Sunday, March 17, 2013

Jonathan, Boko Haram and the Amnesty Question

Two weeks ago, the Sultan of Sokoto, Alhaji Sa’ad Abubakar III proposed that the federal government issue an amnesty to Boko Haram insurgents as a means of restoring peace to the troubled North. President Goodluck Jonathan dismissed the proposal, insisting that Boko Haram militants remain anonymous “ghosts” and so cannot be negotiated with. Predictably, a polemical crossfire has ensued between those for and against the amnesty proposal.
Perhaps the most telling thing about the president’s parley with Borno community leaders during his visit to Maiduguri was the latter’s reluctance to unequivocally condemn Boko Haram’s murderous campaign. The Borno leaders’ argument essentially was that the president could unilaterally end the violence by making peace overtures to the terror group. Since Boko Haram has consistently rejected such peace overtures and continues its terror campaign, offering an olive branch including a general amnesty would amount to surrendering to the group.
The clamour for any quick fix solution to the insurgency also corresponds with the unwillingness or incapacity of several commentators to properly situate Boko Haram, preferring instead to see it as an aberrant monstrousity that just suddenly emerged out of the ether. In fact, the group is the latest evolutionary stage of the spate of sectarian convulsions that began with the Maitatsine uprisings in 1980. The long history of sectarian violence in the North is rooted in an explosive mix of political misrule, poverty, an opportunity deficit for the young and Islamo-populism purveyed by duplicitous politicians and hate-spewing clerics.
Successive regimes paid little attention to the implications of a burgeoning underclass that had no means of social mobility and was feeding on increasingly extremist (neo-Wahhabi) variants of Islam. Indeed, as long as this underclass draped their rage in religious metaphors and aimed it at Christians, southerners and other minorities, Northern political leaders seemed content to hold their peace.
In Boko Haram, we have the first fruits of a generation raised in a culture of hate; one in which religious violence was normative and the destruction of infidels was tolerated by political authorities. The group’s omnivorous violence which claims both Christians and Muslims does not make it an outlier but a Frankenstein mutation of long existing tendencies. Indeed, because Boko Haram, as conceived by its founder Mohammed Yusuf, is fundamentally a revolt against the Northern ruling class which it deems an apostate caste corrupted by godless westernism, northern elites were forced to sit up and take notice. Some have tried to co-opt the group; others have towed the line of political correctness in order to survive the group’s wrath. Burdened by guilt and the need to stay alive, many northern elites have opted for appeasement.
By winking at, and in many instances rhetorically fuelling, religious violence, northern elites fostered the tragic impression of the North as a feral wasteland patrolled by murderous zealots – an impression which Boko Haram is now stamping indelibly in the international consciousness. This is, of course, a caricature. But in our mediocre times, caricatures and stereotypes often shape public opinion and policy. The equivocation of northern elites in condemning violence also serves to fortify this caricature.
The Sultan’s amnesty proposal also stems from the war-weariness that has set in after two full years of battling Boko Haram, as well as the death and destruction that the conflict has inflicted on affected communities. Maiduguri is a bleeding, broken shell of itself reeling from both terrorist outrages and the heavy-handedness of the military’s Joint Task Force (JTF). Parts of Northern Nigeria are directly suffering the disruption of economic and social life by the insurgency. The whole country is suffering by extension as it now makes the international news headlines as an outpost of anomie. There is almost a hint of Stockholm syndrome in the way some Borno elites have cast the JTF as the enemy and demanded its withdrawal rather than the insurgents holding their communities hostage. This is understandable. Borno and other afflicted areas desperately require respite and have been failed by a federal administration that has shown insufficient empathy.

