By Ochereome Nnanna
AT a recent public ceremony in Ngwa land, the Governor of Abia State, Chief Theodore Orji, declared his readiness to offer amnesty to repentant kidnappers.
This article examines this against the background of the Federal Government’s amnesty offer to repentant militants of the Niger Delta, from which Governor Orji borrowed the idea. It was obviously the success of the Federal Government offer that prompted Governor Orji to try his hand on it to see if he would get the same result in his state.
The question is whether the setting and logic of the Abia offer fits with that of the Federal Government. If it does not, it is obvious that the result is unlikely to be the same. There are three key elements in the Federal Government amnesty deal which are conspicuously absent from that of Abia.
Number one is the oil factor. Number two is the moral muscle behind the agitation of the Niger Delta militants. The third is the military strategy that helped persuade the militants to surrender.
It was obvious that the Federal Government had to do something drastic in order to save Nigeria from the economic cataclysm she faced as a result of the militancy in the Niger Delta. For more than 10 years since the agitators took up arms, the Federal Government offered limited military engagement hoping in vain for the boys (and girls) to have a change of heart.
By the middle of this year, the government decided it would no longer continue with business as usual. The amnesty offer was a veiled ultimatum because there was a deadline attached. It was made in the first place because if accepted, amnesty was the best way of bringing the conflict to a close in a peaceful manner. Any other measure in extreme military adventurism would have only produced unmitigated human tragedy without solving any problem. Without the oil factor, there would be no amnesty offer.
Secondly, the resistance mounted by the militants was based on some valid moral claims. They had to resort to an armed struggle to make a point the authorities refused to heed when intellectual agitations earlier mounted by the likes of the late Ken Saro-Wiwa only ended in their being hanged. Kidnapping (especially of expatriates) was part of the weapons they employed in order to draw world attention to their cause.
In most cases, they took their victims, held them for some time and released them without demanding ransom in cash. Criminal elements among the militants and other freelance upstart syndicates also went into body snatching as an extension of their criminal exploits. Soon, the â€œnewâ€ crime, which appeared easier and more lucrative than armed robbery, spread to other parts of Niger Delta and beyond, Abia state being home to many stubborn cells.
And finally, the Federal Government deployed the Joint Military Task Force (JTF) to Gbaramatu Kingdom to show a sample of what can happen in a possible all-out military campaign. The message hit home, and the amnesty offer became an irresistible carrot which, till date, the ex-militants are happy they took up.
In the Abia setting, the kidnappers are not militants protesting over oil. They are simply criminals, many of whom took to the crime as a result of unemployment and dwindling economic opportunities.
Being criminals, they have no moral plea to offer for their crime. If anything, many state governments, including Abia State, have enacted capital punishment for culprits.
Thirdly, even though the security agents have tackled the syndicates with little success, there has not been enough heavy engagement to persuade the leaders and chiefs of the host communities from where the kidnappings are staged to join hands in dismantling the gangs and exposing their sponsors.
In other words, there is no â€œJTFâ€ effect. What this means is that even if some people take up the governorâ€™s amnesty offer (which is unlikely) many more will hang back, and still many new gangs will sprout to take the place of the â€œrepentantâ€ kidnappers.
One can understand the eagerness of Governor Orji to bring this heinous crime to an end in his domain. It has wrecked the economy of his state, especially that of Aba where high net-worth individuals and their families have to avoid like the plague.
The atmosphere of fear and insecurity does not augur well for development. But the question is this: Even if kidnappers accept Governor Orjiâ€™s amnesty offer what about armed robbers? Will he also offer them amnesty? And what about the death penalty that has already been made into law by the state? Will Governor Orji go against the law and pardon the criminals?
If you offer kidnappers amnesty, â€œrehabilitateâ€ them and give them employment opportunities as the Governor promised what about the millions of other law-abiding youths who chose to stay on the narrow path? Are you going to reward the criminals while they stand and watch? If there is any job and rehabilitation (or better put, capacity building) available, let it be given to law-abiding citizens while the criminals and their accomplices must be visited with the full wrath of the law.
How would those whose relations have been taken and some killed and buried in shallow graves (as in the case of Chief Dike Udensiâ€™s mother and her grand daughter in Abiriba) feel when they see these criminals shaking hands with Governor Orji in the Government House in Umuahia?
This offer is completely off-line. The Governorâ€™s political enemies might misinterpret it. It is unacceptable. The state must not be seen as surrendering to criminals. The state must assert its authority. It starts with Governor Theodore Orji.