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Nigeria’s amnesty for terrorists re-opens old wounds

By Akin Irede
Posted on Tuesday, 31 August 2021 12:32

Gunmen release abducted Islamic students in north-central Nigeria
A mother reacts as she holds on to her son, one of the students from Tegina's Salihu Tanko Islamic School who were abducted three months ago by gunmen, at the government house after their release, in Minna, Nigeria August 27, 2021. REUTERS/Stringer

An amnesty programme for terrorists by Nigeria's government is sparking anger among victims of Boko Haram. With over 350,000 killed by the Islamist group, has the administration got its priorities straight?

Mrs. Seun Sakaba could not control her anger when photographs of repentant Boko Haram fighters holding placards which read, ‘Nigerians, please forgive us’, recently went viral on social media.

The terrorists who surrendered along with their families were presented with foodstuffs and clothes. Commending the fighters for surrendering, the Nigerian Army said they would all be rehabilitated in a camp before being reintegrated into society.

Former Boko Haram fighters / via Youtube

It echoes the controversy about ‘Sulhu’ – a Nigerian programme to demobilise Boko Haram fighters which grew out of a sense that there were some muhajideen who were willing to negotiate.

“Sulhu is applauded by its supporters as smart warfare – a means to remove senior jihadists from the battlefield more effectively than the stuttering orthodox military campaign”, wrote Obi Anyadike about the secret Nigerian amnesty plan.

However, Sakaba, whose husband, a lieutenant-colonel, died alongside at least 117 soldiers during an attack on their base by Boko Haram on 18 November 2018, could not stand the thought of such terrorists evading justice.

“It will never be well with all of you. I should forgive them for making me a widow? I should forgive them for killing my husband, his brother and his mum? I should forgive them for making me seek shelter in another country?” she asked.

In earlier correspondence with the Nigerian Army, Sakaba lamented that she had not been paid her husband’s entitlement.

The distraught widow said she would no longer speak on the matter when The Africa Report reached out to her for further comment, saying she was “tired of talking.”

Sakaba is just one among many who have not yet gotten the justice they call for.

Mrs. Rebecca Sharibu, whose daughter, Leah, was kidnapped from school in Dapchi, Yobe State three years ago, shares a similar discontentment with Sakaba.

Leah was kidnapped on 19 February 19 2018 along with 109 other girls. While five of the girls died, 104 were released by the terrorists. Unfortunately, Leah – who was the only Christian among them – was held back for her refusal to convert to Islam and has remained in captivity ever since amid reports that she had been married off to a terrorist and given birth to a child.

Leah’s mother told The Africa Report that the government needs to prioritise the rescue of her daughter. The pardon and rehabilitation of Boko Haram fighters, she says, is most unfortunate.

Sharibu also noted that Boko Haram has different factions and wondered if it was the faction that kidnapped her daughter that was being pardoned.

“You know, even the Boko Haram we are talking about are not one and the same. There is one sect after another. And it is very likely that the ones being granted amnesty are not even the ones who took my daughter. If they are, then it’s sad to hear that Leah’s oppressors are granted freedom without giving my daughter her freedom. So far, we are still praying for her return and I am sure she will return to me.”

Reverend Enoch Mark, whose daughters – Monica and Sarah – were abducted from their school in Chibok in 2014, was too distraught to speak when The Africa Report contacted him, saying he had “lost his wife and also fallen into depression.”

On what he thought about the government’s amnesty programme, Mark who said he wasn’t aware of it, responded by saying: “Honestly, I have no nothing to say because my opinion doesn’t matter to the government.”

Thousands killed, millions displaced

According to the United Nations Development Programme, at least 35, 000 people in Borno, Adamawa and Yobe in the North-East Nigeria have been killed by Boko Haram while 314,000 other have died of indirect causes of the conflict such as famine, water shortage and health problems.

…2.9 million Nigerians affected by the Boko Haram insurgency live in Internally Displaced Persons camps.

Due to the activities of Boko Haram and other violent groups in Nigeria, in the last seven years the country has consistently been ranked high on the Global Terrorism Index and currently ranks third behind Afghanistan and Iraq.

UNHCR also states that 2.9 million Nigerians affected by the Boko Haram insurgency live in Internally Displaced Persons camps. That is a population more than the size of Paris living in camps due to a humanitarian crisis.

More pardons, less convictions

The issue of amnesty for Boko Haram first came up in 2013 when the Northern Elders Forum approached President Goodluck Jonathan at the time to consider negotiating with the terrorists. This, however, failed as Boko Haram leader, Abubakar Shekau, rejected the offer, saying, “Surprisingly, the Nigerian government is talking about granting us amnesty. What wrong have we done? On the contrary, it is we that should grant you a pardon.”

When President Muhammadu Buhari took over in 2015, the Nigerian government in 2016 inaugurated the ‘Operation Safe Corridor’ (OSC) programme which was aimed at reformation and re-orientation of terrorists. It was an attempt to replicate the relative success of the amnesty programme of the oil rich Niger Delta region

The repentant terrorists were handed N20, 000 ($47) each and then given vocational training such as tailoring, plumbing and carpentry and given shops and equipment; but it was not made public.

According to the military, the programme was initially targeted at non-combatant Boko Haram members like women and children who had been forced into the group or informants and other persons sympathetic to Boko Haram’s cause. However, a few Boko Haram fighters who had willingly surrendered were also allowed to take part in the programme.

Defending the programme at an event in 2018, the President’s spokesperson, Garba Shehu, said: “You can defeat people technically in the field, but at the end you must come to the conference room to resolve all issues. So, if Boko Baram would lay down their arms and stop fighting and stop preaching that negative ideology, the country should be able to embrace them, welcome all of them so that they continue to live normal lives and be useful to the nation.