Not Everything is Jonathan’s Fault

But fairness demands that we apportion blame in the right quarters and in the right measure. The much maligned JTF troops are prosecuting a difficult assignment in a treacherous operational environment at great risk to themselves and far from the comfort of their families. Many of them have paid the supreme price in the line of duty. While any unprofessional conduct must be condemned and dealt with, they deserve praise for their courage and sacrifice, which the president noted. Without their presence in Borno and Yobe, those states would have been overrun by insurgents.  
Borno and the North have been failed, above all, by their own leaders. These leaders were distinctly missing or silent when the culture of violence was being nurtured in their communities; when social capital depleted so totally that a generation fell into the hands of extremists; when leading local politicians initiated unemployed youths into a life of brigandage; when hoards of almajiri multiplied filling slums and ghettoes; and when lives, property, and worship places were periodically destroyed in waves of religiously-inspired rioting. Even now, these leaders have presented no plan to rescue the region from anarchy. They have offered no plans to invest massively in education and social infrastructure and offer hope to millions of hopeless youth that constitute a near infinite pool of potential recruits for extremists.
Last year, Zamfara spent 2.7 billion naira on Ramadan gifts, an investment of doubtful consequence, given the educational, infrastructural and social deficits of the state. This typical recourse to Islamo-populism at the expense of tackling real problems makes it difficult to take northern elites seriously when they talk of northern poverty. Yet, only the people of Zamfara can affect the state’s fiscal choices. Even if the state government decided to spend its entire budget on pilgrimages and festive gifts, it would still be down to Zamfara people to raise their concerns, if any, about the value of such expenditures. This illustrates the parlous state of civil society in many Northern states and the politico-religious manipulation of people who are vulnerable because of their impoverishment.
In our federal system, states are responsible for their own fiscal priorities. Those who blame the federal government must recognize the incongruence of simultaneously seeking more federalism (which means more powers for states) and more federal activism. It is all too easy to blame the federal government for every crisis while states are left off the hook.

The Trouble with Jonathan’s Counter-Terrorism Plan

However, the federal government is scarcely faultless. Jonathan’s response to the Sultan was rife with dissembling. He cavalierly described Boko Haram as unknown “ghosts” even though his administration has admitted after a tortuous tangle of denial and obfuscation that it was engaged in back-channel negotiations with the group. In December 2011, Jonathan claimed that Boko Haram had infiltrated his administration. (On hindsight this statement was calculated to polarize and distract the public ahead of his removal of fuel subsidy.) These statements suggest some knowledge of who the “ghosts” are. In January, while talking to CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, Jonathan flippantly dismissed the idea that poverty is a factor in the Boko Haram insurgency, betraying a lack of analytical rigour in his own grasp of a crucial national security situation.
More pertinently, the administration apparently has no broader strategy for dealing with the insurgency beyond militarization. Troops can only contain violence long enough for political leaders to initiate remedial economic, social and political measures. The administration has burdened the military with the patently impossible task of wiping out an insurgency without taking steps to address the circumstances that created the insurgency in the first place. The counter-insurgency campaign evidently has no psychological operations unit aimed at countering extremist teachings and winning hearts and minds. A relief and reconstruction fund for Borno and Yobe would not have been out of place and Jonathan could have announced this during his Maiduguri visit to bring some succor to the suffering.   
There is no indication of what the administration intends to do with the scores of Boko Haram suspects already in custody, how they are to be processed in order to punish the guilty and avoid miscarriages of justice, and whether there is any mechanism for separating hard core ideologues from mules, or whether there is any planned deradicalization programme for the mules who are not yet beyond salvage. The administration should have fast tracked trials of terror suspects and their high profile confederates in order to avoid a situation where they become bargaining chips. The administration has also not seen fit to address reported acts of misconduct and human rights violations by security forces in Maiduguri. Early in this administration, there was a sense that senior officials saw Boko Haram as a mascot of northern opposition to Jonathan or were indifferent to northerners blowing themselves up. Only when the group struck in Abuja did the administration seriously begin updating its counter-terrorism capacities.

What about an Amnesty?

