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AMNESTY: Of Boko Haram, terrorism and international perspective

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The Sultan of Sokoto, Alhaji Muhammad Sa’ad Abubakar and President Goodluck JonathanWhen the Federal Government,  penultimate Thursday, set up a committee to consider the option of granting amnesty to the Boko Haram sect members, not only were Nigerians surprised at the sudden volte-face of the Presidency, many wondered what the international community would think about such development. Would the idea sit well with the West, given its stance on terrorism? Do they even care what Nigeria does about Boko Haram? Do they see the sect as a threat to their existence? How far will the amnesty, if given, go in solving the problem of terrorism in the North and what does West think of the entire situation? These were some of the questions that have crept up in the last two weeks.

But barely a week after, the United States of America, obviously a voice for the West, appeared to have thown its weight behind the option of amnesty for Boko Haram, describing it as a good development. The Political Counsellor at the US Embassy, Gregory Lawless was noted to have said the US would support amnesty for Boko Haram if it was the solution to ending violence.

However, what is left to be seen is whether the US and in fact other Western countries really believe the amnesty option would curb insurgence in Nigeria, as strategic arms of the US government have written expressly on the likelihood of the failure of the amnesty option. Among these were documents produced by the US Institute of Peace; STRATFOR and the Council on Foreign Relations, which have highlighted the possibility of failure for the amnesty option. Can the recent US support for amnesty be trusted then and how has the West viewed the Boko Haram issue all along are questions that have been raised at one time or the other.

In 2010, when the Jama’at Ahl al-Sunna li al-Dawa al-Jihad, popularly known as Boko Haram, launched its first attack in North-East Nigeria, not a few people would have waved it off as a minor issue that would soon be forgotten. Then, the attack had been thought to have been predicated on the injustice meted out to members of the sect in Yobe and especially the extrajudicial killing of its leader, Mohammed Yusuf, who was arrested by the police.

Three years down the line, not only has the location changed from the North-East to other parts of the North, the plot has changed from fighting against the authority for perceived injustices against its members to a more sophisticated sect with links to international terrorist organisations.
According to an American analyst, Jacob Zenn, over 700 attacks had been carried out by the sect with not less than 3,000 lives lost to the incessant attacks for which the sect often claim responsibility through video links posted online.

Despite the attacks being carried out in Boko Haram’s name increasingly against government officials, security agents, secular Muslims, especially Christians mostly from the South, the group’s influence grew but not beyond the shores of Nigeria, with a United States Institute of Peace document on “What is Boko Haram,” written by an American freelance journalist, Andrew Walker, stated that the sect was “not in the same global jihadist bracket as Algeria’s al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or Somalia’s al Shabab.”

However, it was discovered that the sect was already working with the al-Qaeda. The sect, according to investigations, was used and sponsored by politicians in the North, but it had outgrown its political purposes, especially when the major financiers dissociated themselves and terrorist elements hijacked the sect.

Though it took the bombing of the United Nations House in Abuja in 2011 to jolt the international community to the reality of the terrorism tendencies of Boko Haram, the international perception of the sect did not change much, as revealed in the happenings within the US government regarding the sect. For instance, while four American security agencies such as the FBI; CIA; Justice Department and the Department for Homeland Security voted that the sect should be given an FTO designation, the State Department refused. The State Department’s position on the issue was informed by its perception of the Boko Haram debacle as a product of people’s frustrations with government. According to the head of US State Department’s African Bureau, Ambassador Johnnie Carson, during a session of the United States Congress Committee on Foreign Affairs, held on July 10, 2012,  “the inability of government to address the needs of the people, to grow the economy and generate jobs has generated a sense of hopelessness among many… and Boko Haram capitalises on popular frustrations with the nation’s leaders, its poor government, its ineffective  service delivery and the dismal living conditions in the North.

Carson stated further that “although our (US) understanding of Boko Haram is limited, we believe it is composed of at least two organisations; a larger organisation focused primarily on discrediting the Nigerian government and the smaller more dangerous group that is increasingly sophisticated and lethal in its objectives and tactics. The smaller group has developed links with the AQIM and has a broader or anti-Western agenda.”

Given the large influence of the US foreign policy on the world, not only was the position of the State Department respected in the matters of Boko Haram, it appeared to have been held in high regard by the international community, a development that adequately explains why the Nigerian government was largely left alone to battle the ‘so-called terrorism’ within its borders.

Therefore, when the Federal Government set up the committee on the amnesty option, Saturday Tribune made the attempt to feel the pulse of the West, especially the US. STRATFOR and the Council for Foreign Relations, two strategic organisations of the US with interests in foreign affairs, in separate analyses, revealed the difficulty of the amnesty option and the fact that the Boko Haram was not the only terrorism group in the country but there was something more; the West seems to have another solution to the debacle or so it appeared, as STRATFOR’s analysis noted that it might take the emergence of a president with cultural affinity with Boko Haram to solve the problem.

According to STRATFOR, the amnesty could hit the rock because “Boko Haram is not a monolithic entity, but a decentralised network of militants with tensions between factions. On several occasions people who have claimed to represent Boko Haram have announced they will negotiate, only to be killed by more extreme members of the group. The group’s cell-like structure thus makes negotiations difficult, even if such negotiations involve top Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau.”

The Council for Foreign Relations and STRATFOR also revealed another reason the amnesty could fail. It stated that the emergence of another group, a breakaway group from Boko Haram, identified as Ansaru, could threaten the dialogue with Boko Haram.

Since the suggestion to negotiate with Boko Haram started, political observers have pondered how such would take place and whether it held any hope of success, with many comparing it to the amnesty granted to the Niger Delta militants. However, the international community appeared to be clearly predicting doom for the amnesty option, with STRATFOR pointing out that President Goodluck Jonathan’s connection with the Niger Delta was the reason for the success of the amnesty.

“Jonathan could negotiate with northern politicians who incite violence, but to offer something to them, he must take something away from another group, which in turn could spark violence in another part of Nigeria. This sort of zero-sum ethnic-balancing restricts political moves in Nigeria.”

While these positions could be said to be representative of the views of a large section of Nigerians, STRATFOR’s conclusion returned a more damning verdict on the efforts of Jonathan’s administration and the 2015 question with the suggestion that “should someone culturally closer to Boko Haram and its supporters — such as a Muslim northerner — assume the presidency, a successful amnesty program would become easier to achieve.”

Though there are indications that the current insurgence are not unconnected with 2015 politics, can the West be working towards the emergence of a Northerner as Nigeria’s president in 2015? Will that be the ultimate solution to terrorism and insurgence in the country? What will happen if a Northerner fails to clinch power? For how long will terrorism and insurgence continue as tools for demanding power? These are questions that the West cannot answer, questions which answers lie only with time.

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