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BOKO HARAM AMNESTY: Scratching the surface of a nation’s festering sore

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By Soni Daniel, Regional Editor, North

With the setting up of a committee to handle amnesty for Boko Haram members and payment of compensation to their victims and the sect members rejecting the offer without looking back, there is suspicion that the government may have an interest other than merely seeking for elusive peace in the north. Others believe the government is merely scratching the symptoms of the Boko Haram sect rather than delving into what brought it into existence.

Did President Goodluck Jonathan shoot himself on the foot in his current move to end the Boko Haram onslaught on the nation? Discuss!

Well, there are two ready answers which betray an air of ambivalence. – Yes! And no!  But either of these answers depends on where you’re coming from and from which angle you look at it.

There are Nigerians who are concerned that the Presidency ignored the major issues it should have considered as preconditions before contemplating the controversial amnesty to the dreaded Islamic sect, Jamaatu Ahlil Sunna Lidawati wal Jihad, otherwise known as Boko Haram, BH. The non-consideration of such parameters, they reason, is sure to hurt the system and, perhaps, make a mockery of the rapprochement President Goodluck Jonathan and his advisers are frantically jostling for with the virulent men.

To them, the current effort by the government to persuade the sect leaders and their supporters to lay down their arms and embrace peace through the proposed amnesty programme, appears akin to forcing an unwilling horse to sip from the river, when it is not in the mood to do so.  They also see the offer as a subtle means to railroad the group to accept an amnesty they did not bargain for, as a step in the wrong direction, something that is certain to backfire.

Those who hold on to that school of thought believe that it is the sect that should have sought the pardon after renouncing violence as was the case with the Niger Delta militants’ pardon. In June 2009, some of the region’s ‘bad boys’ had opted for amnesty and agreed to turn in their lethal weapons to the government as a condition for being pardoned for their atrocities against the nation’s interests.

While the approach was hailed by local and international agencies and observers, the current move by the government to tame the northern fighters appears to have been a right step in the wrong direction, aimed at the wrong target.

The reason is that even before the government completed the conceptual framework to offer the pardon, the potential beneficiaries had barked at the administration, saying they did nothing wrong to deserve amnesty. The leader of the group, Abubakar Shekau, came out smoking the other day to lampoon the government, claiming that it was the Nigerian government and not Boko Haram that should be granted amnesty.

File photo: Members of Boko Haram splinter group during a news conference in Maiduguri, recently where they insisted on a cease-fire. Photo: Nan.
File photo: Members of Boko Haram splinter group during a news conference in Maiduguri, recently where they insisted on a cease-fire. Photo: Nan.

According to Shekau, it is the government that has been inflicting injuries on its members by killing Muslims in the land. Shekau, in a 30-minute video translated into Hausa, Arabic and English, rejected the idea of a potential amnesty, threatening to deal with anyone who claims to represent the sect under the programme.

Shekau noted, “We are the one to grant them pardon. Have you forgotten their atrocities against us? We are surprised that today it is the Federal Government saying it will grant us amnesty. Oh God is it we who will grant you amnesty or you are the one to grant us amnesty?

“What have we done? If there is room for forgiveness, we are not going to do it until God gives us the permission to do it. Have you forgotten your sin, have you forgotten what you have done to us in Plateau, the state you call Jos? We emerged to avenge the killings of our Muslim brothers and the destruction of our religion. Was it not in Plateau that we saw people cannibalizing our brothers?”

Before making its position public on the matter, another factional leader of the sect, Abu Dardam, had spurned the offer by the government, describing it as an insult. He claimed that the group rejected the offer because it did not recognize democracy as a form of government and the Nigerian Constitution. According to Dardam, justice could only be guaranteed by the Shariya system of government as embedded in the Holy Quran.

The rejection of the offer by the sect leaders notwithstanding, the Federal Government on Wednesday named a 26-member panel to forge ahead with the process of ending the BH scourge in the land. The committee, which is headed by Nigeria’s Minister for Special Duties, Kabiru Tanimu Turaki, a lawyer from Kebbi State.  Under its terms of reference, the committee is expected to develop a framework that would lead to the disarmament of the fighting population of the sect and compensation for the victims of the violence within 60 days.

