The news filtered through some seven years ago that Boko Haram would be forgiven, upon wilful surrender, with certain rewards. The gambit died at first, overwhelmed by criticism and opposition but was brought forward in 2015, when a new government came to power.
President Buhari: ‘This Country Has Suffered Enough of Hostility’
“This country has suffered enough of hostility,” President Muhammadu Buhari told reporters in March 2018, after a back channel negotiation that led to the release of 107 of the 111 schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram in Dapchi, Yobe State in northeast Nigeria. “The government is ever ready to accept the unconditional laying down of arms by any member of the Boko Haram group. We are ready to rehabilitate and integrate such repentant members into the larger society,” Buhari added.
In the months that followed, camps were built in the three most impacted north-eastern states of Gombe, Adamawa and Borno. The so-called Operation Safe Corridor, (OPSC), involved keeping insurgents in camps for months, teaching them new skills, moderating their religious ideology and then sending them back into the society. So far, figures collated from multiple media reports show that over 2000 ex-insurgents have benefited from the government amnesty.
Unfair Reward for Vicious Murderers
Five years later, opposition against the government amnesty is growing, especially among the communities where the insurgents were once members. There is also anger from security experts and wives of killed military officers. These groups lost wives, husbands and witnessed the burning their homes, mosques, and churches.
The memories that still linger years after now hurt afresh when the insurgents who are at the center of these tragedies return to the society – free from justice, paid compensation and forgiven. Amnesty, wasn’t the choice of the people most impacted by Boko Haram’s vicious violence, nor were they consulted about whether this approach was acceptable to them. This, in part, makes returnees isolated – if not vulnerable to retaliatory aggression from obviously unhealed host communities.
Is Boko Haram Gaming the Amnesty System?
Some security experts also suggest that the risk is high as amnesty for a powerful group like Boko Haram can be too fragile to generate guarantees. Boko Haram could be tactically sending members to spy government plans, gather information and return for deadlier operations. They argue, for example, that ideologies that drive terrorism are deep and exceedingly tough to erase on a short term. In fact, doing so would require much more than Nigeria’s present approach to work, experts argue.
Meanwhile, the government was barely so kind to the survivors of the insurgency as to the perpetrators. While rehabilitation camps for the insurgents are richly furnished, United Nations estimates that over 7 million people still need emergency assistance in Nigeria. Since the start of the Boko Haram insurgency in 2009, armed group seeking to impose Islamic governance upon Nigeria – Africa’s largest country, it is estimated that around 35, 000 persons have died to terror attacks, while 2.3 million people remain displaced from their homes and communities.
‘They Should Be Punished Like Any Other Criminal’
Last month, ex-military officers and widows of military officers who lost their lives fighting terrorists in Nigeria protested the release of the insurgents, suggesting that the government was betraying the sacrifices of their husbands.
“They (terrorists) should face justice. You know they are involved in the killing and maiming of soldiers. So, whenever they are arrested, they should be punished like any other criminal,” Mrs/ Edith Opesanmi, the National Vice President of the Military Widows Association, told local press. “We widows feel bad about it. Our husbands go to fight these terrorists and keep dying. The number of widows is increasing daily.”
The Wrong Time to Forgive
While some security experts admit that amnesty will be necessary at some point, they also suggest that timing and context could make a difference between merited and underserved amnesty.
In Pakistan, for example, Ehsanullah Ehsan, the Taliban terrorist key figure who in 2012 shot Nobel Prize winner Malala Yousafzai for campaigning for female education in Swat Valley, earned amnesty only after he surrendered in 2017. Reports suggested terms of his pardon included offering secret tips to security agents about the inner workings of the Taliban.
Boko Haram, though broken into factors, is still powerful and killed about 30 persons in Maiduguri – the epicentre of the Boko Haram insurgency only two days after the release of another batch of 1,400 supposedly repentant insurgents.
Figures from the US-based think tank Institute for Economics and Peace show that 2018 deaths from terrorism in Nigeria rose to 2,040 in 2018, a 33 per cent increase despite an overall 89 per cent decline from their peak in 2014.
Amnesty: the Unwanted Solution
Careful attention to security and a clear sense of justice are key to amnesty. It must begin with a thoughtful separation of extremists through a transitional justice system mindful of the fact that some terrorists were possibly forcefully recruited while others operated in largely non-violent roles such as cooks, drivers, sex slaves, wives and cleaners. Nonetheless, many were fanatical murderers and amnesty is the last thing they should receive.
In countries where amnesty currently applied in various shades like Iraq, Somalia and Pakistan, traces of justice mingle with mercy. But considering Nigeria’s peculiar situation with Boko Haram: expanding front lines, emerging new factions, abuse of due process, lack of support for survivors, recent deadly offensives and terrible war crimes against millions of Nigerians and other West African neighbors, Boko Haram at the moment is neither deserving or ready for amnesty.