“What that means is that we will be saving cost, saving lives that are being lost through bombing, killing of service personnel and we will be saving money that we are using to procure weapons so that such money can go into services and infrastructure and welfare of the citizens of this country. It is a win-win situation.”

Assessing the “success” of the programme, the General Officer Commanding, 7 Division, Maj. Gen Abdulmalik Biu, boasted that repentant terrorists who lay down their arms stand the chance of becoming great in society and even emerging as the President of Nigeria.

The government resolved that those who were arrested in battle and others who were unwilling to surrender would be prosecuted but this remained a tall order.

Terrorism in Nigeria is a federal offence which means the Office of the Attorney General coordinates the trial of terror suspects. In 2017, about 2, 300 suspects were tried secretly. However, only about 205 were reported to have been convicted for minor offences such as providing material and non-violent support to Boko Haram, according to the Federal Ministry of Justice

Checks by The Africa Report based on several local media and official reports showed that since the war against insurgency started in 2009, less than 400 suspects have been convicted while the real sponsors of terrorism have never faced justice. In May, Nigeria’s attorney-general promised to expose and prosecute about 400 financiers of terrorism and 800 other terror suspects but there has been no update on the matter ever since.

The recent report by The New Humanitarian, revealed that the Suhlu programme was being coordinated by Nigeria’s secret police, the Department of State Services, and ensures that top terrorist commanders were given clemency, houses and substantial stipends on the condition that they continue to provide information to the military and ensure that top terrorists are encouraged to drop their weapons.

This has, however, not stopped military operations against terrorists.

Official reports suggest that the Nigerian government has released over 3,000 repentant terror suspects back into society since 2016. State governments have also introduced an opaque amnesty system that has led to the release of thousands of bandits, kidnappers and militants.

Killings, abductions continue despite amnesty

Despite the pardons, however, Nigeria’s security challenge has continued to worsen with the terror war changing from a religious one to pure kidnapping and banditry. Reports suggest that bombings and direct attacks by Boko Haram in the North-East have reduced substantially compared to previous years while abductions and killings by bandits have increased, spreading the insecurity to the entire North-West.

In March the Nigerian government was forced to declare a no fly zone over Zamfara State in the North-West due to the rising insecurity while the Kaduna State government revealed that 545 persons were killed and 1, 723 kidnapped between January and June.

It remains unclear if there are any links at all between bandits and terrorists. However, a leaked memo by the Nigeria Immigration Service last month states that some bandits were receiving training from Boko Haram.

More to receive amnesty

The death of Boko Haram leader, Abubakar Shekau, increased the strength of rival terrorist group, Islamic State of West Africa Province (ISWAP), and alienated some of his followers who have now decided to embrace amnesty.

According to the Nigerian military, no less than 1,200 Boko Haram terrorists have surrendered in recent weeks while more are expected to lay down their arms soon.

The repentant terrorists are now being housed in government facilities and are being processed. However, the Nigerian government has failed to state exactly if any of them will be prosecuted at all.

Military responds

When asked if the victims of Boko Haram insurgency would get justice, the spokesperson for the Nigerian military, Brigadier General, Onyema Nwachukwu, told The Africa Report that the military had no powers to prosecute anyone.

Nwachukwu further stated that the rules guiding conflict forbids the military from killing belligerents who have surrendered.

He stated: “Under international humanitarian law, it is unlawful to target an enemy who has surrendered and this provides that surrendering combatants be taken into custody, investigated and processed and not to take extrajudicial actions against them, as is the expectation in some quarters, no matter the enormity of their offence.

“As a professional military, our role is to take them into custody, profile them and hand them over to relevant agencies of the state for further necessary action. The military does not have the power to prosecute them. It is constitutionally not in the purview of the military to prosecute or set them free.”

A spokesperson for the Attorney-General, Umar Gwandu, said he would provide a response soon, but failed to do so.

If terrorists are surrendering and the military is accepting them, have the attacks stopped? The attacks have not stopped. Terrorists are terrorists.

The Minister of Information, Lai Mohammed, said he was informed by the military that the terrorists who had genuinely repented would be allowed to go.

He said: “I personally spoke to the military authorities before I left Nigeria and they said what they were doing is what the global practice dictates about soldiers that surrendered that should be treated as prisoners of war.

“You cannot just shoot them because there are international conventions that give rights also to prisoners of war. What the military is doing is that when they surrender, they profile them to ensure that they are genuine and reintegrate them into the society.’’

The Senate President, Ahmad Lawan, who is also from the North-East, said there was a need for caution regarding the amnesty programme.

“I believe that we should give people the benefit of the doubt, but we should also be very circumspect on those who may not be genuine in this, but we should accept people when they come and take the appropriate measures, get the right strategies on how to deal with the reintegration of such people into the community,” he says.

But Mike Ejiofor, a former Director with the DSS, faulted the amnesty for terrorists.

Ejiofor stated that the amnesty programme had not reduced the killings and the kidnappings in the country, adding that there was really no difference between terrorists and bandits.

“If terrorists are surrendering and the military is accepting them, have the attacks stopped? The attacks have not stopped. Terrorists are terrorists. The pains they have inflicted on the country and their victims is so much that you cannot just allow them back into society,” he told The Africa Report.

“Boko Haram leaders are still at large, operating. Releasing them back into society can be very dangerous. Where are the Chibok girls? Many of them are still in captivity. See what is happening in the North-West? What is even the difference between bandits and terrorists?” he added.

As the Boko Haram terrorists continue to lay down their arms, it remains to be seen if the victims of their 11-year violence including the over 100 Chibok schoolgirls still in captivity would ever find closure.

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