The federal government, last week, succumbed to pressure by setting up the Amnesty Committee on Boko Haram, despite opposition to the idea in some quarters. But that may not be all that is required to effectively contain the menace posed by the sect, write Olawale Olaleye and Anayo Okolie
The debate on whether or not to grant amnesty to members of the Boko Haram sect and other sister terrorist groups, has raged on for some time. It is also a volatile one that has almost pitted the north against the south because of their different stances. The amnesty campaign for the Islamic militants however gathered steam when the Sultan of Sokoto, Alhaji Sa’ad Abubakar III, called on President Goodluck Jonathan, just about when he was to visit Borno and Yobe States, to embrace the initiative in the interest of peace.
Jonathan seized the occasion of his visits to the two states wracked by terror attacks, to respond to the call. But he declined the request for amnesty for Boko Haram when he met with stakeholders during the visits. As far as the president was concerned, the sect members remained faceless and as such, would not extend such gesture to ghosts. He also dismissed comparison between members of the sect and the Niger Delta militants that were granted amnesty by the late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua. He said this much in Yobe.
“You cannot declare amnesty for a ghost. The Boko Haram remains a ghost. The issue of amnesty for the Niger Delta is different. If you can call them, then, you will see them; they are people you know. But no one has come out openly to say he was Boko Haram. You cannot discuss the issue of amnesty with Boko Haram; you must first know who we are discussing with,” he said.
A similar meeting in Borno almost ended on a sour note as the president disagreed with the submissions of Borno elders, especially on the issue of troop deployment in the state.
Hear him: “I am not comfortable with the way you spoke; the conclusion from the speakers is that there are so many bunkers in Borno or Maiduguri. I am not impressed with the way some spoke especially on the issue of bunkers. Who made this? No one would be interested in building this and bringing soldiers to Maiduguri. Do you think the federal government is comfortable paying the allowances of keeping them (soldiers) here?
“From what I gathered from the governor of Yobe during my visit, the situation is calming down; it is calming down in Adamawa, in Gombe, in Bauchi and in Niger but in Borno, we still have some problems. So, if you elders will not condemn it, you will continue to suffer under the terror of Boko Haram because without peace, we cannot develop Borno.”
Although, Jonathan’s position did not completely foreclose amnesty, it gave such conditions that were interpreted variously, especially by the opposition which is amenable to the idea of amnesty for Boko Haram.
But it didn’t take long to assess the success or otherwise of the presidential visit. Barely two hours after Jonathan left town, the states returned to “normalcy” as sound of bombs and bullets rent the air. The insurgents had simply registered their displeasure with the government and then, the debate continued.
Jonathan, last week, had a rethink on the issue and mulled the idea of amnesty for Boko Haram. As a prelude to amnesty for the Islamic militants, the president set up a committee which included the National Security Adviser (NSA), Col. Sambo Dasuki, Chief of Defence Staff, Admiral Ola Sa'ad Ibrahim, and a representative of the State Security Service (SSS), among others. The committee is to consider the feasibility of granting clemency to the group.
The committee was the fallout of a series of consultations the president has had with stakeholders on the issue. The first leg of the consultation, however, started last Wednesday when Jonathan met with some northern leaders under the aegis of Northern Elders Forum (NEF) at the State House, Abuja. A follow-up to this was the meeting with NSC, which discussed the activities of the Islamic terror group and how to end the siege on the nation.
Apart from recommending the feasibility of granting amnesty to Boko Haram, the committee is to also work out the modalities to be adopted if the federal government eventually decides to do so. In addition, the committee would also work closely with the office of the NSA and submits its report to the president when the council meets again within the next two weeks.
The terms of reference of the committee include: to consider the feasibility or otherwise of granting amnesty to the Boko Haram adherents; to collate the clamour arising from different interest groups who want the federal government to administer clemency on members of the religious sect; and to recommend the modalities for granting the amnesty, if necessary.
A Challenge to Buhari
There is no doubting the fact that the federal government takes the issue of insecurity in the country seriously. This explains why it is touchy about every comment that is thereto related. While the idea of amnesty committee was in the offing, the presidency, last Tuesday, challenged a former head of state and candidate of the Congress for Progressive Change (CPC) in the 2011 presidential election, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (rtd), to take a cue from the president and lead discussions with Boko Haram in his capacity as a prominent Northern elder.
The presidency's challenge was not the first one for Buhari. Last year, a faction of the Islamic sect had nominated him to hold peace talks with the federal government on its behalf. But Buhari, apparently reacting to the groundswell of negative public opinion, especially the misinterpretation that followed, rejected the offer.
However, in the light of a recent criticism by Buhari that the federal government should be held responsible for any breakdown of law and order in the country, Senior Special Assistant to the President on Public Affairs, Dr. Doyin Okupe, urged the CPC leader to emulate Jonathan who went into the creeks of the Niger Delta with other eminent citizens from the area to appeal to the Niger Delta militants to embrace dialogue as a way of resolving their grievances against the state.
