As the federal government inaugurates the amnesty committee for Boko Haram, Vincent Obia looks at the task before the committee and the role of the religious and traditional communities in the affected states in the effort to rein in the Boko Haram uprising
Penultimate Friday, dramatic and distressing footages emerged in Borno State of a catastrophic aftermath of fighting between the Joint Taskforce, a military counter-terrorism unit, and Boko Haram insurgents. The incident occurred after JTF soldiers busted a Boko Haram hideout at the remote village of Baga, along the border with Chad. The clash killed nearly 200 people, most of who were said to be civilians, and forced thousands more out of their homes. As the military battled the insurgents, civilians watched helplessly, stuck between the crossfire. It was the bloodiest confrontation between the security agencies and Boko Haram since the group began its insurgency in 2009.
Amnesty Committee The incident happened amid federal government’s attempt to strike an amnesty deal with Boko Haram. In the media, it eclipsed Wednesday’s inauguration of the dialogue committee for the amnesty in Abuja. The federal government had on April 17 constituted a 26-member Presidential Committee on Dialogue and Peaceful Resolution of Security Challenges in the North, in a bid to end the Boko Haram insurgency.
The president, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, also constituted a 17-member Presidential Committee on Small Arms and Light Weapons. These followed the report of a technical committee commissioned by the government to consider fresh ways of addressing the security challenge in northern Nigeria.
The terms of reference of the 26-member committee, headed by Minister of Special Duties Kabiru Turaki, include developing a framework for the granting of amnesty to members of the Islamic terror sect, Boko Haram, drawing up a plan through which disarmament of the insurgents could happened within 60 days, developing a comprehensive victims’ support programme, and preparing a mechanism to address the fundamental causes of such insurgencies with the aim of preventing future occurrences.
Members of the amnesty committee include former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Professor Bolaji Akinyemi, Sheik Ahmed Lemu, Dr. Hakeem Baba Ahmed, Colonel Musa Shehu (rtd), Sheik Abubakar, Senator Sodangi, Senator Ahmed Makarfi, Mohammed, Bello Matawalle, Ambassador Zakari Ibrahim, Mr. Shehu Sani, Hajiya Naja’atu Mohammed, and Mallam Adamu S. Ladan. Others are Dr. Joseph Golwa, A. I. Shehu, Mr. R. I. Nkemdirim, P. I. Leha, Professor Nur Alkali, Mallam Salihu Abubakar, Alhaji Abubakar Lugga, Ibrahim Tahir, Brigadier-general Ibrahim Sabo, Ambassador Ahmed Jidda, and Group Captain Bilal Bulama (rtd).
A representative of the Office of the Secretary to the Government of the Federation serves as secretary to the amnesty committee.
Two members of the committee, Dr. Dati Ahmed and Comrade Shehu Sani, declined their appointments. But on Tuesday, the president appointed Barrister Aisha Wakil into the committee.
Though, the leader of the mainstream Boko Haram sect, Abubakar Shakau, has rejected the amnesty proposal, many opinion leaders in the north express confidence in the process. They say the amnesty committee would come up with recommendations that will help resolve the region’s security crisis.
Lemu was quoted by the Voice of America as saying, “As soon as the committee is inaugurated, I don’t think the chairman will waste time in convening the meeting and the beginning of the work. So we are looking forward to that…
“The group has many people of integrity, many people who have concern for peace, security as well as development of Nigeria as a whole.
Therefore, I’m optimistic that we shall look into the problem very objectively and give our advice in the form of recommendations to Mr. President.” The federal government swore in the amnesty committee on Wednesday.
But on that fateful Friday, April 19, the complexities of the Boko Haram amnesty were caught on camera for all to see. It was just when the government was trying to firm up arrangements for an amnesty deal with the sect. The bloody clash soared already huge doubts about the morality and feasibility of an amnesty deal with the group that has murdered hundreds of Nigerians in cold blood, with several others killed in crossfire during Boko Haram-instigated confrontations with the military.
The debate over the propriety of the Boko Haram amnesty has burst into the open once more.
Former president of Nigerian Bar Association, Dr. Olisa Agbakoba, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, says, “Boko-Haram is a complex organisation linked to a larger issue beyond its objective to ‘Islamise’ Nigeria or ‘refute’ Western education.”
Since 2009, the government has been cracking down on the group and they have been criticised for being oppressive. But recently, the government started to change course, looking at the possibility of dialogue and amnesty to the insurgents. This has been mired in a lot of controversy. Many are questioning the rational for amnesty to a people who political, religious, and traditional leaders in the north say they do not see or know. Even the governments of the affected states have said they do not know the Boko Haram members.
The Yoruba socio-political organisation, Afenifere, on Tuesday expressed reservation about the amnesty to Boko Haram, saying it is not in line with good judgment.
Addressing newsmen in Ikeja on the state of the nation, the Afenifere leader, Chief Reuben Fasoranti, stated, “We agree that granting amnesty in the Niger Delta region per se is in order. But we find it hard to defend the monumental abuse going on, especially among the elite managers of the scheme and are disturbed as to whether the scheme will bring a lasting peace, given episodic restlessness still being demonstrated.
