By Ambassador Peter Layi Oyedele
In the last five, a fundamentalist Muslim group that goes by the name Boko Haram has tormented Nigeria. The word Boko in Hausa means Western education and Haram in Arabic describes something forbidden or sacrilegious. In effect, the philosophy of the group is hatred for Western education. This is rather ironic since the group uses western education to make bombs and to communicate with its members through cell phones. From its mode of operation, the group wishes to achieve its objective through violence and mindless and indiscriminate killing and bombing of innocent children, women and men in their homes, in public places and in places of worship.
The group has its main bases in Bornu and Yobe states with its tentacles in Kano and Kaduna states and in a few other Northern states of Nigeria. After years of committing heinous crimes against the Nigerian state and its citizens, including foreigners in a United Nations office in Abuja, the group only recently announced its mission to impose Sharia on the entire country.
Recently a group of distinguished and highly respected Northern leaders under the aegis of the Northern Elders Forum visited President Goodluck Jonathan in Abuja, to plead for amnesty for members of the sect. It is believed that these Northern elders would not have ventured to go and ask the President for amnesty for the group if they had not been in contact with them to exact some concession from them. The visit of the Northern elders judging by later events has now come to mark the first step in getting to know more about the group and their demands.
The visit of the Northern elders to President Jonathan came up only a few days after the President returned to Abuja from visits to Bornu and Yobe states where he publicly announced that he would not grant amnesty to faceless people or to ghosts. His announcement was a direct reply to the Sultan of Sokoto who first proposed amnesty for members of the sect. However, after his discussion with the Northern elders, the President has now told the nation he would be prepared to dialogue with the sect and offer them amnesty and set up a committee to handle the matter.
After the President’s offer of amnesty to the sect, one of its leaders, Abubakar Shekau immediately rejected the President’s offer. Now another leader of the sect by the name Mohammed Marwan has come out to state that the leadership of the sect numbering twelve had now agreed to accept the offer of dialogue and amnesty by the President. We are however not sure yet whether Shekau who turned down the offer is a member of Marwan’s group. Marwan further referred to the release of the French family detained by them a couple of months ago as a demonstration of their sincere desire to talk with the government. The proponents of dialogue argue that by granting amnesty to the sect the leaders would be encouraged to remove their masks and come out to negotiate the terms of their laying down their arms. Perhaps the supporters of dialogue may turn out to be right since the signals being sent out by some members of the sect now reflect a new tune from them.
Opinion is divided in Nigeria on whether or not to grant amnesty to members of the sect until they show their faces and lay down their arms. The dilemma facing the country is whether to grant a blanket amnesty to an unrepentant violent group without encouraging other groups to take up arms against the state in order to exact some concessions for their cause. Among those opposed to amnesty are the members of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN). However, the Catholic wing of the Association is in favor of amnesty for the sect.
Most Nigerians hope that the leaders of Boko Haram are sincere in their pledge to ceasefire and engage in dialogue with the government. Nigerians are tired and sick of seeing innocent blood spilled in churches, mosques, motor parks and private homes and some other public places. The members of the sect need to know that they cannot spread their religious beliefs and convictions through acts of violence in Nigeria. Nigeria is a multi-religious nation and no part of it is populated by entirely members of the same religious order. In a situation like this, tolerance is the only answer to solving problems.
President Jonathan has now blinked by succumbing to Northern pressure to dialogue and grant amnesty to members of Boko Haram, a position he had previously refused to contemplate calling members of the sect faceless and ghosts. If in the end the Northern elites are unable to persuade the leaders of the sect to give up their insurgency and negotiate seriously and sincerely without making impossible demands, then the President will find it hard to convince the skeptics that he had not naively accepted the poisoned olive branch dangled before Northern leaders who are unable to deliver peace. The onus is on those leaders to prove that they are sincere.
[Ambassador Peter Oyedele was Nigeria’s former High Commissioner to Jamaica]