Jonathan was virtually shamed into visiting Maiduguri a fortnight ago after the opposition All Progressive Congress (APC) had met there without fear. Yet both visits seemed more about political theatrics. Opposition partisans who delight in casting Boko Haram as a problem of the ruling People’s Democratic Party should remember that Borno and Yobe have been run by the opposition All Nigeria Peoples Party since 1999. The ANPP’s flagrant use of Islamo-populist rhetoric and Sharia politics in the early 2000s helped create the conditions that fostered Boko Haram. For all its bluster, the APC itself has offered platitudes but no plan or programme for ending the insurgency. Cheap politicking has obscured serious debate.
Beyond histrionics, we need to have a less emotive and more reasoned discourse. An amnesty proposal cannot be written off as absurd because a precedent has already been set with the amnesty for Niger Delta militants. But the efficacy of an amnesty in ending violence is yet to be conclusively established. In the Niger Delta, onshore militancy has decreased but oil theft and piracy have increased. The military remains stationed there indicating the federal government’s doubt as to the degree to which militant gangs have disarmed. These militants always seemed more like capitalist bandits seeking economic concessions and therefore more likely to lay down their arms if they were “bought.” In this sense, the amnesty programme is an extortionate welfare scheme for angry young men, many with blood on their hands. Whether this “peace” in the Niger Delta will endure once the flow of federal largesse is turned off remains to be seen.  
In Boko Haram’s case, rewarding mass murder with a blanket amnesty makes no moral or political sense and only opens the door for more people to see violence as a means of acquiring economic power and political relevance. Furthermore, Boko Haram, a group now splintering into factions like Ansaru, is not a cohesive union of mass killers that can be negotiated with in the same way that you would in an industrial dispute. Without a central command and control structure, it is more an amorphous movement. There is no indication that the faction that recently called for a ceasefire is the dominant faction. The group’s leader Abubakar Shekau has serially rejected peace overtures, recently denied any ceasefire agreement and is known to sanction executions of the more “dovish” elements in his ranks. A week ago, Ansaru slaughtered seven foreign hostages that it had been holding for several weeks. The murder of those hostages represents an eloquent response to the Sultan’s amnesty proposal.
 Offering an amnesty in these circumstances, especially where federal authorities have yet to neutralize the flow of arms into Nigeria, is a white flag of surrender to psychopathic anarchists. A state simply cannot imply that its citizens can be murdered with impunity and their murderers can then be amnestied as if nothing happened. The slain (including civilians, troops and security agents) and their survivors demand justice. And if such an amnesty were issued, the emergence of groups seeking vengeance on ex-Boko Haram militants cannot be ruled out. Furthermore, an amnesty cannot replace the need for governance and developmental deliverables in ailing communities. Politicians need not wait for insurrections to start before doing their jobs.


After two years of remorseless conflict with a steep cost in blood, tears and treasure, an understandable war-weariness has set in. But insurgencies cannot be killed off with quick fixes especially when they are deep rooted. Maitatsine emerged in 1980, was crushed that same year in Kano, and yet staged sporadic revolts in different states until 1985. Boko Haram is better resourced than Maitatsine, has access to better technology and the Nigerian state is weaker and her military smaller than it was in the early 1980s. This will take time. Even if Boko Haram suddenly expired today, as long as the socio-economic indices remain unchanged, we would be contending with another, better organized insurgency within a decade from now.
Finally, there seems to be a misguided notion that merely announcing an amnesty will switch off terrorism like a battery-operated toy. Those who seek a return to “peace” and “normalcy” need to review their presumptions. If by “peace” they are referring to the pre-2009 era of sporadic sectarian clashes, millions of destitute children placidly swarming northern cities in escalating beggary while the idle rich cavort in palatial mansions, they are sorely mistaken. All students of conflict understand how a pre-existing structural violence can be garbed in “peace” and “normalcy” until it matures into armed insurgency. The class contradictions of the north have reached a critical mass and the spirit of militant discontent is now abroad. Only honest, responsible and reasoned politics can dispel it. 

(All Images sourced online.)        


  1. much of your assessment of the situation seems right on, so i applaud you for tackling a difficult topic that desperately NEEDS answers.
    i noticed you mentioned the possibility of the president giving some sort of relief or reconstruction money to Borno and Yobe. i hesitate to agree because i am sadly doubtful that the money would reach the intended recipients. wouldn't it likely go into the pockets of the men he refused to pay in the first place?
    i also had a question about Ramadan gifts. who exactly is benefitting from these and how were they originally put in place?
    i really appreciate your ending point that we tend to look on 'less violent' times as 'peaceful' or 'normal.' how true. the same way we see 'slightly cheaper, but still expensive' petrol prices as 'good.' but i would add that, along with 'honest, responsible, and reasoned politics,' the real solution is a turn to Jesus and His instructions to love God, who loves every human being equally, and in turn love each other as we love ourselves.

  2. Thanks, Melissa. I agree with your point about how doubtful it is that aid money will reach recipients. Even so, such relief can be effective if properly administered. As for the Ramadan gifts, Zamfara has a ministry for religious affairs that oversees such matters. Typically such gifts are a form of Islamo-populist public relations directed at the people and also patronage for cronies. Broadly, I agree that the ultimate solution lies in how much we cultivate empathy and love. As you suggest, this may well be the christian contribution to this crisis - modelling love for humanity. Thanks again.