So, President Goodluck Jonathan never really meant what he said about his reluctance to grant amnesty to the violent sectarian group Boko Haram when he visited Borno and Yobe states in early March 2013? During that official visit, Jonathan told northern religious and political leaders in unexpurgated language that the government will not grant amnesty to Boko Haram because the leaders were unidentifiable and they lacked a public face. Jonathan had said: “You cannot declare amnesty for ghosts. Boko Haram still operates like ghosts. So, you can’t talk about amnesty for Boko Haram now until you see the people you are discussing with.”
In response to allusions by northern leaders to the amnesty granted to the Niger Delta militants, Jonathan also tendered an unassailable argument to dismiss allegations by the north that the government has been unfair to the region by refusing to grant amnesty to Boko Haram. Jonathan responded to those spurious claims emphatically: “When you call the Niger Delta militants, they will come; but nobody has agreed that he is a Boko Haram member, no one has come forward… nobody has come forward to make himself visible.”
Jonathan was hailed across the country for presenting sound and robust arguments about why the government will not grant amnesty to a terrorist group that has murdered many innocent and harmless Nigerians and foreigners. That national celebration must be considered premature. In a move that surprised the nation, Jonathan signalled last week his intention to grant amnesty to Boko Haram when he set up a committee to consider the framework for granting official pardon to the violent religious group.
On what justifiable platform would Jonathan decide to grant amnesty to Boko Haram? Is Jonathan’s decision to back down from his earlier position driven by pressure from the Sultan of Sokoto and other religious and political leaders in the north? Long before now, Jonathan had been unequivocal in his criticism of violence perpetrated by Boko Haram, including the mindless killings by the dogmatic and intolerant group. Just six months ago (6 November 2012), Jonathan described Boko Haram and its hideous sponsors as “uncivilised”. He said this during a two-day visit to Jigawa State. Angered by the growing list of casualties of Boko Haram’s terror, Jonathan said: “Terminating innocent lives through terrorist acts is primitive, so perpetrators and sponsors of terrorism through Boko Haram cannot be anything but uncivilised.”
If Jonathan is keen to appease politicians and religious leaders in the north who have been piling pressure on him to grant amnesty to Boko Haram, he must first ensure that the leaders and members of the vicious organisation have publicly renounced violence and pledged to end the widespread murder of citizens and foreigners. There are obligations that Boko Haram must uphold. If they cannot pledge to end violence, they do not deserve amnesty of any kind.
Between early March this year when Jonathan made his forceful response to angry cries by northern religious and political leaders who demanded official pardon for Boko Haram and last week when Jonathan changed his position on amnesty for the organisation, something extraordinarily weird must have happened to Jonathan. Whatever that might be, Jonathan has shown by backing down on his previous position that he is a weak leader, indeed an irresolute president who lacks courage and is easily persuaded by the political returns he might gain from northern leaders by granting amnesty to Boko Haram.
Jonathan’s decision to reverse his position on Boko Haram has confirmed public opinion about one of Jonathan’s character flaws. We have in Jonathan a president who speaks before he thinks, a president who jumps before he looks, a president who does not reflect carefully on issues of national significance before he rolls out his policy statements.
Granting amnesty to Boko Haram without getting the group to renounce violence will have serious national consequences. It will send the wrong signal to criminal groups across the country that it is alright for them to murder Nigerians indiscriminately because they will later be granted state pardon. Jonathan’s amnesty to Boko Haram will be perceived as the government extending a warm handshake to a violent group for the terror it has unleashed on the nation, the widespread bomb explosions across the north, the arbitrary assassinations of people who disagree with Boko Haram’s odd religious philosophy, as well as the incineration of public buildings, churches, police stations, schools, market places, motor parks and places of entertainment.
