Perhaps when the Nigerian senator, Ibrahim Gaidam, sought to sway his colleagues to back the formation of a commission for ‘repentant’ Boko Haram members, he never imagined he would be stirring the hornets’ nest.
Weeks after his move on the floor of the parliament, the debate has not only intensified but various arguments have emerged.
The former Yobe State governor, who was elected into the Senate in 2019 to represent Yobe East senatorial district has a clear understanding of the issues surrounding the unending insurgency that has ravaged his region, the North-east.
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The terror commenced since 2019 when the Boko Haram declared war on the Nigerian State after the extra-judicial killing of its leader, Mohammed Yusuf.
He, like other governors in the region, have had to battle the insurgency that has led to the massive loss of lives and humanitarian displacement.
Records show that of the 2.3 million people displaced by the conflict intensified May 2013, at least 250,000 have fled Nigeria into Cameroon, Chad or Niger.
The insurgents killed over 6,600 in 2014 alone. The group also carried out mass abductions including the kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls from Chibok in April 2014.
In 2017, former Governor Kashim Shettima of Borno State said the Boko Haram insurgency had led to deaths ‘’of almost 100,000 persons going by the estimates of our community leaders over the years.”
Over 14 million Nigerians have also been directly affected by humanitarian crises in the North-east region of the country, two international humanitarian groups reported.
The groups also said 13,000 churches were razed, 1,500 schools shut, and 611 teachers killed by the insurgents
The Borno Government in 2017 said about 1 million houses and public structures were destroyed by Boko Haram in the 27 local government areas of the state. Many more have since been affected over the years.
It also said the insurgents destroyed properties worth over N1.9 trillion in six years.
At least 25,794 people were killed in various attacks, many by Boko Haram, during the first term of President Muhammadu Buhari between May 2015 and May 2019, a report analysed by PREMIUM TIMES also indicated.
Despite noticeable successes, the Nigerian military has had over the insurgents, who have been cleared from many territories they once held, they still launch sporadic and very deadly attacks on soft civilian targets and military formations with stunning accuracy.
A few weeks before Mr Gaidam’s appeal, the insurgents launched one of their most deadly attacks on innocent travellers.
The man at the centre of the latest storm has since sought to justify his position why a commission is the best bet to address the unending insurgency.
Amongst other reasons, he said “the agency when established will help rehabilitate and reintegrate the defectors, repentant and forcefully conscripted members of the Boko Haram to make them useful members of the society and provide an avenue for reconciliation and promote national security.”
*Provides an avenue for rehabilitating, de-radicalising, educating and reintegrating the defectors, repentant and detained members of the insurgent group Boko Haram to make them useful members of the society.*Provides avenue for reconciliation and promote national security.
* Provides an-open-door and encouragement for other members of the group who are still engaged in the insurgency to abandon the group especially in the face of military pressure.
* Gives the government an opportunity to derive insider-information about the insurgence group for greater understanding of the group and its inner workings.
* Gaining a greater understanding of the insurgents will enable the government to address the immediate concerns of violence and study the needs of de-radicalization effort to improve the process of de-radicalisation.
*Helps disintegrate the violent and poisonous ideology that the group spreads as the programme will enable some convicted or suspected terrorists to express remorse over their actions, repent and recant their violent ideology and re-enter mainstream politics, religion and society.
According to the document, the agency will create vocational rehabilitation for the members – which will give the detainees opportunities to learn carpentry, clay shaping, pottery, use of art through drawings, among others.
Mr Gaidam is apparently following a pattern of state reaction to Boko Haram fighters captured over the years.
The federal government had as far back as 2017 pledged to ensure the ‘’total de-radicalisation and rehabilitation of all ex-Boko Haram members before re-integrating them into the society in line with international best practices’’.
About a year later, Mr Buhari, who has been criticised for his inability to bring the insurgency to a halt as he vowed when campaigning for office, said that the Nigerian government ‘’is ready to accept the unconditional laying down of arms by any member of the Boko Haram group who shows strong commitment in that regard”.
To put action to words, the federal government began its ‘reintegration’ of the ex-fighters into the community they once hounded.
The Nigerian Army in 2018 took a major step when it handed over 244 Boko Haram suspects, whom it said have given up membership of the terrorist group, to the Borno State government.
Also, in the same year, the army said another 154 ex-Boko Haram fighters had been ‘’rehabilitated under the De-radicalisation, Rehabilitation and Reintegration (DRR) programme and are now set to be reintegrated into the society’’.
A little over a year after, the National Open University of Nigeria (NOUN), told Nigerians that ‘repentant’ members of the insurgent group, Boko Haram, ‘’have decided to enrol for degree programmes in the institution’’.
Anger, push back
Mr Gaidam’s current move has experienced stiff opposition, the first coming from his own immediate constituency.
Many senators who were present at the plenary during the first reading of the bill could not hide their surprise when it was mentioned. Others seemed amazed at the bill itself, a PREMIUM TIMES reporter noted.
Some past and serving senators also condemned the bill.
Many Nigerians said it is insensitive to introduce such a bill when the insurgents are still killing and destroying.
Others believe the funds needed to form the commission could be deployed to cater for the welfare of the numerous internally displaced persons’ camps, offshoots of the insurgency, many reeling under neglect.
A low-hanging argument being pushed by a few to support the initiative is the need to give the same ‘treatment’ meted to Niger Delta militants in 2009 when the federal government extended an olive branch to them.
Sabotage of oil installations, oil siphoning, bombings and kidnappings by the militants who said they were fighting to gain a greater share of the country’s oil wealth hit Nigeria for many years. It was only halted when the government reached out to them.
Late President Umaru Yar’Adua then offered an unconditional pardon and cash payments to rebels who agreed to lay down their arms and assemble at screening centres across the Niger Delta.
