More than 850 former fighters of the Jamā’at Ahl as-Sunnah lid-Da’way Wa’l-Jihād (JAS), commonly referred to as Boko Haram, returned from northern Cameroon to Nigeria on Saturday, September 18.
The ex-combatants and their families had left the JAS after the death of their long-time leader, Abubakar Shekau, on May 19, and had sought refuge in Cameroon.
Shekau was killed in a clash with the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP). During the attack Shekau reportedly detonated his suicide vest, killing himself and others instantly.
The lack of leadership had resulted in thousands of former insurgents, many from Borno State in northeastern Nigeria, surrendering themselves to the military. Most of the ex-combatants had escaped from the Sambisa Forest, a JAS stronghold on the Cameroon-Nigeria border. They told authorities that there were several hundred more fighters who wanted to escape and to surrender.
Those who had surrendered in Cameroon had been cared for in the National Committee for Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration Centres (DDRs) in Meri and Meme, towns on the border with Nigeria.
Nigerian authorities said the former militants would be taken to disarmament centres in the country to be rehabilitated and later reintegrated into their communities.
Similar centres in Cameroon had been overwhelmed by the large numbers of defecting insurgents. It was expected that there would be more repatriations of surrendered extremists in the coming months when the rainy season was over.
On Saturday, 20 buses carrying 855 refugee ex-combatants and their families left Mora, a town on Cameroon’s northern border, for Banki in Nigeria’s Borno State.
Borno State governor Babagana Umara Zulum sent a delegation to Cameroon to accompany the former insurgents going home. Authorities said the return of the ex-fighters was voluntary. They would be kept in rehabilitation centres in Banki and, ideally, would later be reintegrated into society, even though many community members had doubts about whether former combatants could be truly rehabilitated and had expressed concern about living with the very people who had killed, kidnapped, abducted and raped them.
This was not the first time that Cameroon had returned former JAS combatants to their country of origin. Last August, 82 former members of Nigerian and Chadian origin, with their families, had surrendered to the Cameroonian authorities.
The JAS started carrying out large-scale acts of violence in Nigeria – mostly in the northeast – in 2009. More recently their campaign of terror had spilt over to the other countries in the Lake Chad Basin, Chad, Niger and Cameroon.
Between 2015 and 2020, the extremist group carried out nearly 160 suicide attacks in Cameroon, killing 467 and injuring 672.
The mass defections started when Shekau died. With his death, the JAS had weakened, due to internal conflicts within the group. Thousands had already surrendered themselves to the Nigerian military.
There were still many former militants in Cameroon who were being kept in demobilisation centres on the northern border with Nigeria and Chad and included Nigerians, Cameroonians and Chadians. It was not known when they would be repatriated.
The defections had not put an end to attacks by the group, mostly in northeast Nigeria but also in the other countries in the Lake Chad Basin.
Three people were killed on September 15 in Moutsikar not far from Mandoussa in northern Cameroon.