakubu also suggested that prosecution lawyers go through the charges very well before bringing them before the court to reduce the many defects observed during the exercise. He suggested that more time be given to the defence lawyers, who are of the Legal Aid Council (LAC) to study the case files very well.

Tunde Ikusagba, the Director Criminal Justice of LAC, who is heading a team of 39 defence lawyers on pro bono representation for the suspects, commended the speed and commitment shown in the handling of the cases by all those involved.

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