“Yet, we have created a set of emergency billionaires from amnesty while the conditions in the creeks remain virtually what they were.
“It is with this at the back of our mind that we have been so sceptical over the so-called amnesty for Boko Haram, which is a much more dangerous group than the Niger Delta insurgents who were known and whose demands were clear.”
Parallels being drawn between Boko Haram and the Niger Delta armed agitators have been mostly seen as baseless because the situations are not the same. Besides, amnesty is an expensive project and experts wonder where the money would come from.
But the alternative – military option – seems simply ruinous: more civilian deaths than insurgents and the unremitting destruction of the local economies in the affected northern states, which breeds more poverty, the ammunition Boko Haram desperately needs both to court sympathy with the locals and resentment for the military.
Boko Haram members take human shields. When they go into communities they hide in homesteads and households. So civilians necessarily get caught up in confrontations between the group and the military. The military say they try to minimise civilian casualties, but that is, obviously, difficult.
Agbakoba believes, “The challenge Nigeria faces is how to isolate Al-Qaeda from Boko Haram, and how to give the poor and unfortunate idle boys (Almajiri) an opportunity to work and provide (for themselves). But by far the biggest challenge is engaging Boko-Haram and building confidence to lay down arms.”
Stakeholders, especially, in northern Nigeria, must, thus, play a critical role in the effort to rein in insurgency in the region through amnesty.
The Sultan of Sokoto, Alhaji Muhammad Abubakar 111, whose call for amnesty for Boko Haram members 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, would be expected to play a central role in bringing the insurgents to dialogue.
The Borno elders, too, whose position paper during Jonathan’s visit to Borno and Yobe states last month centred on the quest for amnesty for the sect headquartered in north-east state, must now prove that they did not just speak under the shadow of fear of Boko Haram.
Bauchi State Governor Isa Yuguda told journalists in Lagos on April 13 that the group that had spurned the amnesty offer by the federal government was the “criminal and political Boko Haram.”
Yuguda said, “The amnesty has been given to the real Boko Haram and I believe they are willing to accept that. That is my belief. But you know there is the criminal Boko Haram and there is the real Boko Haram.
“But the criminal and the political Boko Haram are the armed robbers and that arm of politicians that call themselves Boko Haram and they go about attacking people.”
The onus is on the political class, the traditional and religious institutions, as well as the communities in the north to facilitate the effort to curb insurgency in the region by exposing the militants in their midst.
Governor of Niger State and chairman of the Northern States Governors Forum Babangida Aliyu said after the declaration of the amnesty initiative that governors of the affected states must now bring out the Boko Haram elements for dialogue. On April 9 in Minna, while commending the president for heeding the calls for amnesty for Boko Haram, Aliyu said, “I also call on the governors in the north to begin to unmask the ghosts among them so that we will be talking to human beings and not ghosts.”
The Boko Haram insurgency intensified after the 2011 presidential election, with attacks on Christians and state institutions. Persons close to the Congress for Progressive Change presidential candidate in that election, General Muhammadu Buhari, had threatened violence should their candidate lose – even though there was hardly the remotest possibility of Buhari winning at the time.
Many believe sections of the political class in northern Nigeria may have harnessed the winter of discontent among Boko Haram adherents, following the controversial death of their leader Mohammed Yusuf, in police custody in 2009, to settle political scores in the period after the 2011 presidential poll.
The amnesty committee must, thus, strive to avoid the temptation of being bogged down in politics.
But the federal government faces a dilemma in its effort to contain the Boko Haram insurgency: the group’s connection with al-Qaeda and other foreign terrorist organisations, and the ineffective policing of Nigeria’s far-flung border areas in the North-east and other parts of the country.
The extraordinary thing about penultimate Friday’s bloody clash at the remote Borno village of Baga is that most of the news got out to the media only from Sunday, more than 24 hours after the violence began.
It clearly shows how difficult it is to police the remote border villages where Boko Haram seems to find sanctuary. It also shows a possible strong involvement of foreign mercenaries.
There were reports that the operation to dislodge Boko Haram from their alleged hideout in the area was a joint effort by Nigerian, Nigerien, and Chadian troops. This underscores the fears among African countries about the danger and potency of cross-border terrorism.
Northern Nigeria is a region where people are hot on religion, and loyalty to country is often sacrificed on the altar of religious affinity. Influx of illegal aliens is often encouraged by faithful who see nothing wrong with allowing people in as long as they share a common faith. But now, everything seems to be going wrong with this migrant tradition, as many of the insurgents feeding the violence in northern Nigeria are believed to be foreigners.
Agbakoba says, “With training and funds, Boko Haram will not be interested in amnesty, until the insurgency in Mali is put down by African Union forces, comprising Nigerian troops. I am not surprised that Boko Haram has rejected amnesty offers, as links to Al-Qaeda compensate.”
For now, Nigeria can only hope for the best as the Boko Haram amnesty committee gets down to brass tacks.
The military say they are steadily gaining major victories against Boko Haram and extensively weakening the group. And proponents of the amnesty option say it is on course, despite the contradictions.
Some things may certainly be changing for the better. But building a region where everyone feels safe to live and do business could well be the greatest test for the amnesty committee and the federal government..