President Muhammadu Buhari said on March 23 that his government would grant amnesty to Boko Haram members that are ready to lay down their arms. “We are ready to rehabilitate and integrate such repentant members into the larger society,” he said. He’s actually already been doing that, and the consequence has been devastating.
This is at once immoral and unwise. It’s a signal that mass murder has no consequence. This is a government that is almost consciously goading Shia Muslims to take up arms against the state through its continued illegal detention of El-Zakzaky and its unprovoked violent attacks on peaceful, unarmed Shia protesters demanding the release of their leader. This is a government that violently suppressed Biafra agitators who never killed anybody. Yet it wants to forgive and reward mass murderers who have slaughtered and continue to slaughter thousands of innocent souls. (Rather sadly, no one talks about compensating victims of Boko Haram’s reign of terror.)
The proposed amnesty for Boko Haram in many ways proves Voltaire’s point about how society rewards mass murderers and punishes petty murderers: “It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets,” he said.
What follows is an abridged version of a column I wrote on April 13, 2013 when former President Goodluck Jonathan was browbeaten by northern elders to grant amnesty to Boko Haram members. As I correctly predicted in the column, the group rejected the amnesty offer. Except for a few details, nothing has changed:
No issue has confounded me more deeply in recent times than “northern elders’” intensely sustained advocacy for “amnesty” for Boko Haram mass murderers-and the Goodluck Jonathan administration’s apparent willingness to be railroaded into rewarding mass murder. Is there not even the vaguest pretense to decency in Nigeria anymore?
What moral code can possibly justify the granting of pardon to shadowy, nihilistic, and unrepentant merchants of deaths who traffic in the cold-blooded mass murders of innocent men, women, and children; who have rendered thousands of people orphans and widows and widowers; and who have made life a living hell for millions more? What, in the name of justice and all that is decent, can justify the mollycoddling of obdurate, demented, bloody-thirty cowards who delight in inflicting death, destruction, and misery on innocents?
I am aware that there are many well-meaning people who advocate “amnesty” for Boko Haram out of a genuine frustration with the persistent violence in northern Nigeria and the apparent inability of security agencies to contain this violence. For such people, anything at all that would bring an end to Boko Haram’s sanguinary fury that has seen vast swaths of northern Nigeria drenched with the blood of innocents is welcome.
But there are others for whom amnesty for Boko Haram represents little more than narcissistic self-preservation. When Boko Haram murdered ordinary folks-irrespective of their religious affiliations and ethnic identities-no “northern elder” cared. As a matter of fact, People’s Democratic Party chairman Bamanga Tukur said on May 16, 2011 that Boko Haram was not only fighting for justice; it is “another name for justice.” (But he described the group as “evil” after they attacked his hometown a few weeks ago!)
“Northern elders” began to sing the chorus of amnesty for Boko Haram only when the group started targeting high-profile elites of the region with uncanny regularity.
There are yet others for whom amnesty is just good old business. Elaborate but redundant bureaucracies will be created in the service of the “amnesty,” and billions, perhaps trillions, of naira will be shared between the as yet unidentified leaders of Boko Haram and the “northern elders” who would act as mediators between government and Boko Haram. The Jonathan administration’s interest in all this, of course, begins and ends with solid guarantees for “northern elders’” support for his 2015 reelection bid.
So this has nothing to do with the north or the south (or, for that matter, with Muslims or Christians) and everything to do with the nakedly mercenary self-interests of a privileged, rapacious, self-selected few. That is why talks of “amnesty” often preclude compensation for the thousands of victims of Boko Haram violence.
This is all so short-sighted and self-destructive for so many obvious reasons. Boko Haram members have never admitted guilt for their mass murders. You can’t give amnesty to an impenitent wrongdoer. What is worse, we have no clear sense what Boko Haram’s actual grouse is. The little we know isn’t even remotely a basis for negotiation. For instance, we learn from Boko Haram leaders’ media interviews that they want President Goodluck Jonathan to convert to Islam and for the entire country to be ruled by Sharia. Those are impossible demands to grant.
The Islam that Boko Haram murderers claim to be inspired by allows for religious freedom even within Islamic states. That fact is so elementary in Islam as to be unworthy of any further elaboration. So why grant amnesty to people whose demands you can never, ever meet? In any case, how do we reconcile the nature and target of Boko Haram’s terror campaign-indiscriminate murders of Christians and Muslims, children and adults, men and women, the rich and the poor, southerners and northerners, Nigerians and foreigners, etc.-with their so-called grouse?
The truth is that Boko Haram is an anarchic, trigger-happy, self-abnegating group of mass murderers that derive perverse joy in death and violence for the hell of it. No amount of appeasement will mollify them.
In 2011, Governor Kashim Shetima of Borno State extended amnesty to the same Boko Haram murderers some “northern elders” have become passionate defenders of. They rejected it. In rejecting the amnesty offer, the group’s spokesman told the Hausa service of the BBC that Boko Haram neither recognizes democracy as a form of government nor the Nigerian constitution as the foundation of Nigeria’s nationhood. So what inspires the confidence of “northern elders” that Boko Haram will accept the amnesty they are blackmailing President Jonathan into giving them now?
Of course, when the amnesty is finally offered to Boko Haram, they will reject it, and the violence in the north will only escalate because Boko Haram members will be emboldened in more ways than they had ever been. They will interpret the offer of amnesty as a signal of government’s surrender and as evidence of their superiority.
Even if Boko Haram members accept the offer of amnesty from the federal government (which they won’t), it would be unsustainable in the long run. It would be a faint scratch on the surface of a deep-rooted problem that is sure to recrudesce intermittently.