Presidential Media Spokesman, Reuben Abati, who unveiled the committee, said, “President Goodluck Jonathan has approved the constitution of a presidential committee to constructively engage key members of Boko Haram and define a comprehensive and workable framework for resolving the crisis of insecurity in the country.

The committee’s terms of reference will include developing a framework for the granting of amnesty; setting up of a framework through which disarmament could take place within a 60-day time frame, the development of a comprehensive victims’ support programme and the development of mechanisms to address the underlying causes of insurgencies that will help to prevent future occurrences,” Abati explained.

Not many Nigerians are however convinced that the plan would achieve the purpose for which it was hatched by the government. Those in this class, see the rush to offer unsolicited pardon to the sect as a ploy by the government to win the support of the northern region, which has been unsettled by the series of attacks unleashed by the group since 2009. They believe that Jonathan, who had earlier told the people of the region, during his March 2013 visit to Borno and Yobe States, that he could not deal with ghosts, was compelled by political interest rather than the altruistic quest for peace to change his mind and opt for amnesty, when the potential beneficiaries have not seen the need to surrender.

Those who are familiar with the problem, maintain that even the military high command, is of the opinion that the onslaught by the sect in parts of the north should have been settled militarily to serve as a deterrent to potential troublemakers in the country. However, the military option was quickly overruled for political overture because of the strong belief by the protagonists of Jonathan’s 2015 re-election project that he could not confront the north militarily and still hopes to garner its support to remain inside Aso Villa.

Incidentally, the same comfort zone that Jonathan is fighting jealously with audacity to keep is what a typical northerner is working hard to retrieve from him come 2015. Most Northern leaders are angry that Jonathan would have overstayed at the Villa should he contest and win the next election.

That in itself, is something they don’t even want to happen and some have suggested that the BH attacks are premeditated and aimed at destabilizing the Jonathan administration so as to portray it as weak and incapable of providing the required leadership and direction for Nigeria.

That school of thought has even given rise to a number of permutations in the north as to who among the leading politicians could be used to confront Jonathan and drive him out of his fortified palace come 2015 via the ballot.

While it is clear that the northern governors are united in the need to show Jonathan that they are against him for trying to repudiate a secret pact he entered into with them in 2010 to run for only one term of four years, it is still unclear if they can present a common candidate and stand by him when the time comes so as to achieve their purpose of returning power to the region.

The desire may just crumble like a pack of cards given the large number of persons who are known to have already signified interest to occupy the Villa and the fact that the political platform through which they can actualise their plan, is seriously and jealously being  guarded by Jonathan’s trusted allies in the ruling People’s Democratic Party, PDP. Unfortunately for the northern presidential agitators, none of the President’s trusted hands like Tony Anenih, Bamanga Tukur and the Chairman of the PDP GF, Godswill Akpabio, is willing to concede any space for any other Nigerian politician apart from their principal come 2015, given their utterances and kinetics so far.

The northern political gladiators, who are uncomfortable with the apparent political situation in the ruling party that Jonathan is consolidating the machinery towards giving him a seamless victory in 2015, may not be too excited to impress upon the BH sect leaders and members to come to the negotiation table, a plea that has become a refrain on Jonathan’s lips in recent times.

That, in itself, explains the continuous escalation of violence in some parts of the north despite the clarion call by the Presidency for cessation of violence in the region. Even with the unfolding of the amnesty process, two policemen were slain in Wednesday in Kaduna. A few days before then, gunmen had raided a police station in Adamawa and killed several persons in the state. Similar incidents occurred in Kano, Yobe and Borno, giving credence to the rejection of amnesty by the sect.

Angry Christian leaders across the north have kicked against the bid by the government to appease the BH sect with amnesty instead of whipping them into submission, as recalcitrant elements that deserve no pardon. They believe that the government must have been motivated by political gratification rather than the sheer search for peace and stability in the north.

According to the religious groups, the government should pay priority attention to the victims of the BH attacks, rather than waste time and resources in seeking peace with those they call faceless persons.

