faceless BOKO HARAM
The federal government appears set to act in response to the rising feeling of support for amnesty for the Boko Haram insurgents, but analysts say the amnesty may be replete with costly repercussions. Vincent Obia reports
Demands for granting amnesty to members of the Islamic terrorist sect, Boko Haram, have been made more and more loudly since last month, when President Goodluck Jonathan visited Borno and Yobe states. The demands have centred on the need to encourage the insurgents to lay down their arms to create a peaceful atmosphere for the rebuilding of northern Nigeria’s battered socio-economic infrastructure. And the subtext has focussed on the precedent in the Niger Delta. Even though most people agree that the armed struggle in the Niger Delta and the religious insurgency in the north are two different issues, it is evident that President Goodluck Jonathan is now prepared to apply the amnesty remedy to the treatment of the Boko Haram menace.
Sultan’s Amnesty Call
Stakeholders in the north had been advocating amnesty for members of Boko Haram, but the call made by the Sultan of Sokoto, Alhaji Muhammad Abubakar 111, on March 5, at a meeting of the Central Council of Jama’atu Nasril Islam in Kaduna was like a watershed in the pardon advocacy.
Sultan told the meeting, which took place on the eve of Jonathan’s two-day visit to the Boko Haram hotbeds of Borno and Yobe states, “We have been hearing about terrorism everywhere and every day. I want to use this opportunity to say that we have heard in the news that Mr. President will be visiting Maiduguri in a couple of days.
“We want to use this opportunity to call on the government, especially Mr. President, to see how he can declare total amnesty for all combatants without thinking twice; that will make any other person who picks up arms to be termed as a criminal. If the amnesty is declared, the majority of those young men running would come out and embrace that amnesty and some of them have already come out because we have heard some of the stories in the newspapers.”
When Jonathan made his working visit to Borno and Yobe states, he was confronted with the same request for pardon. A position paper read on behalf of the Borno elders by former Vice Chancellor of University of Maiduguri, Professor Nur Alkali, during an interactive session on the last day of the president’s visit seemed to capture the mood of the people.
They stated, “There is no one in the hall that has not lost a close relation or friend to the crisis. When a soldier is killed, there is retaliation with corpses littering the streets.
“There is no alternative to dialogue. And since they talked about peace, we should work towards it, though it may take some time to achieve. The use of violence brings more violence. The minimum expectation is pardon, rehabilitation. Mr. President is expected to announce this before leaving Borno.”
‘No Amnesty for Ghosts’
The president did not announce amnesty for the insurgents. Rather, he berated those calling for amnesty for playing a hiding game with the terrorist onslaught. He accused them of failing to identify those for whom they were advocating pardon, saying he cannot grant amnesty to “ghosts.”
Jonathan made his position known on March 7 in Damaturu, on the first leg of his visit to the two North-east states of Yobe and Borno. His response was pointed.
“We cannot declare amnesty for Boko Haram because we cannot declare amnesty for ghosts. You cannot liken Boko Haram to what happened in the Niger Delta,” the president said.
He identified the essential difference between the Niger Delta struggle and the Boko Haram insurgency.
“Some of these names you hear, Asari Dokubo, Ateke Tom, when I was a deputy governor, I went to a meeting with President Olusegun Obasanjo and I saw Asari and Tom in the Presidential Villa.
“That was the first time I saw them; I had never seen them before, I did not even know them and I was the deputy governor of Bayelsa State, one of their hotbeds. It was in the villa that I met them first during a meeting with the president.
“What I am saying is that in the Niger Delta case, if you call them, they will come and tell you their grievances, rightly or wrongly. They will be there to tell you ‘this is what we want; this is why we are doing this.’
“But in the case of the Boko Haram, you don’t see anybody who will say he is a Boko Haram member, so we cannot declare amnesty,” Jonathan explained.
He said, “For us to declare amnesty, we must be communicating with people. We cannot declare amnesty for people that are operating under a veil.
“We can’t even discuss amnesty issue, let them come and tell us their problems and let’s see how we can solve the problem.”
‘We’re No Ghosts’
Jonathan got plenty of both pats and smacks for his refusal to acquiesce to the request for amnesty to Boko Haram due to their facelessness. But the most direct response came from a faction of the sect led by Sheikh Mohammed Abdul’aziz, which replied that his members were not ghosts. The faction had since declared a ceasefire and agreed to dialogue with the government.
