From Victims to Survivors: Why Borno Needs Transitional Justice for Lasting Peace and Development


By Abdulkareem Haruna

Amid the devastation wrought by the Boko Haram insurgency in Borno State, one particular widow, Inna, stands out as a symbol of the suffering endured by many. The Boko Haram  terrorist group killed her husband and three sons. She had to flee her home with her two daughters, leaving everything behind. For seven years, she lived in a displaced persons camp, struggling to make ends meet and provide for her family.

Recently, the state government ordered the closure of all the IDP camps in Borno, and all inmates were to be returned to their respective liberated communities. But Inna cannot go back home because she has nothing left there. 

“I’ve asked about our home in Doro, and those who visited said our house has been reduced to rubble. So where will I start from, and with whom am I going back to live after the killing of my husband and my two sons,” she said with eyes filled with tears. 

Inna said she was forced to witness the gruesome beheading of one of her sons after her husband was shot dead. Her two daughters, who later found ways to join her, have now been married. 

For Inna and countless others like her, some with even more heartbreaking stories of horror to tell, nothing can recompense their grieves. But the idea of Transitional Justice offers a glimmer of hope. 

Aja Kaye’s life changed forever after he lost one of his toes to military brutality. If it were not for this incident, he would likely have all his toes intact. However, the loss of his little toe was just a phase in the  series of tragedies that would befall him.

Aja, a resident of Jinaba a village in Dikwa local government had, in a report published by HumAngle, Nigeria’s fastest growing investigative online, that he was caught up in the Boko Haram insurgency that erupted in 2009. The conflict shattered thousands of households and destroyed millions of lives, leaving behind a trail of death and destruction. Aja’s brother, Ali Mallam, was killed in the violence, and his two wives and 16 children were taken by the terrorists and are now beyond his reach.

The insurgency forced Aja and his family to flee their home, leaving behind everything they knew and loved. They became internally displaced, struggling to survive in a new and unfamiliar environment. Aja’s life had been turned upside down, and he had to learn to cope with the pain of his missing toe, the loss of his brother in the torture cell of the military where he was detained as suspect for many years , and the separation from his family who he has not seen again.

Despite the challenges he faced, Aja remained resilient and determined to rebuild his life. However, his struggle was compounded by the fact that he was unable to access proper medical care for his injured foot. He was forced to rely on traditional remedies, which provided little relief.

The loss of his toe was a constant reminder of the brutality he had experienced at the hands of the military, and it fueled his determination to seek justice. Aja joined a group of other victims of military brutality, seeking redress for the harm that had been inflicted upon them. They demanded accountability from the authorities and pushed for reforms that would prevent such incidents from happening again.

For Aja and many others like him, the Boko Haram insurgency and the military’s response to it have left a deep and lasting impact. However, despite the challenges they face, they continue to fight for justice and rebuild their lives, one day at a time.  

Displaced women and children mostly widowed and orphanned by the Boko Haram crisis

The over 13 years old insurgency has left many victims of the hostilities from actors on both side of the conflict. At a point, the state actors were as guilty as the aggressor in the ways and manner they victimized the civilian populations. 

The voices that are loudly or silently crying for justice are much more than the number  one could ordinarily imagine. The conventional courts, especially the ones operating in Nigeria can never provide the justices that everyone survivor of the conflict desevea. 

That is why the concept of traditional justice systems comes to play.

Transitional Justice is a set of judicial and non-judicial measures that aim to redress the legacies of human rights abuses, including conflict-related abuses. It seeks to promote reconciliation, provide reparations to victims, and ensure accountability for perpetrators. 

Transitional Justice has recently received greater attention from both academics and policymakers. It has also generated interest in the fields of political and legal discourse. In periods of political transitions, from authoritarian, dictatorial regimes or civil conflicts to democracy, transitional Justice has often provided opportunities for such societies to address past human rights abuses, mass atrocities, or other forms of severe trauma to facilitate a smooth transition into a more democratic or peaceful future.

It was for this reason that the consortium of nongovernmental organisations – Basic Rights Watch, We The People, Young Professionals in Policy and Development and Institute for Peace and Conflict Resolution – is calling on the Borno State government to consider implementing a robust Transitional Justice mechanism as a pathway to sustainable peace and development in the post-insurgency era.

One of the critical elements of Transitional Justice is the need to ensure that victims’ voices are heard, and their rights are respected. 

For the widows and survivors like Inna and Aja, this means having access to justice and seeking redress for the harm tbey and her families have suffered. It also means having a say in the decisions that affect her community’s future. 

