Considering the fireworks that accompanied any mention of it during President Jonathan's visit to Borno and Yobe states last month, last Thursday's announcement that government was setting up a panel to examine the issue of amnesty for Boko Haram fighters was seen by many Nigerians as a swift about turn. Okay, government did not exactly say it has accepted the amnesty idea. What it agreed to, under pressure from a delegation of eminent Northern elders, was to set up a committee to examine the feasibility or otherwise of granting the amnesty and if so, under what terms and modalities. Not exactly a swift about turn; more like an articulated truck making a u-turn on a Trunk C road.
We cannot be sure at this moment why the president changed his mind and agreed to consider this option. According to a presidency official who briefed newsmen, Jonathan was bowing to widespread public clamour to consider the amnesty option. When the Northern Elders' Forum delegation led by Alhaji Yusuf Maitama Sule arrived for the visit, the president was already having a rethink on the idea that he harshly turned down when it was earlier proposed by Sultan Muhammadu Sa'ad and a bevy of Borno/Yobe elder statesmen.
Although its proponents are eminent, the clamour for amnesty is not universal. At the forefront of opposition to it is CAN President Pastor Ayo Oritsejafor, who said it should not be contemplated unless compensation is paid to victims of Boko Haram attacks. He added for effect that "most of the victims are Christians." Now, while the attacks on churches packed with worshippers was one of the most egregious deeds of the insurgents, it is doubtful if Christians would form a majority, not to mention "most" victims of Boko Haram violence. Without getting caught up in the "religious character" of victims, the matter of victims' compensation is an important one. It is doubtful however if government can fully compensate all victims of this terrible episode. Just like religious character, some Northern clamourers for amnesty have tended to muddle the message by casting the amnesty suggestion in federal character terms. They seem to be saying that "since our son Yar'adua granted amnesty to Niger Delta criminals, then Niger Delta's son must grant amnesty to our own criminals." If we are to uphold that "principle," then no one will ever be punished for any crime in Nigeria.
As far as I can see, the most important argument for amnesty is the hope that it could help to bring the insurgency to an end, restore peace to Nigeria, end the state of siege in many Northern cities and highways, send soldiers back to their barracks, free the people of the North East from the twin evils of insurgent bombings and murderous JTF counter attacks, and free the economy from uncertainty so hurtful to business and investment. That we arrived at this stage is itself a sign of changing times. Up until last year, two major conspiracy theories battled for contention on the Boko Haram affair. Niger Delta chieftains in control of the Federal Government tended to believe that Boko Haram was a Northern political leaders' plot to thwart their presidency. On the other hand, many Northerners, hard put to explain the mindless violence unleashed by Boko Haram, thought the Federal Government was sponsoring the insurgency in order to cripple the North. Jonathan's nepotistic appointment of Niger Deltans Azazi and Ekpenyong in charge of the security agencies fuelled the suspicions.
Exactly what assurances did the amnesty proponents give the president? Did they assure him, for instance, that Boko Haram leaders and fighters will accept amnesty, lay down their arms and surrender their weapons? For that is the great rub. It was US President Ronald Reagan who said in relation to US-Soviet nuclear arms reduction talks in 1982 that "it takes two to tango." Brow-beating the presidency is only half of this tango. The possibility still exists that government's committee made of soldiers and security men could come up with a proposal advising against the amnesty deal. Or maybe they won't, but they could suggest that amnesty be offered on such terms as to make it certain to fail. Bureaucrats and security personnel are adept at such tactics. Maybe this was why the Northern Governors Forum called for an expansion of the committee to include other stakeholders.
Boko Haram is the second wild card in this tango. Despite all the apparent magnanimity involved in government granting amnesty, in reality, Boko Haram is expected to give even more before the whole think can work. Certainly it has its own demands. Late last year, I answered a mysterious phone call from a mosque imam with apparent deep Boko Haram ties. For more than an hour, he lectured me on what he called the injustices in Nigeria and how the government is feting Niger Delta militants with billions of naira in contracts while it is pursuing and killing Boko Haram fighters.
After listening to him for more than an hour, when I was able to put in a word, I asked him if there are conditions under which Boko Haram could stop fighting and embrace peace. I was careful not to cast myself as a government negotiator, but as a newspaper columnist who could then "advocate" such a deal to government. He went ahead to list three conditions, each trickier than the previous one. First, he said Boko Haram will lay down its arms if justice is established in Nigeria. At that, I gulped involuntarily and said, "Imam, it is not possible to establish justice in Nigeria or anywhere else between today and tomorrow. In fact, justice is a goal that we constantly strive towards but may never attain. I don't think a day will ever come when we will get up and say today, justice has been established in Nigeria."
I asked him if there is a more down to earth conditionality. Indeed there is; he said if government will hand over former Borno State governor Ali Modu Sheriff to the sect, they will stop fighting. This time I gulped twice. Speaking again as a media man I said, "Imam, there is no way we can advocate for the government to handover a citizen to you for punishment. It is more reasonable if you demand that Sheriff be investigated for his role in the 2009 events and punished according to the law if found guilty." I again asked if there is another condition. Yes there is, he said. If JTF is withdrawn from Maiduguri, he said Boko Haram will lay down its arms. This time I gulped three times and said, "Imam, there is no way we media men can tell the government to withdraw soldiers from Maiduguri unless you guys stop fighting first."
I do not know to what extent my caller reflected the mind of Boko Haram's leaders. Only a direct contact with its leaders can find that out. Don't forget, if Boko Haram were to accept amnesty and end its insurgency, the sect must abandon its goal of creating an Islamic state; it must modify its haughty claim that only its leaders know the true interpretation of Qur'anic verses on jihad; it must sever its international jihadist connections; it must lay down its arms and surrender its weapons; it must recognise the Nigerian state; it must agree that it has committed crimes for which its members will be pardoned. What can it realistically get in return? Pardon for offences committed is the most obvious one, including the release of hundreds of its captured fighters and their family members. Its destroyed mosque in Maiduguri could also be rebuilt. Compensation for extra-judicial murder has already been paid to Malam Mohamed Yusuf's family, and the sect could regain the freedom to worship as it pleases [under constant security watch, since it once took up arms]. Amnesty is just a start; it takes two to tango.