In response to the president’s allegation that Boko Haram members were elusive, Abdul’aziz stated, “We have sat with officials of Borno State government and a delegation of Northern Governors Forum on peace and reconciliation headed by Air Vice Marshal Mukhtar Muhammed (Rtd).”
The group said the peace process was on course and criticised the leader of a rival faction of the sect that had disowned Abdul’aziz and denied any peace deal with government.
According to Abdul’aziz, “Allah has also sanctioned dialogue in all human undertakings, so we will pursue it to its logical conclusion. As such, if there are those who feel left out in the process, the doors are open; let everybody come, as the Borno State government has shown seriousness and commitment to the peace process.”
Abdul’aziz said his group was “willing to sit with government at anytime to bring peace to the state and the country at large.
“I call on Governor Kashim Shettima to disregard all those propaganda aimed at disrupting the peace process, as we are ready and willing to continue to dialogue with government.”
On the alleged disowning of his group by the Boko Haram leader, Abubakar Shakau, in a video message posted on YouTube, Abdul’aziz said the person who appeared in the video as leader of the sect was an imposter.
“The voice is not that of Sheihk Abubakar Shekau and Sheihk has never hidden his face, Sheikh’s voice is heavily Kanuri-accented. The man is an impostor deliberately brought to the frontline by those opposed to the peace process. We know them and we will disclose their identity at the appropriate time.
“Let me state categorically that Sheikh knows me and has confidence in my ability and is aware and he blessed the peace process. When I was being sworn in by the late leader of the group, Sheikh Muhammed Yusuf, he did so in the presence of Sheikh Mallam Ibrahim Mubi, Mallam Ibrahim Agaji, Mallam Sani Kontogora and Babagana Mulima. So, it is impossible for Sheikh to say he does not know me while it was he who promoted me to my present position.”
On January 28, two persons, including Abdul’aziz, who claimed to represent the major faction of the Jama’atul Ahalis Sunna Lida’awati Wal Jihad, popularly known as Boko Haram, led by Sheikh Abubakar Shekau had stated during a media briefing they hosted in Maiduguri that the sect had accepted to dialogue with the federal government.
The briefing was the first time anyone would be coming out in the open to claim association with Boko Haram. The sect’s communication with the media had hitherto been through emails and teleconferencing.
Abdul’aziz, who identified himself as Sheikh Abu Mohammad Abdulazeez Ibn Idris during the briefing, claimed to be the “second Commander in-charge of southern and northern Borno” axis of the sect. He said the decision to declare a ceasefire followed meetings with the Borno State governor, Alhaji Kashim Shettima.
Speaking in the Hausa language that was translated during the briefing, Abdul’aziz stated, “We, on our own, in the top hierarchy of our movement under the leadership of Imam Abubakar Shekau, as well as some of our notable followers, agreed that our brethren in Islam, both women and children, are suffering unnecessarily; hence we resolved that we should bring this crisis to an end.
“We, therefore, call on all those that identify themselves with us and our cause, to from today, lay down their arms.”
But it was after a pro-amnesty sentiment expressed by the Action Congress of Nigeria national leader and former governor of Lagos State, Asiwaju Bola Tinubu, when he visited the Emir of Kano, Alhaji Ado Bayero, to commiserate with him over a recent attack on the royal father and his convoy, that the debate appeared to change.
“I support the granting of amnesty to the sect but with some conditions, which include justice for those people with blood in their hands because it would go a long way in discouraging such dastardly acts in future,” Tinubu said at the palace of the emir on March 21. “For the innocent ones among them, there must be amnesty.
“We cannot fight a war in our own country against minor crimes and minor people. We would only end up multiplying these people by trying to use force against our own citizens.
“I therefore disagree with the president; they are not ghosts.”
He said amnesty for Boko Haram was necessary to avert another civil war in Nigeria, saying, “We cannot afford to fight another war in our own country.”
Many northern leaders expressed similar sentiments and called for amnesty for Boko Haram.
Presidency Challenges Buhari
Then there was the exchange of diatribe between the presidency and the national leader of Congress for Progressive Change, General Muhammadu Buhari. Buhari had in a recent interview with the BBC accused the federal government of being responsibility for the spate of insecurity, especially in the northern parts of the country.
“Insecurity generally should be blamed on the federal government,” Buhari had said.
“Until now, everyday, they abduct people and receive ransoms. How was the problem reduced? How did it start? What method was employed to convince them to mellow down?” he queried during the interview, apparently, insinuating that the Jonathan government had failed to apply the amnesty solution that was extended to the Niger Delta militants by the late former president, Alhaji Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, on June 25, 2009.
