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ISS TODAY: ANALYSIS

Transitional justice can give victims a voice in Lake Chad Basin

Nigerian troops clear a Boko Haram militant camp in northeast Nigeria. (Photo: EPA/STR)

Many communities already practise some form of transitional justice to help recover from more than a decade of violence. 

First published by ISS Today

Transitional justice is a tried and tested approach to rebuilding post-conflict societies. Its application in places affected by violent extremism, such as Lake Chad Basin (LCB), presents challenges and opportunities which deserve attention from those working to stabilise the region. 

After more than a decade of battling Boko Haram’s factions in the four countries that make up the LCB – Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria – the human cost of the war is immeasurable. Strategies to end the violence must help victims deal with its devastating impact. 

Sustainable peace requires putting community needs first – and among these needs are truth-seeking and accountability for past and ongoing violations. Reparations for these crimes should also be an integral part of rehabilitating societies after violent conflict. These are the building blocks of transitional justice.

The LCB is not yet a post-crisis setting, due to the ongoing violent extremist insurgency. But that shouldn’t stop national and regional actors from considering complementary strategies that cater to the scale and magnitude of human rights abuses. Transitional justice is not only victim-centric but addresses the root causes that led to the emergence of violent extremism in the region.

New research by the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) assessed stakeholders’ attitudes towards transitional justice in the LCB. It found varying levels of understanding in the four countries about the approach’s scope, application, and possible outcomes. 

Some community members conflate it with disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration. Others misconceive it as a way to reintegrate former Boko Haram members that allows them to evade criminal sanctions for their atrocities. Reintegration and reconciliation are both needed for peace, but victim-centric remedies are crucial in getting transitional justice right.

How such justice mechanisms are used in the LCB will depend on the nature and urgency of the conflict. Communities across all four countries experience varying forms and frequencies of attacks that require different transitional justice tools. 

Some already practise transitional justice in the form of traditional conflict resolution. In Cameroon, for example, certain religious adherents ask ex-combatants to take an oath of non-recidivism as part of the social reintegration process. 

For these religious and traditional leaders, reintegration approaches are inspired by local traditions that are believed to establish trust and peace between offenders and victims. These practices are interwoven with customs and history, and their organic links to communities are seen as timely, authentic and a cost-effective way of applying justice.

In Chad, the amnesty law of November 2021 was applied to free nearly 300 people sentenced for offences including “crimes of opinion”, “terrorism” and “harming the state’s integrity”. This presents an opportunity for Chadians to envision a political climate that is favourable to reconciliation and transitional justice. This would have to be approached carefully, however, considering that proper inclusive dialogue is still a long way off. 

In Niger, peace agreements signed between traditional leaders in 2019 to prevent community conflicts in Diffa constitute alternative dispute mechanisms and are a form of transitional justice. In Nigeria, local organisations have rolled out initiatives centred on religious doctrines such as sulhu to restore and sustain peace in communities devastated by the insurgency. Sulhu is derived from the Qur’an and is used to train Islamic clerics to promote repentance and forgiveness. 

Although these approaches are often framed as counter-narratives to violent extremism, they represent local conflict resolution processes that can contribute to transitional justice. So, in practice, the concept of transitional justice isn’t new in the LCB. It would, however, be helpful to have more coherent and consolidated strategies for the region. And a balance between restorative and retributive justice would need to be found. 

If well implemented, a transitional justice framework can help establish the rule of law while identifying victims and affording them justice for harms suffered. Determining the right balance between restorative, retributive, rehabilitative or reparative justice will depend on the country’s conflict dynamics.  

While piecemeal initiatives have been carried out, a more concerted effort is needed to raise awareness of the utility and challenges of transitional justice in the region. The first step is inclusive, community-centred consultations that involve women and youth. Ongoing dialogue informed by traditional and faith-based institutions would enhance the authenticity of the process. 

A society-wide campaign to inform people about transitional justice is also needed in the LCB. Justice ministries should lead this in affected countries in collaboration with government departments responsible for humanitarian affairs, information, women and youth. The media, civil society organisations, traditional and religious institutions and women and youth groups should be involved.

In line with the Regional Stabilisation Strategy of the Lake Chad Basin Commission, transitional justice mechanisms should be created at the national and regional levels. They could be guided by the African Union’s Transitional Justice Policy and good practices from the continent and the global community. DM

Akinola Olojo is a senior researcher at the ISS regional office for West Africa, the Sahel and the Lake Chad Basin. Maram Mahdi is a research officer at the executive director’s office of the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) in Pretoria

This article is published with funding from the US Mission to the African Union.

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