“Nigerians should ask him that as a former head of state and as someone who wants to be president again, what has he done to end this insurgency in the country? Or is it when he becomes president that he will stop the insurgency? No, it does not work that way. He should emulate President Jonathan who went to the creeks of the Niger Delta canvassing for peace and dialogue with the militants of the Niger Delta.
“Everybody knows that it was General Buhari who vowed to make Nigeria ungovernable for President Jonathan if he lost the last presidential election. It was in Minna where he said that once votes were counted and he lost people should go for blood. He said it in Hausa language. General Buhari is the person who sowed the wind that the nation is now reaping the whirlwind.
“He is not in any position to apportion blame on the issue of violence in the north or in Nigeria in general. He is a protagonist of violence. This government has tried as much as possible to contain some of Buhari’s unguarded statements. I don’t think anybody in Nigeria will take Buhari very seriously when he makes such comments. If there is anybody to blame, General Buhari should become number one on that list. Have you ever seen General Buhari visiting Borno State or condemning the acts of the Boko Haram or condoling with Christians or Muslims that have been killed?
While further challenging Buhari to stop playing the ostrich whenever there is a crisis, Okupe said: “He should lead the way and let others follow. He should mobilise the leaders to engage the militants in dialogue.”
Maku Still Differs
Ironically, while the debate on whether or not Boko Haram should be granted amnesty may have recorded significant progress with the federal government’s committee, the Minister of Information, Mr. Labaran Maku, in another breath, has said government would not be cajoled into granting amnesty to the Islamic militant group, adding that it would only be applicable after the sect might have opened up avenues for discussions with government.
Suffice it to say Maku’s position has always been government’s standing as far as the matter is concerned. This is though, while government is not averse to the idea, certain preconditions must be met as a prelude to granting amnesty.
“It can only come up in the process of discussions,” he said, noting that it would be difficult to grant amnesty to a group that is still evasive. Maku also denied any discussion with the group, noting that in the last one year; “we have not seen anybody come up to say that they can negotiate on behalf of the group.”
He said though the sultan’s call for amnesty was done in good faith, it could not be the first option. He noted that though government was open to discussions with the sect, the condition for amnesty was not there, even as he maintained that the security situation in the north was not overwhelming, as the security agencies have succeeded in their strategy to contain the terrorist activities of Boko Haram.
What Next after Amnesty?
The idea of amnesty has remained controversial because for many, it does not appear sufficient in itself as an approach to containing the insurgency in the country. Those opposed to the idea have canvassed different positions which included the fact that there might be no guarantee that the insurgency would reduce. Those who express this reservation do so against the backdrop of the time different factions of the sect through some of their acclaimed commanders had come out to either declare ceasefire or show interest in dialogue but at the same time continued to launch attacks on the country.
That aside, there are those who fear that the idea of amnesty for Boko Haram, no matter the genuineness of intention, would be defective when compared to the militants in the Niger Delta. This, they argue, is because Boko Haram is predicated on pure ideology that is etched in the consciousness of its adherents and also based on demands that are sometimes ridiculous and outright untenable.
In the case of the Niger Delta militants who protested the marginalisation and degradation of their environment, despite producing the nation’s mainstay- crude oil- also came forward with clear demands, the failure of which was the sustained attacks on the oil installations and other facilities in their region. This, unfortunately, cannot be said of Boko Haram, which is not only seeking the abolition of western education, but also the Islamisation of the country.
The demands are therefore not the same and the situation not comparable on all fronts. But with the federal government seeming to be rethinking its position on amnesty, the questions to ask therefore include: what will amnesty achieve with Boko Haram, given its ideological posturing? Are members of the sect truly interested in amnesty as did the militants in the Niger Delta?
Have the northern leaders, including the sultan, spoken to the sect members to ascertain that once granted amnesty, they would stop attacks on Nigeria? Will amnesty replace their demands for the abolition of western education and the islamisation of the country? This is why other stakeholders contend that amnesty for Boko Haram must be properly thought through as an option.
For example, at the meeting with the security chiefs, which held at the State House, various suggestions on how to tackle insecurity were reportedly proffered by the northern leaders who analysed them and their implications.
But while the security chiefs were allegedly sympathetic to the president, in view of the political pressure he was faced with, they were also sceptical about the workability of the options put forward by the northern leaders. This is because none of the northern leaders agreed to having direct contact with the Boko Haram leader, Sheik Abu Shekau, they were not certain that granting amnesty to the insurgents would yield positive result.
Besides, intelligence reports had allegedly shown that the terrorists were divided on the issue of violence and that given the lack of consensus among them, those not willing to embrace the amnesty could still continue with the insurgency.
