By Alexis Okeowo, a Lagos-based journalist
In Lagos, Nigeria, where I live, people have been posing a counterfactual: How would Americans react if the Unites States pardoned the terrorists behind 9/11 or the Boston Marathon bombing? The Nigerian government has announced that it is preparing to offer amnesty to an unknown number of militants associated with the Boko Haram Islamist group, an entity responsible for the deaths of more than two thousand Nigerians in recent years. President Goodluck Jonathan has set up a committee that includes scholars, lawyers, and political and military leaders to examine what an amnesty process would look like.
Yet last week, in a massacre that was as much the fault of the heavy-handed military as Boko Haram, over two hundred people in the town Baga, on the shores of Lake Chad, in northern Nigeria, were killed in a battle between the two sides — and hundreds of houses were destroyed.
"There is no way this violence can end and we achieve peace if the government has maintained a double standard of voicing out support for dialogue and at the other time sabotaging it," Shehu Sani, a human-rights lawyer with the Civil Rights Congress of Nigeria, said recently in a statement. Sani was named to the committee, but rejected the idea of participating.
Civil and religious leaders in the predominately Muslim north of Nigeria have long advocated for amnesty for Boko Haram — and the government has long rejected their plea. Just last month, President Jonathan dismissed granting amnesty to Boko Haram, calling the move impossible because the group's members were essentially faceless, "operating under a veil." That hasn't changed. It's not evident why Jonathan has changed his mind, but those who live in central and northern Nigeria and who have borne the brunt of Boko Haram's attacks — including people named to the amnesty committee — wonder if this last-ditch effort will be enough. (Boko Haram itself voiced opposition to the idea of a negotiated amnesty.)
Boko Haram claims to be working for a purer, Islam-driven society, a contrast to the corrupt patronage of the federal and state governments. It has recruited college graduates and political thugs — young men used by politicians to do their dirty work and set off violence after lost elections. They have robbed banks and bombed police stations with homemade I.E.D.s, acquiring guns and cash as they have bounced from the sponsorship of one northern politician to another, politicians who often end up denouncing the group after its members turn on them.
When, in 2009, Abubakar Shekau, Boko Haram's leader, was captured and later killed in police custody, the group began its war on civilians. Pastors, Christians, openly critical imams, and Muslims — none have been immune. And all the while, the identities of the group’s members and followers (except for their spokespersons and leaders) have stayed concealed. Some may have scared their neighbors into silence while others live essentially off the grid, Bawa Abdullahi Wise, a security analyst who studies Boko Haram, told me. "Their mission has been to create chaos and make people feel that the country is ungovernable since they already mistrust their leaders. They want to force leaders to step down or concede to demands to change direction of leadership." Amnesty, it appears, would only be a Band-Aid.
Last month, the group released a French family of seven that it was holding in what appeared to be a desert-like patch of the north, after it had demanded prisoners in exchange. The hostages were taken, said the group, in retaliation for Nigeria's leading role in a military intervention targeting Islamists in northern Mali. The Nigerian government did not release any prisoners, though the Cameroonian government may have done so (and paid, with France, a ransom). But, strangely, a Boko Haram "factional leader" has claimed to reporters that he ordered the family freed as a good-faith gesture in the interest of the amnesty process.
Sani, the human-rights lawyer, has been petitioning the International Criminal Court to investigate alleged atrocities committed by youth leaders, politicians, and retired Army personnel in the lushly green and mountainous region of central Nigeria called Plateau State, the site of havoc between Muslims and Christians after every election in the past decade. In Plateau, Muslim-Christian tensions have been exacerbated by the presence of Boko Haram, which has bombed a number of churches and markets, and driven the two communities, which previously mixed freely, further apart.
"This crisis has been lingering for so many years now, and the government has not produced any fruitful solutions to address it. I do not think the government is serious about investigating the violence," Sani told me.
Central and northern Nigeria exemplify what happens when a country abandons certain regions so completely, failing to provide adequate education, social services, development, employment, and transparent political culture: extreme results rise up. In Plateau, I have spent time with a Christian who makes and sells guns, a reflective twenty-two-year old man with melancholic eyes who once thought he would go to college and start his own business, until his hometown became an undeclared war zone.
A 2009 amnesty program for militants in Nigeria's oil-drenched Niger Delta mostly succeeded in quelling conflict there. Militants were pleased with the monetary settlement that aimed to make up for the immense oil profits the region has never seen, despite the pollution that energy companies are dumping in the area. Coming full circle, those same Niger Delta militants released a statement in April saying that, beginning in the end of May, they will attack mosques, Muslim institutions, and imams that they deem hostile, supposedly in order to "save Christianity in Nigeria from annihilation." Who will save Nigeria from itself?