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Comment & analysis

Nigeria: Amnesty as double-edged sword

Abdulrazaq Magaji

2013-04-29, Issue 627

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Let the government of Nigeria proceed with an amnesty for Boko Haram. But it should also announce a package of compensation for individuals and organizations that suffered injustice at the hands of terror group

The war appears almost won and almost lost. For months on end, advocates and opponents of amnesty for members of the Boko Haram sect have made strong submissions to press their case. After consistently balking at the idea, Nigeria’s president, Goodluck Jonathan, finally yielded ground; a look at the political capital involved is too juicy to be ignored by an incumbent with his eyes on the 2015 general elections. The 26-member committee set up by the Government of Nigeria to work out modalities for the amnesty will soon turn in a report in which main recommendation is predictable. One can only hope that being his first major decision in deference to public outcry, granting amnesty to Boko Haram turns out to be the best decision taken by a president whose greatest forte is not taking popular decisions.

This is one occasion for Nigerians to disregard the clumsiness of their country’s leadership and rally around the embodiment of that leadership—the president—who genuinely deserves the sympathy of his struggling countrymen and women. Granting amnesty to Boko Haram will take a great deal of political engineering, another weakness of this presidency, to handle. The issue has been contentious and divisive and it appears the president, more because of the exigencies of 2015, has finally allowed himself to be wheedled into taking a second look at it. Those who clamoured for it genuinely believe amnesty will dam the flood of security challenges in northern Nigeria; others suggested, preposterously, that amnesty for Boko Haram will balance a similar amnesty granted to the militants in the Niger Delta! If it scales through, this will be the second time in five years that insurgents will be so treated. Of course, it is too early to hope and wish that Nigerians are about to witness the last amnesty for insurgents! The reason for this is simple: there are many Nigerians who believe that this impending amnesty is a repetition of an error; an action that may, in the immediate future and in the long run, prove to be harmful to the country! Amnesty is a double-edged sword of a sort; it is as much a tonic as it is an elixir! Risk it and it could become a tonic for some starry-eyed individuals elsewhere to take up arms; refuse it, on the other hand, and risk being dubbed a sectional leader with an agenda to decimate one section of the country!

Unlike the first one, the impending amnesty is full of drama. The amnesty was spurned by its potential beneficiaries even before it was granted when a leader of the group claimed his fighters did nothing wrong in the three years of targeted killings and bombings that the group claimed responsibility for and which have widowed many and orphaned many more. Such careless talk lends credence to the position of those who oppose a blanket amnesty. As defenders of the Islamic faith, which members of Boko Haram claim to be, they should know that there are steps, prescribed by the Shari’ah, which they need to take if they genuinely seek the face of God and man. If and when they realize they are in error, become repentant, and wish to be accepted and integrated, it should not be asking for too much to ask them to follow the strict ways prescribed by the Shari’ah by asking for forgiveness from those people, Muslims and non-Muslims, they have orphaned and widowed. This step is simple: the killers among them should approach the families of those they have killed, confess their sins, and ask to be forgiven. It is left for surviving family members to forgive and let go, otherwise, the Qur’an is clear on the fate of these killers: they too must be killed or made to pay blood-money for taking lives they neither created nor can restore to life. This is in addition to the mandatory and unbroken two-month long fasting prescribed for taking a life, be it that of a Muslim or non-Muslim. After all these requirements, it is the prerogative of God to decide the fate of a killer. For the avoidance of doubt, passing the death sentence, in strict Muslim societies, is not the prerogative of bandits and criminals but by a recognised body of leaders who must be unanimous in their verdict. God knows man has the capacity to be animalistic and perpetrate jungle justice and that is why He prescribed ways to regulate societies; otherwise man will not be different from wild animals.

Let the Government of Nigeria announce an amnesty for Boko Haram. Let the government also announce a package of compensation for individuals and organizations that suffered injustice at the hands of Boko Haram. But more importantly, the government should capture the whole country for an urgent and comprehensive rehabilitation drive rather than falling for the ever-present temptation of appeasing insurgents! And for this urgent rehabilitation drive to make sense, the odious practice of slapping the hands of treasury-hijackers should be jettisoned. This new-found fad of judges asking self-confessed criminals to forfeit an insignificant fraction of looted public funds and granting amnesty to criminals who have confessed to hijacking state treasuries, weird and obnoxious as it is, has become unbearable for the most patient among straight-thinking Nigerians. In a way, the practice is like appeasing repentant bandits because it sends wrong signals and emboldens potential criminals who may see nothing wrong with carrying guns to do what treasury-hijackers do with their pens.

Today, those who kicked against the amnesty of the late President Umaru MusaYar’adua for the militants in the Niger Delta are sneering because it has created more problems than it was meant to solve. Sadly, many Nigerians now consider former president, Olusegun Obasanjo, as a saint and not a man who perpetrated serious atrocities in the region, while Yar’adua, the man who opted for dialogue, is ironically made to look like a horned, black-faced devil! If truth be told, the idea of throwing money at the Niger Delta crisis was a brilliant idea; the snag, however, was the failure on the part of authorities to capture the whole country for a rehabilitation programme. This failure largely explains the poverty-driven violence in parts of the north of the country. Let no one be fooled; the violence in parts of northern Nigeria is mainly driven by poverty; it has nothing to do with reviving Islam or with the hare-brained theory that killing people is the passport to paradise.

Rather than wishing for the problem to evaporate, Nigeria can and should replicate the Yar’adua formula across the country. And in the name of decency, the governors of the nineteen states in the north should quit the needless but potentially harmful bickering over whom among them will run for president in 2015. They should also quit complaining about perceived lopsided federal allocations, most of which end up in private pockets anyway; spend more of the little they receive in federal allocation on developmental programmes; and explore the abundant non-oil resources in the vast plain of northern Nigeria.

* Abdulrazaq Magaji is based in Abuja, Nigeria

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