Lifestyle & Belief

Boko Haram, West African terrorism and the push for amnesty


Children sit in front of a burnt house in the remote northeast town of Baga on April 21, 2013 after two days of clashes between officers of the Joint Task Force and members of the Islamist sect Boko Haram on April 19 in the town near Lake Chad, 200 kms north of Maiduguri, in Borno State. Nigerian rescue workers set up temporary camps in Baga on April 25 and distributed aid to the masses displaced by brutal fighting that left 187 people dead. The bloodshed in Baga likely marked the deadliest-ever episode in the insurgency of Boko Haram, a radical group which has said it wants to create an Islamic state in northern Nigeria.



JOS, Nigeria – Worshippers filed past sentries armed with automatic weapons and filtered through a line of shoulder-high concrete pylons before reaching the headquarters of the Church of Christ in Nigeria. The pylons were installed in early 2012, after a car loaded with explosives rammed past the church compound’s main gate, killing four and sending dozens to the hospital.

Outside the main sanctuary, a bit of twisted wreckage from the blast was left in view as a ward against complacency.

The early service at COCIN began with a prayer that included a plea for God’s protection from the “devil” on the loose in Jos, capital of Plateau State and the epicenter of sectarian strife in Nigeria. In an interview afterward, Rev. Aaron Ndirmbita was clear about whom he considered the agents of that devil to be.

“I think the only way peace can come to Jos is when Muslims stop attacking Christians,” he said. But, revealing one of the many shades of gray beneath that black-and-white depiction of the violence plaguing Nigeria’s Middle Belt, Ndirmbita added, “In the few cases where Christians attack Muslims it’s a reprisal or maybe trying to revenge what has happened.”

In that polarized context, it is perhaps not surprising that the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) has expressed its opposition to a proposal to grant amnesty to members of Boko Haram, a catch-all term for the loosely associated cohort of Islamic militants, political thugs and workaday criminals that stokes ongoing conflict in Nigeria’s central and northern regions.

Boko Haram’s self-proclaimed leader, Imam Abubakar Shekau, has threatened to kill anyone who accepts an offer of amnesty in the name of the organization. And these salvos came before President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration had even announced its intention to form a committee to explore the possibility of amnesty.

The current push to find a negotiated solution to interreligious violence originated with the Sultan of Sokoto, the traditional leader of Nigeria’s 80 million Muslims. In a recent interview, the Sultan — who heads Jama'atu Nasril Islam, the Muslim counterpart to CAN — said that in the absence of creative initiatives from Christian officials in Jos and the rest of Plateau State, getting at the root causes of the country’s regional violence must become a priority for national political figures.

“When you are holding public office you should then be a leader,” he said. “But the Plateau government profits from the status quo. Big politicians there are hiding behind religion.”

Though there is no shortage of rancor on either side of Nigeria’s religious divide, the Sultan said that promoting tolerance and stable economic development is in the interest of all Nigerians, who are consistently ranked as some of the most ardently religious people in the world. 

“If there is no peace,” he said, “you cannot worship God the way you’re supposed to. Who are the actual victims in these conflicts? They are the sons and daughters of the downtrodden poor. These are the people carrying the gasoline bombs and cutlasses. They are ready-made soldiers that can be hired for a thousand naira (about $6).”

When he was elevated to the Sultanate after the death of his older brother in 2006, Sa’adu Abubakar, the current Sultan, brought with him an impressive cache of institutional and worldly knowledge: His father, who was Sultan from 1938 to 1988, witnessed the decline of British colonial power and Nigeria’s transition to independence; Shehu Shagari, who serves as one of the Sultan’s senior advisors, was president of Nigeria from 1979 to 1983, during the country’s tumultuous Second Republic; and prior to assuming the role of Sultan, Abubakar was pursuing a military career that included roles in peacekeeping operations in Chad and Sierra Leone as well as training at Nigeria’s prestigious National Institute of Policy and Strategic Studies.

“He commands a lot of respect in West Africa,” said Hauwa Ibrahim, a visiting lecturer in Women’s Studies and Islamic Law at Harvard Divinity School and a recipient of the Sakharov Prize for her work as a human rights lawyer. “By discussing the issue of amnesty he is showing that he wants to build a bridge of peace.

Indeed, John Campbell, a former US ambassador to Nigeria and the Ralph Bunche Senior Fellow for Africa Policy Studies at Council on Foreign Relations, said that while he sees dim prospects for an amnesty deal, he believes the Sultan’s gesture toward deeper religious and political efforts at peacemaking is the real point of the initiative.

“Amnesty for whom?” Cambell wondered. “This is an insurrection composed of highly diffuse elements. But that means it requires a political solution rather than a repressive solution. That’s the positive dimension of the conversation about amnesty — the fact that they’re talking about something beyond more AK-47s.”