The remains of a car bomb in 2011. Boko Haram claimed responsibility. (Image credit: UNDP) The remains of a car bomb in 2011. Boko Haram claimed responsibility. (Image credit: UNDP)

Madam Bila is sitting outside the wreckage of her once beautiful home, staring blankly into an empty sky. When I meet her in Ganye, a town in the eastern state of Adamawa, she points at the spot where Boko Haram Islamists gunned down her husband and hundreds of others. She still can feel the smell of burnt human flesh.

When I ask her what she thinks of the amnesty the Nigerian government offered to Boko Haram, she sighs and groans with pain, unable to speak. All she wants from the government is justice for her late husband.

“They must be captured and killed. They don’t deserve any mercy!” she whispers.

In April, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan set up a committee to look at the possibility of granting an amnesty to Boko Haram militants, but the Islamist group rejected the offer.

Some within the Christian community who have borne the brunt of this conflict cannot understand why the government would reward killers with freedom and funds. There is no doubt that Boko Haram poses an existential threat to the Nigerian state. The atrocities and sectarian violence perpetrated by this group are well documented. Its activities have caused chaos in the north-east, spread fear of counter-attacks and left Nigerian authorities scrambling for security.

For a long time, in the Nigerian political scene there have been debates on the best possible approach in handling the widespread political killings and torture conducted by Boko Haram, and on the need to prevent future mass atrocities. But how is the amnesty offer understood within the Nigerian context? And what are the implications for the future resolution of the conflict in Nigeria?

Boko Haram Amnesty: The Nigerian Way

The call for an amnesty was first suggested by Alhaji Saad Abubakar, Sultan of Sokoto and Muslim leader. At the 2013 annual meeting of the Jama’atul Nasril Islam (JNI), an umbrella group for the Muslim community in Nigeria, he advised the president to “declare amnesty to all combatants without thinking twice”. Under the pressure of the northern elders' forum, the government set up a committee to explore the feasibility of the amnesty bid.

This was not the first time the government discussed an amnesty. Back in 2009 it offered an amnesty to the militants of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), who had raised up against growing poverty, unemployment, and environmental degradation in their region. Local protests culminated in attacks against oil installations.To stop the insurrection the administration of Yar’Adua proclaimed a 60-day blanket amnesty for all Niger Delta militants. Those who surrendered their arms were unquestionably granted freedom from persecution.

To some extent, this amnesty programme was regarded as a massive achievement for the Yar’Adua administration. Over 20,000 militants were disarmed and relative peace was restored. However, the amnesty was criticized because militants were exempted from prosecution regarding all their crimes and without any preconditions. They were not even required to give full disclosure of what they did. Rather than being a product of multilateral negotiations between the government and the militants, the amnesty programme was unilaterally decreed from above. The impression was that the amnesty was a gift bestowed by the state on its penitent subjects, whose misdeeds and crimes it had magnanimously chosen to forgive.

Also regarding the Boko Haram amnesty, it is not clear whether the militants will be exempted from criminal prosecutions, civil prosecutions or both. Furthermore, there is no indication on which kind of crimes committed will be nullified.

While discussing the amnesty programme, the government not only proscribed the group but also declared a state of emergency in Adamawa, Borno and Yobe States. But how can the government negotiate with a group that is proscribed and declared illegal? Are negotiations possible while in the midst of a state of emergency?

The recent attacks in North-eastern Nigeria, despite the amnesty bid and the state of emergency, indicate that the entire policy is drifting aimlessly.
The recent attacks in North-eastern Nigeria, despite the amnesty bid and the state of emergency, indicate that the entire policy is drifting aimlessly. On September 29, Boko Haram rebels shot dead 50 students as they slept in their dormitory, at the College of Agriculture in Yobe state.

Alhaji Kabiru Turaki, the Chairman of the Amnesty Committee, recently claimed on behalf of the Federal Government to have signed a ceasefire with the “authentic” members of Boko Haram. This suggests that the government not only unilaterally decreed the amnesty, but it is now deciding who is an authentic Boko Haram member and who is not.

Moreover, the Director of Defence Information (DDI), Brig-Gen. Chris Olukolade, said in an interview that the military had not been informed of the agreement. This fundamental crack in communication between the military and the committee further confirms the lack of seriousness of the government policy.

A divided opinion: can amnesty bring peace?