But Farooq Kperogi, an Associate Professor of Journalism and Emerging Media at Kennesaw State University says the two scenarios are different. He also condemns the idea of setting up a commission.
”To even suggest that Boko Haram terrorists deserve an amnesty program because Niger Delta militants have one is flat-out boneheaded,’’ he said. ‘’Niger Delta militants whose ancestral land is the nation’s cash cow took to militancy to protest the despoliation of their environment and the impoverishment of their people.’’
He tells PREMIUM TIMES why the insurgents do not deserve a soft landing.
‘’Boko Haram terrorists, on the other hand, are just nihilistic, homicidal thugs who murder innocent men, women, and children. We have no clear sense of what animates their bloodthirsty angst,’’ he said. ‘’The little we know isn’t even remotely a basis for negotiation. For instance, we learn from their propaganda videos media interviews that they want the entire country to be ruled by Sharia. That’s an impossible demand to grant. Besides, Boko Haram terrorists, unlike Niger Delta militants, have never admitted guilt for their mass murders. You can’t give amnesty to an impenitent wrongdoer.’’
Columnist, Wole Olaoye, in his reaction, tells PREMIUM TIMES the ”kindest comment on the matter at the moment is that this is not a wise decision”.
He also said those comparing the proposed commission to the Niger Delta amnesty are missing a vital point.
”What we have on our hands is war, pure and simple and should be treated as such. It is quite different from the amnesty President Yar’adua granted the militants years ago,” he said. What we are experiencing (Boko Haram) is evil and not a battle for better living conditions the militants were fighting for. You can compare both,” he said inter alia.
He also says, ”the argument is sick. They are two different issues. The ideology that drove the militancy was purely economic-based. The ideology driving the Boko Haram is evil. You cannot equate the two.”
He also said in places like Iran, Iraq and others where such commissions were established to tackle societal challenges, it was a long-term program that was not embarked on via a flimsy process being considered.
”For the sake of argument, I am not even sure we can have a transparent process going by the pervasive corruption we are battling with. It is strange that while we should be focusing on the welfare of the IDPs, who are clearly the victims in this tragedy, we are considering how to appease the aggressors (Boko Haram).”
Tayo Agbaje, the director, research, planning and strategy, Buhari/Osinbajo Movement was livid when he reacted to the position being pushed by a member of his party.
”The senator should immediately be arrested. He has shown on whose side he is on. While the current government is working hard to stop the insurgency, the statements of some of our leaders have shown who they are supporting. It (commission) doesn’t make any sense. It would even encourage more people to be joining Boko Haram,’’ he told PREMIUM TIMES.
‘’In the case of the militants, (President) Yar’adua extended amnesty to them and they embraced it. Has Boko Haram done that or is planning to that? The man (Gaidam) should be arrested. We all know what the militants were fighting for. What is Boko Haram fighting for? Many believe the militants were justified. Boko Haram does not have any justification. We now know those backing Boko Haram,’’ Mr Agbaje said.
Samson Isichei of the Buttonwood&Greene Principal Partners, in his reaction, said the government may not be telling Nigerians the ‘entire truth’.
The lawyer said: ”It is strange that while the government is saying the terrorists are foreigners, a member of the ruling party is advocating for a commission for them. So, we are planning to set up a commission for foreigners, who are killing and maiming on our land for no just cause?
”Besides, in advanced nations, before such commissions are set up, the means of funds to maintain them are also suggested. But here in Nigeria, we scramble to set up all manner of commissions and then battle to sustain them from our declining revenue.”
He also said it was erroneous for anyone to compare the concessions (amnesty) enjoyed by the Niger Delta militants to the commission proposal. He said while one was done based on the economic consideration of further confrontation, the other (Boko Haram) is a criminal action against the state.
How many Nigerian prisoners were given jobs after their release,’’ asks Akinsode Awopeju, a security trainer at the Citizens and Leadership Training Centre, Jos. ‘’Are they encouraging more people to join Boko Haram? Establishing a commission for repentant Boko Haram is an insult to the image of the Nigerians. The government should not start what it cannot finish.’’
Abdulkadir Yahaya, a lecturer at the Department of Mass Communication, Federal Polytechnic Bida tells PREMIUM TIMES a commission ‘’will further worsen the insecurity situation in the country because people may now easily take to crime and expect to be pardoned and rehabilitated”.
‘’It will fuel insecurity and aid corruption in the management of resources,’’ he said. ‘’Let the lawmakers focus on the initiation of bills that could strengthen the security agencies to combat crime, in whatever guise, more conveniently and professionally rather than wasting their time in initiating bills for the establishment of the commission for repentant Boko Haram members.’’
He gave a suggestion: ‘’it is better to have bills which seek to stamp out the root causes of the problem, e.g maladministration, bad governance, poverty, hunger, ignorance, illiteracy and joblessness etc.”
‘’I think the bill is an insult on the collective memory of all the victims of the carnage caused by the terrorists, Moses Idika, editor, eparliament.ng. said. ’’Such a commission could only be mooted when the insurgency is over.’’
‘’We looking for the way forward, a healing process and not now that people are killed and maimed on daily basis. The lawmaker is misguided and it’s a sign that the northern elite is absolutely out of ideas on what to do next,’’ he said.
He added that the call for a commission ‘’tells us the elite in the north do not believe yet that Boko Haram insurgents are criminals or enemy of the Nigerian state. They see the insurgents as their brothers who are merely aggrieved and should be treated well and begged’’.
For now, Mr Gaidam has an uphill task convincing, first his colleagues, then Nigerians, that the formation of a Boko Haram commission is the next step in the nation’s quest to stop an insurgency that has caused it massive human and material resources for over 10 years.