Amnesty for Boko Haram? Looking beyond Nigeria

Amidst intense fighting between Boko Haram and the Nigerian military in Northern Nigeria the need for a political solution to the conflict remains. How could the Nigerian authorities cope with the Islamist insurgency both politically and legally? Some follow-up thoughts on Alex Thurston’s guest post over at African Futures on the chances and pitfalls of an amnesty programme for Boko Haram.

This is a joint post with our guest blogger Dennis Michels*.

On May 15, 2013 Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan declared the state of emergency over three of Nigeria’s Northern provinces – namely Borno, Adamawa, and Yobe – in the North of Nigeria, where Boko Haram persistently challenges the Nigerian state. The origins of Boko Haram, which roughly translates as „western education is sinful/forbidden“, can be traced back to the late 1990s or early 2000s (full name: Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad: „People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad“). The overarching goal of Boko Haram is an Islamic state under Sharia Law in Northern Nigeria. The group’s goals, history, and structure are, however, not well known (see also the report “What is Boko Haram?”).

It was not until the July 2009 uprising, when 700 people were killed, that Boko Haram gained wide national and (slowly) international attention due to attacks on the United Nations. After its founder and leader Mohammed Yusuf was killed in July 2009, Nigerian officials and academics downplayed future threats by the group. The hope that Boko Haram would fall after a military campaign in 2009 proofed delusive. Since June 2010 Boko Haram has killed more than 1000 people (detailed coverage at IRIN here and here). Despite a first state of emergency in 2012 and large-scale operations of Nigerian armed forces, the Nigerian state has not been able to effectively contain Boko Haram, which shows the limits of a “Fighting Fire with Fire”-approach. The most recent state of emergency was again accompanied by a surge of troops and a large-scale offensive against Boko Haram. Until now, the record is at best mixed; both sides are fighting a “dirty war” as NYT’s Adam Nossiter puts it and several instances of the destruction of villages and killings of civilians are being reported (for the limited media coverage of „Nigeria’s Silent War on Boko Haram“ this Al Jazeera blog post). Nigeria’s counterterrorism strategy highlights its increasing “Boko Haram Problem”:

Because of the grassroots, local nature of the Boko Haram movement, the Nigerian military has struggled to effectively deal with the threat posed by this group.

Thus, this year’s new offensive can be seen as just another round in Nigeria’s “Cycle of Violence”, which started back in 2009, as it has been put by last year’s Amnesty International Report (pdf).

Al Jazeera, Inside Story: Boko Haram and the battle for Nigeria’s north

This al Jazeera Inside Story not only provides a good backgrounder on the conflict but also discusses the need for a political process alongside the military activities, e.g. the option to grant amnesty to the fighters of Boko Haram. This goal is also pursued by the recently set up “Committee on Dialogue and Peaceful Resolution of Security Challenges in the North.” Alex Thurston (Sahelblog) has an excellent guest post over at African Futures taking up the trait to offer amnesty to Boko Haram. As Alex analyses correctly, the probable success of copying the Niger Delta’s amnesty policy is highly doubtful (here for some background on the Niger Delta rebellion). There are two main reasons why the Committee on Dialogue is likely to fail:

  1. Removing the threat of punishment of Boko Haram members does not address the root causes of the conflict. Even though Boko Haram’s goals remain unclear, it aims at establishing Islamic law (Sharia) in Nigeria. Amnesty, jobs and wealth are likely to be only secondary goals. As a consequence, a “money for peace” program is unlikely to work in a conflict of ideology and religion. In contrast to this, the Niger Delta rebellion was mainly a fight over resources and a fair distribution of the wealth resulting from oil production. Money and jobs were the right answer. However, even in this case the implementation was difficult and renewed attacks resulted from unfulfilled promises by the government.
  2. At this stage of the conflict it seems to remain unclear who could be eligible for amnesty. Boko Haram seems to be fragmented. A prior task would be to identify who might be a spokesperson for negotiations in order to clarify if an amnesty approach would be a sustainable solution. An amnesty for some might proof useless if others continue to fight. The challenge of identifying Boko Haram’s leaders/members is closely related to the already mentioned challenge of taking the groups’ goals into consideration. If different groups fight for different goals in the name of Boko Haram, amnesty might miss some of them. This could even create continuous fighting, as some groups might feel betrayed by turncoats. During the Niger Delta rebellion, the leaders of the MEND group were easier to identify. However, even in this case lower ranking combatants felt left out by the government’s policies and continued to fight.

