Amnesty for Boko Haram – Cardinal Onaiyekan

Since the kidnapping of more than 250 girls by Boko Haram the Archbishop of Abuja, John Cardinal Onaiyekan, has issued a series of letters addressing this and other matters affecting the most populous country in Africa. In this letter of 3 June 2014, his fifth, the Cardinal speaks about the implications of granting an amnesty to Boko Haram fighters, “calculating the risks and counting the costs”. The full text is as follows:

It is often said that “to err is human and to forgive is divine”. To forgive does not easily come to us human beings; we find it very difficult to resist the urge to hit back, to revenge. And yet, on the long run, it is clear that pardon is better than vengeance. While vengeance tends to perpetuate enmity, pardon heals hurt and creates friendship. The command of Jesus: “Love your enemies”, (Luke 6:27) is not only not as unrealistic as it may appear, but is indeed excellent common sense. Furthermore, even when pardon is generously offered, it is often not easy to humbly accept it, since this implies the admission of guilt, which our pride resists. We see here the drama of pardon in inter-personal relationships.

When this is translated to the level of amnesty of government to citizens, the drama can become very problematic. Although the duty of government to ensure justice and enforce good order normally entails punishing criminals, this may at times not exclude offering pardon and amnesty. This is why each case has to be judged on its own merit. It is often a matter of calculating the risks of “tempering justice with mercy” for the higher purpose of peace and reconciliation in the community.

A well-known example is the “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” which the government of South Africa under Nelson Mandela set up after Apartheid. Despite its limits, it certainly opened the way for the “Rainbow Nation” to move on after the grievous hurts and injuries of the Apartheid regime. It is significant that it was promoted by Mandela, a victim who generously offered pardon. Nor should one underestimate the importance of the “Archbishop Desmond Tutu factor”, which turned the whole process into a somewhat “spiritual exercise”.

We have other examples nearer home. The famous “Oputa Panel” had the lofty aims of bringing about national reconciliation after the injuries of the military era, though for various reasons, it ended with very limited achievement in that regard. For many aggrieved, the wounds are still festering and waiting to be effectively addressed. The “amnesty program” for the Niger Delta militants, which the Yar’Ardua administration initiated and which was continued by President Jonathan, is another example. It has perhaps appeased a few people. But one can still wonder how much it has effectively tackled the problems of the Niger Delta. The beautiful concept of amnesty can take different forms.

In his address to the nation during the last “Democracy Day” celebrations, President Jonathan spoke strongly about matters of national security which are obviously of major concern not only to Nigerians but to the entire international community. Our abducted girls must be brought back home. The menace of terrorism in our land must be brought to an end. Everything will be done to ensure the unity, integrity and peace in Nigeria. Our armed forces and other security agents have been given clear directives, and we hope also adequate means to get the job done. Nigerians and the world are waiting for concrete action and clear results.

Squeezed in between the tough talk is a short but significant paragraph 24, to the effect that government is prepared to offer amnesty to terrorists who lay down their arms and embrace peace with their fatherland. The local and international media have given this story a well-deserved wide publicity. This is a great challenge which calls for a lot of commitment, sincerity and consistency on the part of government and its agents.

It should be clear to all that this is not a case of enthroning impunity which could become a precedent to blackmail government in future through violence. The motivation has to be the pursuit of peace and reconciliation with people who admit wrong-doing and are ready to repent. It is therefore not enough to lay down arms, perhaps because of superior fire power of government forces. There must also be a sincere change of heart. And this is a difficult though not an impossible project.

The amnesty will be an encouragement to those who are already disposed to abandon terrorism but may not be prepared to submit themselves for summary execution.The promise of Mr. President “to ensure their de-radicalization, rehabilitation and re-integration into the broader society” is a serious commitment that must be sincerely carried out. There is need for patience. If government waits for the entire group to renounce violence before making any move, no one can say how long this will take. We can surely start with individuals and groups ready to break ranks and take advantage of the generous offer of government. There is of course the risk here that insincere people may infiltrate the process. But it is a risk that has to be carefully calculated and embraced.

Amnesty and rehabilitation of repented terrorists raises the bigger issue of rehabilitation of victims of terrorism over the years. There is no way to bring back the dead. But the nation cannot leave surviving victims without any form of adequate compensation. The hurt and anger of victims cannot be ignored if a true reconciliation in the “broader society” is ever to begin to take place. This may involve a greater challenge than amnesty for terrorists. But it is a challenge that must be taken on board, promptly and visibly. It does not make any sense, both in justice and morality, to budget for former murderers and make no provisions for the innocent victims of their atrocities. People have lost loved ones. Widows and orphans have been left without succor. Businesses have been destroyed. Property, homes and even places of worship have been reduced to rubbles. There is a lot of “rehabilitation and re-integration into the broader society” to be done. Amnesty for terrorists must go hand in hand with compensation for victims.

We pray for God’s guidance for President Jonathan and his government. May God bless our nation with peace and prosperity. Amen.

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