Before We Grant Amnesty To Boko Haram, By ‘Fisayo Soyombo

I’ve been observing with keen interest the National Assembly’s recent efforts to solidify President Muhammadu Buhari’s offer of Nigeria-Delta-like amnesty to ‘repentant’ Boko Haram members. Buhari first made the offer in March 2018 while receiving the 107 of the 111 schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram in Dapchi, Yobe State, two months earlier. The following month, the military established a rehabilitation camp to “rehabilitate and reintegrate surrendered and repentant Boko Haram terrorist members” via an exercise known as Operation Safe Corridor (OPSC).

Last week, the Senate started considering a bill for an Act tagged ‘National Agency for Education, Rehabilitation, De-radicalisation and Integration of Repentant Insurgents in Nigeria 2020, SB. 340’, sponsored by Ibrahim Gaidam, the immediate past Governor of Yobe State who now represents Yobe East Senatorial District in the National Assembly. If it sails through, there will be legal backing for the reintegration of killer insurgents into the society. The agency to be created will be dedicated to “rehabilitating, deradicalising, educating and reintegrating the “repentant and detained members of the insurgent group to make them useful members of the society”.

It’s not like nothing happened between Buhari’s 2018 declaration and last week. Earlier in the month, the Borno State Government confirmed that some 1,400 repentant Boko Haram suspects had been released by the military and rehabilitated into society. Also this month, after visiting the camp where former fighters were being trained in vocational skills, Goni Alkali, Managing Director of the Northeast Development Commission, revealed that over 600 ex-Boko Haram fighters were being deradicalised under the OPSC project. Earlier batches comprised 97 and 243 ex-combatants. And in November 2019, the Defence Headquarters (DHQ) confirmed that the OPSC handed over 86 Boko Haram child fighters, “who voluntarily surrendered to troops”, to the Borno State Rehabilitation Centre in Bulumkutu.

Since the release of the 1,400, numerous groups have voiced their frustrations. Understandably, some of these positions have been influenced by Nigeria’s ethnic, religious and political cleavages. But if there’s any group whose dissent must be treated with utmost seriousness, it’s the soldiers. “A lot of soldiers are not happy about this,” one soldier told TheCable. “We were there at the Maimalari barracks when some of these Boko Haram people were released. The authorities are releasing them, but Boko Haram are killing soldiers that they capture. This does not make sense to us at all.”

For now, yes. I agree with that soldier’s misgivings about this kind of amnesty, but only for now — for the reasons of exigencies, voluntariness, timing and priority. At some point in the future, we will eventually need it. The current idea of amnesty for Boko Haram emanated from the tried and tested amnesty programme for Niger Delta militants begun by the late Umaru Musa Yar’Adua and finalised by the Goodluck Jonathan regime. But these are two completely different warfare, particularly regarding the triggers. The Niger Delta militancy was triggered by agitation for improved economic wellbeing of oil-producing communities and their people. The needs were clear regardless of the criminality of the approach: Niger Delta militants simply wanted a better life, whether or not they were ready to work for it. A money-spinning amnesty was always going to quell their anger.

Conversely, Boko Haram doesn’t want money. Its demands are unrealistic and downright impossible. The secular government isn’t going to give way; neither Buhari nor his successor will give up political power. Nigeria is never going to become a wholly Islamic state; Christianity and other religions won’t vanish anytime soon. And, yes, western education has come to stay. So, what exactly are you promising Boko Haram in exchange for a laying-down of weapons?

It’s bewildering to see that the government indeed thinks captured Boko Haram members have any choice other than repentance. The hallmark of any amnesty is the voluntariness with which its beneficiaries accept it. Majority of Niger-Delta repentant militants were youth in possession of arms and ammunition that they voluntarily laid down in moments when they were free men — not that they were subdued and left with no other survival option but freedom-motivated repentance. This is why many of these supposedly deradicalised insurgents will find their ways back to the forest to wreak more havoc on soldiers — because majority of them only surrendered and repented after their capture.

READ ALSO: Senate Moves To Create Agency For Repentant Boko Haram Members

And the timing. It is inconceivable that a government is offering killers amnesty when the armed forces and the people continue to suffer heavy casualties; it’s, quite simply, handing the opponent the advantage. Only exceptions are if the supposedly repentant insurgents were not captured or if the war itself is indeed over. The Buhari government has been saying for years that Boko Haram has been technically defeated, but attacks upon attacks show nothing could be further from the truth. Even if it is sporadic, this is certainly an ongoing war, and it’s terribly difficult to see the logic in handing amnesty to captured enemies in a war that is ongoing, one in which the field warriors are still harming the state.

One of the most astoundingly successful examples of reconciliation and amnesty is the Rwandan genocide. After the Rwandan genocide, during which over a million Hutus were killed by Tutsis, President Paula Kagame freed tens of thousands of genocide suspects from prison in a precarious attempt to balance justice against reconciliation. Those who were freed were required to confess their crimes and seek forgiveness from their victims. The Roman Catholic Church, being the most powerful institution in the country after the government, was heavily involved, encouraging ordinary people who participated in the genocide to ask forgiveness from survivors, and for survivors to grant it. The key thing here is that the survivors were a central part of this amnesty; it wasn’t imposed on them.

In Nigeria, though, the government doesn’t consider survivors of insurgency as stakeholders. Women whose husbands were killed, girls who were raped, sons whose fathers were kidnapped, people who were maimed are expected to accept supposedly de-radicalised insurgents back into the community. Just like that? Importantly, while ex-Boko Haram fighters are receiving attention, the victims aren’t. I have previously reported the conditions in one of the country’s biggest IDP camps — the corruption, the theft of foodstuffs, the misery, the child mortality. The government is moving to rebuild the cities in the North-East but it is overlooking the people who will inhabit them. Strange. As of September 2019, the North East Development Commission (NEDC), whose board had been inaugurated since May, was still talking about how it would “soon swing into action to execute all humanitarian plans that will be fashioned out by the management and board”.

At some point, we will need amnesty for the truly repentant — not the arrested — insurgents. But first, the government and people like Gaidam must understand it cannot be hinged on the Niger Delta amnesty. The government must be able to differentiate captured from repentant insurgents. The focus, for now, must remain squarely on strengthening the military to defeat the insurgents and giving governance a truly humanitarian face by rehabilitating victims/survivors of insurgency. Only when all these have been accomplished, or at least driven to a substantial level, can any serious government begin to talk about amnesty for killer Boko Haram fighters.

Soyombo, former Editor of the TheCable, the International Centre for Investigative Reporting (ICIR) and SaharaReporters, tweets @fisayosoyombo