“Amnesty is already on the table but with conditions, and the president has the final say in this situation. The military stance is that when Boko Haram lay down their arms, come into open, renounce violence and observe ceasefire for a period of time, the federal government can then negotiate for amnesty,” a defence source was reported as saying.
The Debate Rages on
Although, government has already indicated interest in testing the workability of amnesty for Boko Haram with certain preconditions, it does not change the stand of some people who fear that going that road portends danger for the polity.
Speaking from a spiritual perspective, the Catholic Archbishop of Abuja Diocese, John Cardinal Onaiyekan, for instance, said to be qualified for amnesty, Boko Haram should be ready to meet certain conditions. “Before Boko Haram can be seriously considered for amnesty, they must meet the two conditions for forgiveness, namely repentance and amendment.
“Before they are eligible for any amnesty, they must at least admit that they were wrong to have killed innocent people, whatever may have been their grievances. If this is not done, they could as well continue to feel that they did the right thing and perhaps, it is the rest of us who ought to beg them for pardon. The fact is that they have killed innocent people. How does the state forgive murderers? How can the government grant amnesty to people who have killed innocent citizens, some in their places of worship?” he asked.
Onaiyekan, therefore, said the issue of poverty and unemployment, which are cited as excuses for the Boko Haram insurgency, and the growing danger of community polarisation gradually tearing the nation apart, should be addressed as key ingredients of an amnesty for the sect.
On its part, the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) has criticised northern leaders calling for amnesty for Boko Haram and described their calls as insensitive to the plight of terror victims.
CAN Secretary General, Reverend Musa Asake, stated this when he led other members to Takard District of Kaura Local Government Area, Kaduna State, where no fewer than 20 people were reportedly killed when gunmen invaded two villages in the area.
Asake said it was unfortunate that northern elders are calling for amnesty for perpetrators of heinous crimes rather than demand their prosecution. He described the call as outright display of insensitivity to the thousands of victims who had either died, were maimed or displaced because of the activities of a group of dissidents.
“Here are innocent people driven from their homes and displaced from their loved ones for no crime. That is why I consider the northern elders calling for amnesty for Boko Haram members as insensitive.
“While many people, some of whom are women and children, are deprived of their breadwinners, somebody, somewhere who does not know how to live without security is saying give amnesty to some faceless individuals. It is unfair and these are the so called educated elite in the north who would not even visit and see what is happening.”
Convener, Nigeria Centenary Group, Ariyo-Dare Atoye, does not believe in amnesty for terrorists who hunt down innocent for no just cause. He noted that it is traumatic for a mind with deep human emotion and feelings like his, to grant pardon to barbaric killers but argued that there are other options opened to government even beyond strict military force. “Amnesty can never end Boko Haram insurgency,” he said.
Aside the religious ideology behind it, he posited that internal and external conspiracy will hardly make amnesty succeed.
“Some Northern hawks have succeeded in boxing Jonathan into the corner like they did to Obasanjo over Sharia. The major agenda behind the call for amnesty is for the federal government to also spend billions to rehabilitate some jobless persons in the north like they did for Niger Delta militants.
“These hawks perpetually have their eyes fixed on petrol money. They know that this amnesty will not end terrorism but would have succeeded in getting the federal government to rehabilitate some jobless northern youths. So, if President Jonathan has acceded to this, either as trade-off for 2015 or by giving in to pressure, it will be suicidal for the nation in the days ahead,” he said.
Commenting on the development, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) has pledged support for amnesty to Boko Haram members as proposed by the president.
National Publicity Secretary of the party, Chief Olisa Metuh, explained that the party would support Jonathan on the issue because as the president, he would always take a position that would engender peace in the country.
He noted that the president was not against the amnesty for the Islamic militants, but there were conditions that must be met to avoid the mistakes that were made when amnesty was granted to the Niger Delta militants.
Former Vice-Chancellor, Ahmadu Bello University (ABU), Prof. Ango Abdullahi, who was part of a meeting of the northern elders with the president last week, hinted that various options were considered on how to respond to the state of insecurity that the Boko Haram had foisted on the north and the nation at large.
He said the president remained non-committal during the meeting and told the northern leaders that he would have to consult extensively with various stakeholders before he could decide. “I'm sure something substantial will come out of that meeting.
“Fortunately, the president is already thinking very hard about it and I think he assured us that there is a special meeting on the matter tomorrow (last Thursday). The contention here is that the country is facing challenges. This is the greatest challenge the country is facing today and we did spend a lot of time discussing the various issues on security matters,” he said.
As good but as controversial as the idea of amnesty for Boko Haram appears, that it is not sufficient as an option to stemming the tide of insecurity makes it a difficult choice, even from the simple intelligence analysis of the situation and its intricacies.
But in the event that government goes that road on account of the pressure from the northern leadership and not because it provides the platform for a lasting solution, the need to build safety into the amnesty option is therefore not negotiable. After all, the buck stops on the president’s table.