Amnesty for Boko Haram: carrot approach to ending a damaging insurgency 1

BOKO-HARAMWhen the news filtered out last week that the Defence Headquarters had established a rehabilitation camp for repentant Boko Haram terrorists, it was a culmination of a long debate on the subject. Since 2009, when the Nigerian State began showing signs of difficulties in dealing with the audacious challenge of State authority, vocal voices emerged, insisting that the carrot of amnesty should be dangled before the blood thirsty hounds. The thinking at the time was that the sectarian motivation of the terrorists, who sought to create a Caliphate within Nigerian territory could be countered using the soft power approach. At the time, the Nigerian State was on the back foot. The deranged elements earlier propped up by political gladiators had grown into full scale monsters causing sleepless nights for the rest of the country. At some point, the amnesty offer became a ready concession made by weary citizens who had seen the Boko Haram killing machine do so much damage to the national soul. With over tens of thousands of Nigerian lives cut short, and with the serious damage to private and public property in the affected states, it was clear that the pro-amnesty camp thought of the move as a way of pacifying the monster.

In fact, the monolithic North-South divide, which usually modulates divisive national arguments, was introduced to the debate about amnesty for Boko Haram. It was for instance, argued that if amnesty could be granted to Niger Delta militants who took up arms to violate, and undermine the suzerainty of the Nigerian State, there should be no reason to deny the offer of amnesty to the terrorists in the North East.

Ironically, as citizens from different voices shouted themselves hoarse over the Boko Haram amnesty issue, the terrorists themselves ridiculed all overtures from the government. One of the most humiliating manifestation of the incapacity of the Nigerian State came to the fore, when former President Goodluck Jonathan in 2013 broached the subject amnesty for Boko Haram. In a withering response, Abubakar Shekau retorted that it was actually the President who should be on the receiving side of an amnesty. Security degenerated to the point that ceremonies, which used to hold in public places like the Eagles Square had to be relocated to safer havens. Boko Haram was practically making mincemeat of the Nigerian capital, as repeated bombings of strategic places that should have ordinarily pass for fortresses, happened on a repeated basis. The bombing of the UN Building at the heart of Nigeria’s diplomatic area, the attacks on key targets like the Abacha Barracks, the Nyanya Bus Terminus, as well as the 2014 abduction of the Chibok Girls, were all clear pointers to the futility in the talk about a carrot approach, without a clear demonstration of a willingness to engage the terrorists on the field of battle.

Comparatively too, the amnesty proponents, who sought to draw a parallel with what was given in the Niger Delta failed to read the extant conditions, negotiations and the comprehensive ground work that went into the amnesty process in the creeks. It was therefore apparent at the time that the talk of extending an olive branch to a bunch of mentally unstable characters terrorising the country, without first degrading them, was akin to having a dangerous dialogue. A look at the errors and the miscalculations of those years would clearly demonstrate that the hastiness of the State in making peace overtures to members of the Boko Haram sect, mainly sold to them the notion of the weakness of the State and its lethargic disposition in confronting the insurgency. Having seen that the State was exhibiting a clear lack of will to take the fight to them, the insurgents were emboldened to do further damage. Nigeria, the natural giant of the African continent, which was able to enforce the peace in places like Liberia, Sierra Leone and other parts of the world began to paint the unflattering portrait of a nation cowering in the face of onslaughts by terrorists. Shameful stories of Nigerian soldiers commencing a quick dialogue with their feet when attacked by Boko Haram terrorists, became a staple for citizens and the international community. It also did not help that as a conventional fighting force, the Nigerian army was really not fashioned to handle the kind of subversive warfare waged by the insurgents, in which soft targets were a fair game.

It was therefore apparent that to get the carrot approach to work, the Nigerian State had to demonstrate it could effectively deploy the hard components of its power to smash the terrorists in a manner that would force them to embrace peace. This was a herculean task because long years of corruption, and indolent cavorting in the Nigerian political space had taken their toll on the combat readiness of the Nigerian forces. Weaponry and troop welfare were nothing to write home about, with the attendant equation of soldiering to suicide. As many Nigerian military personnel have argued in the several Court Martial that have been set up in the course of the conflict, that they were being practically asked to go to battle to commit suicide on account of unserviceable weaponry they got for their task. However, a whiff of what the State could do was demonstrated when in February 2015, a six-week offensive was launched by President Jonathan. The results were so phenomenal that many wondered what on earth prevented the government from demonstrating such traction earlier.

When President Muhammadu Buhari took the reins on May 29, 2015, he quickly moved to confront the insurgency with the relocation of the Command and Control apparatus to the epicentre of the conflict. His shuttle diplomacy across the Lake Chad Basin yielded synergy with operational cooperation with affected countries, yielding a slew of assault to disrupt the smooth operations of the terrorists. After some delays, the leadership of the Armed Forces was changed; Lieutenant-General Tukur Buratai was given the assignment of taking the fight to the terrorists from the ground, while Air Vice Marshall Sadiq Abubakar was detailed to smash the terrorists from the air. The result of this change in approach is that the terrorists are now on the back foot as they get the hell of a beating from the military.

Unlike in the recent past, when they taunted the people of Nigeria and its government, and shoved peace offers in the face of the nation’s leader, the terrorists are now reportedly surrendering in droves. It is therefore an auspicious time to introduce debate on the amnesty carrot, as a way of bringing the conflict to a quick end. Similarly, with the arrest of top guns of the Boko Haram sect, it is apparent that the cannon fodder, who would constitute the Prisoners of War (POWs) would have to be treated within the context of extant laws of warfare. As such, the rehabilitation camp, which has been reportedly established under an exercise known as Operation Safe Corridor would provide an opportunity to deploy elements of Nigeria’s soft power, just as it was done with the militants in the Niger Delta.

It is however pertinent to stress the importance in designing the amnesty in a way that does not send the wrong message to other restless youths that they would be embraced after doing damage to the soul of the nation. There is no doubt that am amnesty programme like this would require serious accountability conditions. It is not tenable that people who wrecked so much havoc on the system would be accommodated, rehabilitated and reintegrated to society without accounting for their heinous crimes. The accountability component of an intervention like this must be thought through. Even if that was not part of the original amnesty granted to the Niger Delta militants, this must now be used as an opportunity to correct the impression that the Nigerian State would pat those who disrupt its peace in the back after hostilities are over. In terms of documentation and the debriefing of the beneficiaries of the amnesty, there is a lot to learn from the similar programme that was targeted at Niger Delta youths. In spite of the challenges and other issues that have come to the fore, the Niger Delta amnesty remains one of the most successful Demilitarisation, Disarmament and Rehabilitation programmes across the globe. Many lessons abound to be learnt from the model used in the Niger Delta amnesty.



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