It seems to me that Jonathan and his lily-livered advisers and policy makers did not consider what would happen if Boko Haram continued its unrestrained explosion of bombs and senseless killings even after the government had granted them amnesty. That recalcitrant behaviour would put an end to the chant by northern leaders that an amnesty will automatically restore peace in their region. With or without amnesty, Boko Haram is likely to continue its bombing run across the north because it is an unstructured hostile organisation without a clear modus operandi.
Following Jonathan’s strong affirmation that the government will not grant amnesty to Boko Haram, I wrote somewhat glowingly and hastily on Wednesday, 13 March 2013: “It looks like Jonathan is about to emerge from a position of weakness to present a new image of a strong president who wants to be seen for his robust approach to security challenges facing the nation. Time will tell whether Jonathan’s uncompromising statements in Borno and Yobe states signal a transformation in leadership style or whether his utterances were just a one-off public relations gimmick.”
Jonathan’s indication that he would reverse his views about granting amnesty to Boko Haram shows quite clearly that there has been no change in the president’s sluggish and uninspiring leadership style. He has authenticated public perception of the president as a pathetic leader, a man who has never looked certain about the clear direction of his government or the right way to achieve national economic and political objectives.
The press and the public are obviously upset by Jonathan’s intention to grant amnesty to Boko Haram, coming so soon after Jonathan had granted state pardon to convicted corrupt former governor of Bayelsa State, Diepreye Solomon Peter Alamieyeseigha. Soon after the Sultan of Sokoto, Alhaji Muhammad Abubakar III, led a chorus of northern leaders to demand amnesty for Boko Haram, The Sun newspaper published one of the most incisive, incontestable, logical and fact-based editorials on the subject in recent times.
In an editorial entitled “Abuse of amnesty” (Wednesday, 13 March 2013), The Sun wrote: “Based on the absurdity of these demands, and in view of the fact that those behind the sect are not known, we do not see how anybody would expect government to accede to the demands. We were therefore taken aback when the Sultan was reported to have canvassed for amnesty for Boko Haram. Such a call does not only trivialize what amnesty stands for, it seems to suggest that the activities of the sect are legitimate and tolerable… Suggestions bordering on amnesty give the impression that the insurgents have a cause they are fighting for. We should therefore stop debasing what amnesty stands for by not applying it to terror groups that seek to destroy the fabric of Nigeria.”
Why would Jonathan make a dramatic shift in his previous position about granting amnesty to Boko Haram? What has changed in the past four weeks to make Jonathan believe that it is in the strategic interest of the nation for the government to grant amnesty to a faceless group, an organisation whose leaders and members are unknown to the government? A far more serious concern about granting amnesty to Boko Haram is how to compensate families whose relatives were killed by members of the organisation. When you consider amnesty for a terrorist organisation, you should also consider seriously how to rehabilitate the families of victims of that group’s terrorist activities. To ignore families of victims of terrorism is to endorse Boko Haram and their sadistic style of terminating human lives.
I have heard people point to the Christian spirit of forgiveness as the paramount reason why Boko Haram deserves to be granted amnesty. That argument is flawed. Forgiveness has its limits. Countries that have the death penalty in their laws understand the concept of forgiveness. But they also understand that certain crimes cannot be forgiven. Ayo Oritsejafor, president of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), has already warned about the ramifications of Jonathan’s plans to grant amnesty to Boko Haram. He said: “I don’t know his (Jonathan’s) ambition for second term because I am not a politician; I am a pastor. But that (amnesty) would be wicked. I don’t see why he would have to do that and I don’t see why he would have to consider that because we are facing a very serious situation in Nigeria.”
This is not the first time that Jonathan has taken the nation on an amusement park tour of his policy tumbles. Since his election, he has recorded no fewer than three extraordinary twists and turns in public announcements. For example, soon after he was elected president, Jonathan proposed the ludicrous single-term seven-year tenure for the president and state governors. His proposal was promptly battered by the public. Embarrassed by the outrage his scheme generated in the public domain, he backed down by quickly withdrawing his proposition..