The groups likened the Presidency’s action to a suicide mission, which could in the end consume the whole nation, and asked Jonathan to be cautious with the plan and not allow political gains to becloud his sense of reasoning.

The Bauchi State Secretary of the Christian Association of Nigeria, CAN, Rev. Joshua Ray Mains, described the federal government offer of amnesty to the Islamic sect, Boko Haram as a suicidal strategy by President Jonathan for the 2015 election, saying the move would never achieve its goal for peace.

Mains said, “The issue of granting of amnesty to the Boko Haram group should not even arise in the first instance because up till today nobody can actually point out who members of this group are.

“Why should they be given amnesty? Are we congratulating them for the people they have sent to their early graves or are we encouraging them to continue with their acts so that other groups can take advantage of the amnesty and continue to disrupt the peace of the country?” he queried.

Lending his voice against any pardon for the sect, the Gombe Chairman of the Christian Association of Nigeria, Reverend Abare Kallah, said it would amount to a grave injustice if the government pampered the group with any pardon.

“We just want the President to stand on the right side of taking the right judgment about this thing. It’s not about favoring one side. We are also wounded. If they are thinking that amnesty is going to be given to Boko Haram, I am sure that there is going to be another faction or group that the federal government cannot contend with,” Abare Kallah, noted.

While not condemning the offer outright, the Prelate of Methodist Church of Nigeria, His Eminence, Dr Sunday Ola Makinde, pointed out that the offer should have been preceded by dialogue and plea for forgiveness by the sect and not the other way round.

“I am not comfortable with the government’s decision because they are putting the cart before the horse. Why can’t we first of all dialogue with these people and find out their grievances? The only thing that I read in the paper is that they want to Islamize Nigeria; we know that there are other grievances, which should be known before amnesty is given by the government”.

As if that was not enough, the National Chairman of the PDP, Tukur, described the group as evil-minded but did not say amnesty should not be granted to them, apparently because the party had welcomed with open arms the idea of offering pardon to the group. Olisa Metuh, who speaks for the party had in a reaction, described the amnesty process for the sect as the best decision at the moment.

Like Metuh, there are others, who do not see Jonathan’s action as a bad idea after all. Bauchi State Governor, Mallam Isa Yuguda, has described the amnesty offer by the Presidency as one of the best steps so far taken by the Jonathan’s administration. The governor is of the view that if well implemented, the pardon would go a long way to stabilize the north and bring about the much needed peace, which has been eluding the area for some time now.

In the same vein, Former Head of State and National leader of the Congress for Progressive Change, CPC, Major-General Muhammadu Buhari (Rtd.) has thrown his weight behind the proposed amnesty for Islamic sect, Boko Haram, commending the Federal Government for setting up a committee to handle the assignment and payment of compensation to victims of the attacks.

Apart from the local support that the planned amnesty is getting, the United States of America, has also thrown its weight behind the programme, saying that it was a good thing to do in order to nip the crisis in the bud.

The idea of granting amnesty to the sect was first mooted by the Sultan of Sokoto, His Eminence Muhammad Abubakar 111, a suggestion that first drew serious flaks from home and abroad from the Christian community. But he soon got some support from the Christian community, when John Cardinal Onaiyekan, backed him on the call, saying that it should be done if only it would bring about the much needed peace in the country.

Onaiyekan is of the view that while there is a religious dimension to the Boko Haram saga, political forces should lend a helping hand towards finding a lasting solution to the problem.

One thing that has come out of the various discussions on the Boko Haram sect is that head or tail, it is President Jonathan that takes the blame for every step he intends to take in connection with the group in the months leading to the next election.

Jonathan has really been boxed into a tight corner as far as the BH imbroglio is concerned. When his administration first insisted that it would not deal with ghosts unless the northern leaders impress upon the sect members to come out and identify themselves for possible dialogue with the government, he was chastised for not willing to pardon the recalcitrant elements from the north.

Paradoxically, now that Jonathan and his advisers have moved a notch further to strategize on how to give credence to the much awaited amnesty for the malevolent men, the same mouths that shouted from the rooftop that the government was insensitive to the plight of the north, are now lampooning the Jonathan and his government for even proposing amnesty.

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