Buhari was also quoted as telling BBC, “Similarly, what we should look at is, how did the Boko Haram start? We know all these. Security is the responsibility of the government. It is the responsibility of the federal government to know how this thing started and how to go about it.” Many interpret this to mean that the genesis of the Boko Haram insurgency is well known to the former military Head of State.
The presidency responded to Buhari’s attempt to draw similarities between the Niger Delta armed struggle and the insurgency in the north by challenging him to bring the terrorists to the negotiating table – just as Jonathan did when he was Yar’Adua’s vice president.
Senior Special Assistant on Public Affairs to the president, Dr. Doyin Okupe, said concerning Buhari, “Nigerians should ask him that as a former Head of State and as someone who wants to be president again, what he has done to end this insurgence in the country.
“Or is it when he becomes president, he will stop the insurgence? No, it does not work that way. He should emulate President Jonathan who went to the creeks of the Niger Delta, canvassing 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 that he said that once votes are countered and he loses, that people should go for blood. He said in Hausa language. General Buhari is the person who sowed the wind that the nation is now reaping in whirlwind.”
In the last one month, there has been a rise in pressure on the federal government to grant amnesty to Boko Haram. There are insinuations that the propinquity of Tinubu and Buhari’s comments on the Boko Haram question might be an attempt by the opposition to force up political rhetoric on the problem of insecurity by deliberately applying pressure in consecutive stages.
Tinubu and Buhari are key sponsors of the opposition merger, All Progressives Congress, which they are trying to register as a political party.
By shifting position on the issue of Boko Haram amnesty, there suspicion in some quarters that the president might simply have decided to cut the ground from under the opposition’s feet and prevent them from stealing the show ahead of 2015.
Whether or not the opposition had tried to make political mileage out of the Boko Haram amnesty, it is evident that the federal government has now succumbed to pressure to grant amnesty to the group. The president set up an amnesty committee on Thursday to consider the feasibility of clemency for the Boko Haram insurgents. Named among members of the committee are the National Security Adviser, Sambo Dasuki, retired Colonel; Chief of Defence Staff, Ola Sa’ad Ibrahim; and representatives of the State Security Service and other stakeholders.
The decision to set up the committee followed series of meetings and consultations between the president and stakeholders. On Wednesday, he met with some northern leaders under the aegis of the Northern Elders Forum at the State House in Abuja. This was followed by a meeting of the National Security Council.
But there are fears of a backlash. The Christian Association of Nigeria has maintained its opposition to amnesty for Boko Haram insurgents, saying the group should not be rewarded for targeting and killing hundreds of Christians and other innocent citizens in northern Nigeria since 2009, when the insurgency began after a clash with the security agencies. About 3, 000 people are estimated to have died in Boko Haram attacks.
The CAN president, Pastor Ayo Oritsejafor, has been canvassing for the classification of Boko Haram as a foreign terrorist organisation by the United States and other Western countries.
CAN secretary general, Reverend Musa Asake, reiterated the organisation’s opposition to the pardoning of the insurgents on Thursday in Kaduna when he addressed over 5, 000 displaced persons - mainly Christians – at Takard District of Kaura Local Government Area, where about 20 people were recently killed when gunmen invaded two villages.
“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. This is unfair,” Asake said.
But there is also fear that many of the Boko Haram sponsors and foot soldiers are not Nigerians and granting them amnesty may simply make Nigeria a haven for terrorists from other countries. This apprehension is underlined by the fact of Nigeria’s porous borders, which allows the influx of illegal immigrants and their movement out of the country with little restriction.
Perhaps, most important is the uncertainty surrounding the management of the amnesty, if it is granted to Boko Haram. Already, Nigerians are witnessing a poor management of the Niger Delta amnesty project, a situation the president himself acknowledged during his recent visit to Yobe State. Many auxiliary projects proposed as part of the Niger Delta amnesty package have been jettisoned, causing a seemingly endless emergence of armed groups seeking inclusion in what is becoming an amnesty meal ticket.
In January, Special Adviser to the President on Niger Delta and Chairman of the Presidential Amnesty Programme, Mr. Kingsley Kuku, voiced his frustration with what he termed “a sense of an unending disarmament programme.”
On Thursday in Abuja, a previously unknown group, Niger Delta Freedom Fighters, blocked the main entrance to the National Assembly complex to protest their non-inclusion in the amnesty programme.
Many believe amnesty can only produce useful results if it is seen as a first steps towards the establishment of necessary structures that would discourage insurgency and protect lives and property.