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Amnesty: The Debate We Badly Need

14 Apr 2013

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Simon Kolawole Live!: Emailsimon.kolawole@thisdaylive.com


History, dare I say, has perfected a way of repeating itself. It’s either we don’t pay attention to it or our memories are pretty too brief. In 2009, when President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua offered amnesty to Niger Delta militants, the Movement for the Emancipation of Niger Delta (MEND) flatly rejected it. They wrote an open letter to Yar’Adua which partly read: “The civilised world expected your apology to the hundreds of the displaced and relatives of dead civilians caused by the indiscriminate aerial bombing targeted at innocent impoverished communities from cowardly armed forces meant to instil fear.” A few days later, MEND bombed Agip and Chevron facilities to drive home their point. Nevertheless, Yar’Adua went with his convictions. The rest, as they say, is history.

Cue 2013. President Goodluck Jonathan is exploring the possibility of amnesty for Boko Haram militants who have been unleashing terror on Nigerians in unprecedented proportions. Although Jonathan’s amnesty offer is not yet on the table, the group has rejected it in advance. Its leader, Abubakar Shekau, said: “The Nigerian government is talking about granting us amnesty. What wrong have we done? On the contrary, it is we that should grant you pardon.” He said it was the government that had been committing atrocities against Muslims, in what clearly stands the fact on its head. In my records, Boko Haram has killed uncountable number of Muslims – in addition to their soft target, Christians.

I remember vividly that when Yar’Adua decided to grant amnesty to the Niger Delta militants, he was considered a weak leader. The hardliners said he was undermining our sovereignty and humiliating the military. They said we should continue to bombard the Niger Delta just to prove a point, even if the war was going to last for years.  But Yar’Adua pursued his agenda. Although the Amnesty Programme has now become something like a bazaar, the principles of negotiated peace in conflict management remain valid. I would urge Jonathan to go ahead with amnesty if he is fully convinced that it can be properly and effectively implemented to end the insurgency.

For me, the issue now is not whether or not to grant amnesty and employ dialogue to put an end to this bloodshed. It should have become obvious to all that the military action, which is the preferred choice of many commentators, is not working. If it was working, we would not be here discussing amnesty. Our security agencies have gleefully been announcing preventing attacks, arresting or killing hundreds of suspected militants and uncovering bomb factories. But the terror has continued. The more JTF kills them, the harder they come. Maybe military action alone is not enough. What now? Why are the US and UK effectively tackling terror back home but failing woefully in Afghanistan and Iraq? We need to chew on this.

Nigerians are clearly divided over the amnesty issue for various reasons. Some are of the opinion that it may encourage MASSOB and OPC to step up their campaigns too in the hope of securing amnesty and multi-billion naira contracts. Good point, no questions about it. That is why I suggest that military action should not stop until Boko Haram militants embrace amnesty and, by extension, dialogue. People need to know that actions have consequences. The state should never abandon its key responsibility of protecting lives and property. I don’t think any reasonable community would like to play host to the JTF. It’s not usually a pleasant experience. I certainly don’t want JTF in my village!

The most disturbing opposition to amnesty is coming from the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN). The spokesman of CAN in the 19 Northern states and the Federal Capital Territory, Sunday Oibe, said on Friday that “no right-thinking Christian” would support amnesty to “murderers who have shown no remorse for the thousands of innocent people they have killed”. No “righting-thinking” Christian will support amnesty? What’s Christianity turning into? I embraced the Christian faith nearly 20 years ago mainly because of the message of forgiveness. I was told that God, because of the death of Jesus Christ on the cross, was ready to grant amnesty to all sinners. I fancied Christianity because of the message of God’s love to all – His readiness to give you a second chance “no matter your past”.

While dying on the cross, Jesus famously prayed for the murderers thus: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they are doing!” The young disciple Stephen, while being stoned to death, repeated those words. Jesus granted amnesty to a murder accomplice like Saul who went on to write most of the books in the New Testament. But for the message of forgiveness, Christianity will be just a religion. Forgiveness to murderers, adulterers, fornicators, liars and hypocrites – that’s too attractive a message to ignore! Forgiving those who hurt you is a fundamental Christian teaching. Yet, CAN is telling us that no “right-thinking Christian” would support it. That sounds too much like the Boko Haram message of “no mercy, no forgiveness”.

I conclude. The debate we should be having, in my opinion, is the nature and form of the amnesty. It cannot be like what we have in the Niger Delta where militants simply turned in their arms in exchange for rehabilitation and contracts. Boko Haram is more complicated. This is a group challenging the legitimacy of the state. They are not asking that roads be tarred or jobs be provided. They are anti-establishment. These guys nearly killed Muslims leaders such as the Shehu of Borno and Emir of Kano. They killed a respected cleric inside his mosque in Kano. They have promised to kill former Borno State Governor Ali Modu Sheriff whenever they get him.

The Boko Haram militants say they want to Islamise Nigeria. We are dealing with extremists who are thoroughly schooled in religious hate. It is not as simple as telling them to hand in their guns – these guys make bombs! Therefore, any amnesty programme that will lead to dialogue and rehabilitation must be carefully thought out. It should not be about distributing contracts and creating new billionaires. Clearly, the amnesty option is very complicated and will take a long process, unlike the Niger Delta case. But my advice to President Jonathan is that he should go with his convictions. It’s a very rough road ahead.

And Four Other Things...

GOTCHA, THATCHER!
Margaret Thatcher, the former British prime minister better known as the Iron Lady, passed away last week. She was never a popular figure with the British working class because of the privatisation programme which she executed coldheartedly. They celebrated her death in the most distasteful manner. No matter what, she was an achiever in a world dominated by men. Leadership requires standing by your convictions. And she took those decisions in the national interest, not for personal gain. Nevertheless, I never liked Thatcher because of the way she, and US President Ronald Reagan, treated the apartheid regime in South Africa with kid gloves.

LEADERSHIP QUESTION
Do we ever learn from history? We don’t, obviously. The decision by the police authorities to arrest and detain four journalists working with Leadership newspaper is a further confirmation of that. I am not saying journalists are above the law. In fact, I worry a lot about media misdeeds. But there are better ways of dealing with these issues than arresting journalists. If you have any case against them, even if it is criminal, go and meet them in court. Arrest and detention would only invoke unnecessary passion and bring back memories of the traumatic military days.

MORE ACCIDENTS
Last week, I wrote about unending accidents on our roads – trailers, tankers and buses. At Ugbogui along Benin-Ore Expressway, 36 persons were burnt to death. Another 20 passengers died at Okija, Anambra State. I ended it with these words: “The saddest part is that this is definitely not the last one.” Well, the following day, 20 passengers died when a bus rammed into a truck, seven kilometres from Potiskum, Yobe State, on the Kano-Maiduguri highway. Trailers, tankers, buses and gruesome deaths on our roads! And you know the saddest part? We don’t have any answers.

OKPALA OUT?
The sack of Super Eagles’ assistant coach, Sylvanus Okpala, came as a rude shock to me. I am not an insider in the national team, but all I have ever heard about Okpala is that he is a very good coach whom Stephen Keshi is very comfortable with. Okpala, a member of the all-conquering team of 1980, is said to have fallen out with the NFF authorities last year for criticising them over poor logistics for an away match. They have waited patiently to get rid of him through “reorganisation”. Lord have mercy…

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