Taking a glimpse at the record of amnesty policies in other contexts, amnesty has always been a highly controversial means of solving conflicts. On the international level, the United Nations (UN) called impunity an unacceptable way of dealing with former aggressors. The rise of international criminal law and the call for “transitional justice” after violent conflicts have established the demand for fighting amnesty and impunity on a global scale (and here with regard to the ICC). If domestic justice systems fail, the international community will take over and will try to prosecute perpetrators of killings and human rights violations. This is the basis the International Criminal Court (ICC) works on. Moreover, this has been underlined by the UN secretary general Kofi Annan in a speech (pdf, p.14) on transitional justice in 2004: “[International criminal tribunals] reflect a growing shift in the international community, away from a tolerance for impunity and amnesty and towards the creation of an international rule of law”.

By Domenico-de-ga, translated and adapted by xandar (Self-adapted from de.wikipedia. Page is here) [GFDL (, via Wikimedia Commons

The underlying assumption is that killings and human rights violations have to be addressed by justice in order to create sustainable peace (here for the case of Sierra Leone). Even decades after a conflict has ended, impunity can create renewed conflicts, as the victims of crimes claim their right to truth and justice. A recent court decision by the supreme court of Brazil, upholding an amnesty law from 1979, has shown this impressively.Other cases of amnesty laws speak the same language. A report (pdf) of the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) commenting on the situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has shown that amnesty without any complementing measures of criminal prosecution prolongs conflicts instead of solving them. Furthermore in the case of Nepal the UN warned state officials against offering amnesties, because the “state of Nepal has an obligation to investigate the truth and prosecute those responsible for grave human rights violations”, as a UN representative expressed.

Coming back to the case of Boko Haram in Nigeria there appear to be some lessons learned:

  • Offering amnesty to end the fighting would only be a “quick fix” solution by the Nigerian government. Its sustainability regarding the creation of peace is doubtful, as it does not address the underlying causes of the conflict. The Nigerian government tries to take this cheap and dirty shortcut without taking care of the long term consequences.
  • Offering amnesty has long been doomed as failure by the international community. Nigeria disregards the victims’ right to justice and might even face intervention by the ICC. As a consequence Nigeria might even isolate itself from the international community.

However, the attempt to find a political solution is welcome. A mixture of prosecutions of main perpetrators and the offer of reintegration through community work for minor perpetrators could be a good alternative to offering amnesty. It has been common to argue that prosecutions can undermine a peace process. However, various examples of transitional justice have shown that there can be no peace without justice. In fact the current opinion is goes even beyond this: Justice is a basic requirement for sustainable peace after violent conflict – as explained in this ICTJ video:

ICTJ, Peace versus Justice: A False Dilemma

Nevertheless this attempt presupposes the identification and capturing of Boko Haram’s leaders and does not solve the underlying ideological conflict. The solution to Nigeria’s conflict with Boko Haram remains an open question for the government, as well as the international community. The current policy of offering amnesty is clearly not the right answer.

*Dennis Michels studied Political Science and Sociology at the University of Bonn and International Relations & Peace and Conflict Research at Goethe-University Frankfurt as well as at the University of Southampton. He wrote his M.A. thesis about transitional justice and reconciliation in Rwanda and East Timor.

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  1. […] Amnesty for Boko Haram?Looking Beyond Nigeria – Max Lesch and Dennis Michels […]

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