April 20, 2013

The Boko Haram amnesty conundrum, by Chris Okotie

As you read this, President Goodluck Jonathan may  be on the verge of granting amnesty to the Boko Haram insurgent group at the behest of the Northern Elders Forum (NEF), who met with him during the week to discuss this sensitive issue.

Advocates of amnesty for Boko Haram are pointing to the Niger Delta precedent to justify this call which is clearly symptomatic of the frustration of the governing elite in the face of a stalemated war that has no borders, or a specific target or a discernible, civilised objective. Other than the abolition of western education and the imposition of Sharia  in the North, the group isn’t saying anything worthwhile; even these demands are as idiotic as they are unreasonable. How do we begin to turn back the clock of civilisation because of a few misguided armed marabouts?

Amnesty, meanwhile, seems an easy way out of a crisis that appears to be turning gradually into a quagmire like is the case of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq where living with terror has become a way of life. It was once a virtual impossibility to imagine that Nigerians would be living with terror, but that, for us, is now a terrifying reality. And the ruling elite have themselves to blame for this embarrassing war.

There’s no shred of evidence that the Jonathan administration, despite its lackadaisical approach,  is not doing its best in the fight against terrorism and other violent crimes. The escalation of violence of all shades- armed robberies, kidnappings, ritual killings, domestic violence, face book-related attacks and terrorism, is a clear indication that its best efforts are not enough. It is time to change gear. How this insidious evil became a murderous terror machine, that it is today under our eyes, is a question the nation’s ruling elite is unable to answer; the option of a general amnesty may be a vivid testimony of the growing exasperation of the elite with an evil it birthed but could no longer control.

Since the Boko Haram insurgent group declared war against the country under the Yar’Adua administration, government has responded, using conventional methods to contain an unusual enemy which operates by the unconventional methods of urban guerrilla warfare. In trying to nip it in the bud at the initial stage of the crisis, he police allegedly killed the acknowledged leader of the group, Yusuf Foi, an ex-commissioner in Borno State. That’s one of the main grudges of Boko Haram and it is believed that the summary execution  of  Foi  actually removed the lid from the tinder box.

Since the elimination of the leader, the group has splintered into different dangerous factions under faceless leaders with varying and conflicting agendas, but all united under the banner of political Sharia. Today, having developed into a well – funded international terror organisation, we have no idea who controls which of its various tentacles, but one thing is certain: Boko Haram has managed to hook up with Al- Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, AQIM, with dire implications for the security of the sub-Sahara, apart from Nigeria.

With Boko Haram so fragmented and dangerously polarised along ideological, theological and political divides, including some criminal elements here and there, it has become a loose cannon that threatens everybody but themselves. Running an unprecedented violent campaign first, against internal rivals, then the police for an alleged injustice and now against everyone in sight, Boko Haram is the biggest agent of destabilization in the country apart from corruption in high places.

Now, the argument for Boko Haram’s amnesty cannot stand on the logic of the one granted to the Niger Delta militants because both armed groups may have levied war against their country, Nigeria, their individual motives and corporate objectives are as different as their tactics and targets. Boko Haram turned their guns against innocent worshippers mostly in churches, and a few mosques, bombed police and military targets and caused massive blood bathe through their reckless attacks on public buildings, residential districts, public and major business outlets, and industrial installations.

Generally, Boko Haram is a vampire on the loose whose objective is not just to Islamise Nigeria, but to rid it totally of western influence. The group is now present in every part of Nigeria, getting set for a bloody campaign down South. Talk about a bull in a China shop!

In contrast, the Niger Delta militants are environmental activists and armed campaigners for economic justice for the alienated people of the Delta region, whose lands have been destroyed by decades of oil exploration without any visible positive impact on the people’s welfare.

The wild boys of Niger Delta never threatened those outside the realm of their agitation. They didn’t bring religious or tribal sentiments into their campaign or align with foreign terror groups to levy war against their own people to attain some mindless, esoteric objectives.

The Niger Delta amnesty cannot possibly be a template any more than the pardon of Abacha’s coupist justifies Alameyesiegha’s clemency. Boko Haram and the Niger Delta militants are two of a kind but unique in their different colourations. We knew and still know who the Delta militants are; but we don’t know the faces behind Boko Haram. That is why the government is unable to negotiate with them.

Nobody can justify an amnesty for a group that is not committed to dialogue. If Boko Haram’s body language speaks of peace, the Federal Government, tired of battle with the recalcitrant Islamic militants, would have no choice than to bring amnesty as a bait on the table.

Amnesty is justifiable under an atmosphere of jaw-jaw or during a carrot and stick situation, not when one side to the conflict is invisible, implacable and unwilling to accept anything but its own terms, which in the case of Boko Haram, cannot stand on any civilised logic.

Nevertheless if the northern leaders strongly believe amnesty is a way out at this stage, it is worth giving a try. However, beyond clamouring for amnesty for the terror group, the NEF must give some form of assurance that it would actively participate in enforcing the peace we all expect.

*Okotie is a pastor and politician.