There is an intense debate on whether amnesty should be granted to Boko Haram members or not. Those policymakers who support the  programme argue that the amnesty is necessary to prevent further violence. They insist that prosecutions (including for alleged war crimes committed by military officers) could be a waste of resources and that politically charged trials could further destabilise the fragile democratic state. Prosecutions might even provoke rebellion or confrontation capable of weakening the authority of the civilian government, leading to more bloodshed. Amnesty therefore should be considered as a necessary means to end the Boko Haram conflict, maintain tranquility, and strengthen democracy and civilian rule.

Similarly, some prominent Nigerians like Nuhu Ribadu, former government anti-corruption official, and human rights activist Shehu Sani, argue that amnesty remains the viable option to forestall future atrocities and continuous violence. They also add that peace in the North is particularly urgent, because the region is falling behind in terms of economic progress and development. Achieving peace, therefore, should be more important that prosecuting perpetrators of violence.

On the contrary, people like Madam Bila and other victims oppose amnesty arguing that the failure to punish perpetrators deforms the authority of law. Impunity in Nigeria has become a culture and a mentality. Failure to enforce the law may undermine the legitimacy of the government and breed cynicism towards civilian institutions. In addition, the prosecution of Boko Haram members will expose the truth about their violent crimes and terrorist activities. Their prosecutions can discourage potential lawbreakers and shield the public against future temptation to be complicit in both state and non-state violence.

Most Christian groups in northern Nigeria insist that trials and prosecutions could inspire Nigeria to reassert the fundamental principles of respect for the rule of law, freedom of religion and the inherent dignity of individuals. A Pastor of the Redeemed Church whose place of worship was completely burnt down in Mubi said:

Prosecutions of extremists will show that no one is above the law. Punishment will rehabilitate victims of violence and fulfils society’s duty to honour and redeem the suffering of the individual victim.
Those who have suffered Boko Haram’s atrocities argue that declaring amnesty could exclude the victims from the debate. There are fears that a certain social principle is being established in Nigeria: victims of violence are neglected while perpetrators are rewarded. Rewarding the rebels financially for surrendering their arms is likely to attract other young people to join the sect.

Critics also argue that Nigeria lacks the institutional structures for rehabilitating, reabsorbing and reintegrating terrorists in its midst. In fact, one of the critical points for the failure of the Niger Delta amnesty was the inadequate rehabilitation programme designed to give the ex-militants social and job skills.

Implications for Boko Haram's future

It is also worth considering why Boko Haram rejected the amnesty offer. Clearly, there is an emerging split within the group. The more liberal wing (the Yusufiya Islamic Movement),  led by Mamman Nur, is calling for negotiations with the government. The radical wing, represented by Abu Shekau, advocates for the use of violence and implementation of Sharia law. The amnesty offer was rejected by Abu Shekau, but this does not imply that he represents both groups, and neither that the liberal wing would have accepted the offer.

The only thing that is clear is that the group members do not feel threatened by the prospects of prosecution in Nigeria’s domestic courts. Accountability institutions have been weakened and history has shown that people who commit serious crimes normally can get away with it. Not only serious atrocities committed during the civil war, but also abuses under repressive military regimes – such as those of the northern Generals Buhari, Babangida and Abacha - were not prosecuted and were swept under the carpet. In addition to these, President Goodluck Jonathan recently granted state pardon to former Bayelsa state governor, Chief Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, known for corruption in Nigeria and wanted for financial crimes in the UK and other western countries.

That is why in his rejection, Shekau clearly stated: “Surprisingly, the Nigerian government is talking about granting us amnesty. What wrong have we done? On the contrary, it is us that should grant you [a] pardon.” This is a clear reference to the failings of the political class, whose privileges and corruption have led to underdevelopment, substantially massive poverty and misery among ordinary citizens, especially in the North.

An uncertain future

Another fear is what the reaction of the Niger Delta militants could be. Their amnesty programme has failed: they have resumed attacks on oil facilities and kidnappings have not stopped. In fact, in May they kidnapped and killed 12 policemen, announcing shortly after that they would attack mosques and Islamic clerics who preach hate messages to their followers. They also said the attacks were meant to “save Christians from Boko Haram”.

This rhetoric indicates a shift in both ideological and historical stances of the MEND, who were known for articulating regional resource grievances and not religious ones. The combination of regional, resource and religious rhetoric raises serious security concerns.

Although amnesty remains a necessary step to achieve peace, the Nigerian government must avoid turning amnesty programmes into avenues for financial embezzlement. Furthermore, structures for the rehabilitation of militia groups in or outside the country should be considered. Above all, the structural poverty, socio-economic conditions and weak accountability institutions that support the emergence of militia groups should be addressed urgently. Otherwise, it is Boko Haram today and another monster tomorrow.