Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan on Thursday offered amnesty to the terrorist group Boko Haram in exchange for laying down its arms, only hours after promising to launch a “total war” against the insurgency, in what some are calling a bid to tamp down on domestic complaints about his government’s handling of the issue.
“I am determined to protect our democracy, our national unity and our political stability, by waging a total war against terrorism,” Jonathan said in a televised speech, in which he ordered a “full scale operation” against the radical Islamic group. The group has grown more brazen in its attacks against Nigerian civilians and infrastructure in the weeks after it kidnapped more than three hundred girls from a government boarding school in northern Nigeria. The vast majority of the girls remain in captivity, though some have managed to escape, though the Nigerian government has claimed to know where they are being held.
“I assure you … that these thugs will be driven away. It will not happen overnight, but we will spare no effort to achieve this goal,” Jonathan continued. “With the support of Nigerians, our neighbors and the international community, we will reinforce our defense, free our girls and rid Nigeria of terrorists.” In referring to “total war,” Jonathan was echoing the sentiments of Chadian president Idriss Deby during a regional summit on how to counter Boko Haram’s growing reach. His government also said it was “at war” with Boko Haram in February, before the kidnapping that drew greater international attention to the terrorist group.
Hours later, however, at a speech attended by Nigerian youth, Minister of Youth Development Boni Haruna told the assembled crowd that Jonathan had offered up amnesty to Boko Haram fighters who lay down their arms. “President Goodluck Jonathan has declared amnesty for members of the Boko Haram sect,” Haruna said, according Nigerian newspaper The Cable. “A series of integration programmes have been lined up for the members of the sect who would surrender their arms and embrace peace.” Harum continued: “Let me use this opportunity on behalf of the federal government to call on the members of the Boko Haram sect to embrace the government’s gesture and key into amnesty programme.”
While the two concepts seem at odds with each other, they appear to be part of a broader strategy. “If you look at text of the speeches, they’re really not different,” Cara Jones, a professor of political science at Mary Baldwin College, told ThinkProgress in a phone interview from Nigeria. Jones pointed to fact that in his earlier speech, Jonathan had spoken about pursuing “all options” to end the insurgency. That included, as The Cable noted, discussing “de-radicalisation, rehabilitation and re-integration into the broader society.”
But not everyone is convinced that the Jonathan government has a firm idea of its end goals in announcing this dual-track plan. “I don’t know if it’s a strategy,” Ami Shah, a visiting assistant professor at Pacific Lutheran University told ThinkProgress, adding that she’s “very skeptical about believing what Jonathan has to say in response to this. He’s kind of been bumbling through this, and that’s probably a generous account.” Shah agreed that both total war and the possibility of reconciliation were mentioned in Jonathan’s earlier speech, but said it remains unclear how deep the strategy of negotiation really runs.
“If it is a dual strategy, it’s hugely problematic,” Shah said, noting that the full-scale operation Jonathan seemed to be describing may not be one the already overstretched Nigerian military would be able to achieve. In addition, Shah continued, the Nigerian military has already demonstrated that they’ve been been willing to use “any means necessary” to fight Boko Haram, making it unclear just what would change. Shah also noted that it was unclear who militants in Borno state — where the girls were kidnapped and Boko Haram has a strong presence — would be willing to turn themselves in to, given the military’s history of performing extrajudicial killings against suspected Boko Haram members.
The Nigerian government has been under intense pressure from domestic media for weeks now to do something about Boko Haram, Jones said, and people have suggested that an amnesty program might work. Several televisions channels, she continued, have spoken out calling Nigeria a failed state several times on Thursday alone. That pressure has likely lead to Jonathan needing to say something to mollify the populace. “I feel like he’s competing for soundbites,” Shah said, “throwing everything out there and I don’t know if he has an actual strategy of what this looks like.” Meanwhile a construction explosion in Abuja, the capital of Nigeria, was initially believed to be yet another attack from Boko Haram. “It’s a very tense time and really unclear where it’s all going to end up,” Jones said.
Those tensions were on clear display yesterday, when a protest urging the government to do more to return the missing girls was violently disrupted. According to the protesters, at least thirty buses worth of government supporters were brought in from rural areas to break up the rally. “They came and they beat the women, they used the chairs, broke the chairs, they broke bottles, they did all kinds of things over the heads of very, very civil women and men,” protest leader Obiageli Ezekwesili told Al Jazeera.
At least equally troubling is the indication that Jonathan appears ready to shift the blame for Boko Haram’s rise on international terrorist movements, rather than the domestic issues that originally fueled Boko Haram’s attacks. “What we are witnessing in Nigeria today is a manifestation of the same warped and ferocious world view that brought down the Twin Towers in New York (and) killed innocent persons in Boston,” Jonathan said in his speech, referring to Boko Haram as “extremist foreign elements, collaborating with some of our misguided citizens.” Given the need for a broader strategy to end the attacks against Boko Haram, which Jonathan himself admitted when he told youth on Thursday that the military alone cannot stop “any kind of radicalism,” passing the buck on Boko Haram’s origins will not likely end well for Nigerians.