The Chief Judge of Borno state, Justice Kashim Zannah, had in a recent interview with journalists agreed that transitional justice is one of the options that the Borno state judiciary have indicated readiness to explore going forward in order to provide sustainable healing to all that feel aggrieved one way or the other due to the conflict. 

“The state government is working on that in collaboration with some international organizations,” he said. 

“It is an ongoing project and wherever we think our input will be useful, we come in because we are part of the government. It is for now, not directly under the purview of the CJ. So I may have limited knowledge on how far it has gone, because I have so many things to attend to, but I’m sure that something good will come out of it.” 

The consortium of civil society has , during the one-year programme on advocacy and awareness creation on transitional justice in Borno state, interfaced with various critical community stakeholders who largely agreed that only through transitions justice can the need to address the root causes of conflict and promotion of social cohesion be achieved. 

Various stakeholders want a process that will involve creating opportunities for dialogue and reconciliation, as well as addressing issues of inequality, discrimination, and marginalization. 

For the victim and survivors, this means having the opportunity to rebuild their lives and communities in a way that is equitable and sustainable.

The Consortium’s call for a Transitional Justice mechanism in Borno State is timely and necessary. As the insurgency winds down, the state must take steps to ensure that the legacies of violence and abuse are not perpetuated. A robust Transitional Justice mechanism can provide a framework for addressing these issues and promoting lasting peace and development.

The Borno State government must heed the call of the consortium and prioritize the implementation of a Transitional Justice mechanism. This will not only provide redress for victims of the insurgency but also promote social cohesion and ensure a sustainable pathway to peace and development in the state. 

Interestingly, the consortium has developed a set of achievable recommendations from the series of dialogue and discussions, as well as suggestions made by stakeholders during the series of statements and workshops facilitated by the consortium. 

Top among the recommendations was the call to the Borno State government to “as a matter of urgency set up a truth commission with the responsibility of truth-telling, communal healing, accountability and restorative justice for communities and victims as a result of the insurgency and counterinsurgency in Borno state to document patterns of human rights violations and investigate incidents of misconducts.  

It is also recommended that the state “Provide a safe and supportive environment for victims of the BH insurgency to ventilate grievances of violations they have suffered and gain some satisfaction.” This is vital because continued disregard for the inner sufferings of victims can only deepen the quest for vengeance and acrimonious society. 

And that “Children, women, and youths are most vulnerable to and affected by conflicts, including as direct targets of violence through killings, acts of mutilation or torture, abductions, recruitment as well as sexual violence,” therefore “All transitional processes, including peace and justice processes, should take account of the disproportionate impact of violence on children and youth (including deprivation of socio-economic rights such as food, health, and schooling) and make adequate provision for children as victims, irrespective of their roles, in accordance with the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the child.”

Austin Ekwujuru, the CEO of Basic Rights Watch, has acknowledged “the concerted efforts of the government to tackle insurgency, especially in Borno state, is yielding the desired results as noted in the de-escalation of violence.” 

Human rights violations that trailed the operations of the insurgents and the counterinsurgency made the young people to be targets of harassment, torture, and brutality. 

Adam, an innocent young man who according to the military, fit the profile of a typical Boko Haram fighter, has been released from the Borno State Maximum Security Custodial Centre after being detained for several years. His release comes after a long battle between his family and human rights activists for his freedom.

Adam’s troubles began when he was picked up by Nigerian soldiers several years ago and taken to the notorious Giwa barracks. For years, his family had no idea whether he was alive or dead until they received word that he was admitted to the University of Maiduguri Teaching Hospital in May 2019.

Adam’s health deteriorated while in detention, and according to his family, the prison authorities did not provide him with proper medical treatment or care for his essential needs. 

According to a HumAngle report, over 70 young men, like Adam, were held in cells at Giwa barracks. Adam himself was only 19 years old at the time of his arrest. He spent several years in detention before finally being released. He was never a Boko Haram sympathizer. 

Adam’s case highlights the plight of many young men who have been swept up in Nigeria’s fight against Boko Haram. Human rights activists say that many of these young mdetained in detention for years without trial or access to legal representation. Adam’s release is seen as a small victory in the struggle for justice for those unfairly detained. But Adam has been permanently jaundiced – he is now a shadow of his former self because he has been deflated by many things that define him as a man. 

The justice that victims like Inna, Aja, and Adam need may not necessarily be about retribution – an ordinary show of genuine remorse or assurance of a secure future from the government can do the magic.  

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