Last week, President Goodluck Jonathan took a step in the direction of weighing the offer of amnesty to members of the militant Islamist sect, Boko Haram. Mr. Jonathan set up a committee to examine the amnesty issue and advise him within two weeks. That move represented a significant shift in the Jonathan administration’s policy. Before now, Mr. Jonathan had argued that the sectarian militants were faceless – and that he had not figured out the wizardry of negotiating with ghosts. The administration had contended that, as a fundamental condition, Boko Haram’s rank and file must step out of the shadows and – as it were – introduce themselves and voice their grievances.
Despite that stipulation, some prominent northerners, including the Sultan of Sokoto, Muhammadu Sa'ad Abubakar III, and several governors, have been pressing a case for extending amnesty to Boko Haramists. That advocacy always raised disturbing questions. One wishes that the Sultan and other leaders had spoken with equal insistence and directedness in condemnation of the carnage caused by Boko Haram. Even if it makes sense to invite the ghostly Boko Haram to a waltz with the government, how do we justify the cold indifference to the victims of the sect’s indiscriminate, cold-blooded slaughter of innocents? Why arrange an armistice with fiendish, death-causing ghosts but ignore those they’ve killed – as well as the bereaved forever scarred by the cruel loss of loved ones?
President Jonathan’s changed – or at least evolving – stance on the issue of amnesty for Boko Haram has provoked widespread criticism. Some see the matter as a clear-cut criminal affair: a group of misguided suicides out to inflict homicidal horror on society in the alleged name of their faith. Human Rights Watch, an international body, estimates that 3000 people have perished since 2009 in the whole blow-up. Most of the casualties were victims of Boko Haram’s attacks, but some lost their lives to the government’s reprisals. My guess is that the casualty figure is on the conservative side.
Any wonder that it’s so difficult to bracket Boko Haram and amnesty in the same sentiment and sentence? Or that some critics, among them the leadership of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), tend to view the amnesty option as tantamount to government capitulation?
If Mr. Jonathan was in the past disinclined to negotiate with Boko Haram’s faceless hounds, why is he now hearkening to entreaties to do so? And if members of the sect had preferred to operate in anonymity, what are the odds that, with an amnesty dangled in their faces, they will peel off their masks and show their faces? Is it the case, perhaps, that the Sultan and others championing amnesty have been in conversation with the Haramists? If so, can the Sultan and other pleaders guarantee that members of the sect will consent to lay down their weapons and integrate themselves into society the moment amnesty is pronounced?
That would be a curious and surprising development, for two reasons. One is that any person or group that upholds the murder of innocent strangers as a pious act hardly strikes me as possessing the faculty to trade their gruesome pastime for governmental forgiveness. Two: Boko Haram’s ostensible “justification” is that Western-style education and its baggage of values have wrought the disaster Nigeria has become. The group’s prescription has flowed from that first conclusion: the entrenchment of Islamic values – Boko Haram brand. That, the group has said again and again, was the only antidote to Nigeria’s fetid, festering moral crises.
Given those planks, I don’t see bright prospects for a meaningful exchange between the Nigerian state and Boko Haram. There are two scenarios in which peace would be feasible. One is if the Sultan felt up to persuading Boko Haram that Nigeria is now less tainted by Western influences? The other is if Boko Haram’s homicidal rage was always less about irrigating a turn to piety than the achievement of political ends. In other words, if the sect was always a tool to wrest certain political carrots from the government, then the terms of the amnesty could be tailored to deliver the desired political goals.
There are several ways of looking at the President Jonathan’s amnesty game. Deep down, one shares popular outrage at the idea that the government say to murderers of thousands of innocent: Go, for your sins have been erased from the ledger. In an ideal situation, the government would insist on prosecuting those who make it their business to terrorize, maim and murder. But a compelling counter argument can be deployed: the Nigerian state is, in fact, the most ferocious terrorist operating within the Nigerian space. The instruments of that state – among them the military, police, security agencies and the judiciary – are too often implicated in the commission of grave crimes against Nigerians.
Think of Odi and think of Zaki Biam, two communities leveled by military firepower – therefore, twin metaphors of the Nigerian state’s capacity for inflicting unspeakable horror on its own people. On a lesser scale, think of the Maiduguri massacre of 2009. It happened shortly after Boko Haram made its first daring confrontation of the state. In response, armed soldiers and police swept through the city of Maiduguri and rounded up men at random, ordered their quarry to lie on the ground, face down, and shot them to death at point blank range. Or consider the macabre parade of corpses found floating down the Ezu River in Anambra. After some obligatory noises of outrages, everybody moved on, the corpses silenced. Nothing has been heard from the joint committee of the National Assembly that went to “investigate” what happened. Nobody has had the spine to compel the Nigerian police to demonstrate that the corpses were not detainees that they executed extra-judicially – and then dumped in the river.
In fact, one of the greatest crimes of which the Nigerian state is guilty is a failure to take Nigerians seriously. A government that took its citizens seriously would recognize that its first and primary job is to secure the lives and property of its citizenry. On that score, the Jonathan administration – like its predecessors – has been woeful. The Nigerian state has mastered the art of ignoring its victims of violent death, acting as if these never lived, as if they never had a right to live out their natural years, as if their lives were not unjustly, brutally abbreviated. Like its predecessors, this administration’s security acumen seems to start and end with using all the machinery of the state to ensure that certain privileged functionaries have the freedom to loot with neither let nor hindrance.
A state that reckoned with its citizens would long have figured that Boko Haram is but a symptom of a deeper sickness – that sickness being the fact that the space known as Nigeria, as Wole Soyinka has argued, has not been inspirited with a nation. There’s not – nor has there ever been – any content or meaning to Nigerian citizenship. There’s little recourse, except for grim acceptance that “God is in control,” for any Nigerian killed either by a Boko Haram explosive or by a gun fired by a power-drunk police officer at a road block. There can be no real Nigerian nation when an Igbo girl born and brought up in Yola is still counted an outsider, even a “foreigner,” and a Fulani boy born and bred in Lagos is nevertheless expected to list, say, Sokoto as his state of origin. Nigeria remains a half-hearted sham, a convenient arrangement held together by the joint if tenuous greed of a privileged few guzzling oil.
The truth is that President Jonathan cannot win a war against Boko Haram, any more than a one-legged man can win an ass-kicking contest. And if he cannot vanquish them, he might as well negotiate with them. Still, Nigerians had better know the context and extent of what’s going on. Even if Boko Haram went for amnesty and ceased fire, there’s no guarantee that peace will reign in Nigeria. An inherently unjust and reflexively violent Nigerian state will inevitably provoke other Boko Haram-like groups into existence. These groups would have learned – from the Haramists as well as the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta – the technology of marshaling its own means of violence in order to force carrots out of the Nigerian state – or to demonstrate dissatisfaction with the loveless construct called Nigeria.
Therein lies the point which the current debate about amnesty for Boko Haram conveniently sidesteps or ignores. A more fundamental debate is called for – a deeper negotiation – and it must be over the terms of our collective membership in a shared nation called Nigeria. If that negotiation doesn’t take place, Nigeria is condemned to remain a space of perpetual pain and death for its so-called citizens, a dissolution cruelly, needlessly postponed.