Amnesties In Nigeria: Challenges and Opportunities

The use of amnesties for achieving peace and reconciliation in contexts of conflict is frequently controversial. For opponents, a central objection is that the application of amnesties is in conflict with human rights principles, which emphasise justice for the victims of conflict-based violence. By granting amnesty to perpetrators, opponents argue, victims are denied the opportunity for reparations and a fair trial. Nevertheless, amnesties are widely accepted as a flexible de-escalation tool capable of conflict resolution whilst simultaneously encouraging rehabilitation and reintegration.

Although Nigeria has no national Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) programme, amnesty initiatives initiated in Nigeria have been guided by the DDR framework. DDR is a global transitional justice framework that seeks to establish the basis for preserving and sustaining communities to which reformed perpetrators of violence return. This is integral for creating long-term peace, security, and development capability. The DDR framework is currently implemented in Nigeria and other conflict-stricken countries such as the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Haiti, and Mali.

In Nigeria, the two major Federally sponsored amnesty programmes currently in operation are the Presidential Amnesty Programme (PAP) and the Operation Safe Corridor (OSC). Implemented by President Umaru Musa Yaradua in 2009, the Presidential Amnesty Programme (PAP) is Nigeria’s premier amnesty programme. The PAP consists of blanket immunity for crimes committed, as well as a monthly stipend of N65,000 and vocational training for militants, provided the combatants surrender their weapons and promise to cease fighting. Aside from the federally sponsored Amnesty programmes, there are several state-funded and informal amnesty programmes implemented across the country. For instance, in the Niger Delta region, there is an informal exchange of pipe surveillance contracts from government and private entities to disgruntled youth in the area in exchange for a cessation of pipeline-related criminal activity. This arrangement acts as a quasi-cash-for-peace model, which is already in existence under the PAP.

As with PAP, Operation Safe Corridor is primarily geared towards the disarmament, demobilisation, and reintegration of ex-combatants. However, OSC focuses specifically on low-level Boko Haram members, emphasising the ideological rehabilitation of ex-combatants as opposed to the more simplistic cash-for-peace model used in the Niger Delta Peace Deal.

The difference between these two policies highlights a key challenge with amnesty efforts in Nigeria: the lack of a national judicial framework for implementing amnesties has led to inconsistency and poor implementation. While a one size fits all approach would be too broad to address the factors affecting both sets of conflict, there are several commonalities which they both share that can be addressed through the implementation of a national framework.  For instance, the marginalisation of groups, perceptions of socio-economic exclusion, and institutional repression.  have pushed dissatisfied individuals into collective violence and as result, enabled the recruitment of dissatisfied individuals into terrorist organisations. Hence the common grievances shared across the various regions in Nigeria often means that irrespective of the underlying ideological or political motivations of terror groups as a collective, the individuals within those groups are often participating due to perceived socioeconomic grievances.

As both the Presidential Amnesty Programme and Operation Safe Corridor are amnesty programmes, they do not address the key underlying issues which caused the conflict. Currently, in its eleventh year, the PAP programme continues to empower the ex-combatants rather than solve the core conflict-triggering socio-economic problems blighting the region Similarly, OSC has failed to address the underlying issues fuelling conflict in the North-East. Ranging from the neglect of women and children to the low literacy rates and access to basic social amenities.  There has been a singular focus on the ideological reformation of ex-combatants in the region through the implementation of a 12-week deradicalization programme. Whilst successful in its own right, this approach does not tackle the poor socio-economic standards, which has acted as an accelerant in the rate of recruitment by Boko Haram. Numerous surveys have been conducted in the region that point to a definite link between hunger, poverty, and young Nigerians’ susceptibility to radical extremism.

The focus on amnesty by the government as a peacebuilding mechanism whilst useful should also be accompanied with socio-economic programs which would help assuage the grievances which so many Nigerians hold. By elevating people out of poverty and vulnerable social conditions, it also stems the flow of recruitment into terror groups such as Boko Haram, reducing the need for controversial amnesty programmes in the first place.

Worth noting is that the imbalance between the evident economic empowerment of ex-combatants in the Niger Delta and the slow but more holistic reintegration of ex-Boko Haram members could lead to accusations of unequal and preferential treatment. However, such an accusation is fraught with many potential consequences given Nigeria’s unstable ethnoreligious alliance. This is compounded by the fact that the Niger Delta amnesty programme offered blanket amnesty for all combatants irrespective of rank. In contrast, OSC has only offered amnesty to low-level Boko Haram members.

The inconsistency in the application of amnesties has also set an uncertain precedent for the application of amnesties in emerging and future conflicts in Nigeria. Thus, for example, the argument by Sheik Ahmad Gumi for applying a blanket amnesty to all members of North-western bandit groups is given further credence by the application of a blanket amnesty to Niger Delta’s militants.

Linked to this is the perception that amnesty programmes in Nigeria prioritise the welfare of perpetrators over that of victims. This criticism presents an opportunity for improved synergy between amnesty and transitional justice initiatives in Nigeria. Amnesties, particularly their ambition of reintegrating former combatants, can be better improved if victims of violent conflict are afforded the same level of state-sponsored rehabilitation as has been historically afforded to the perpetrators. That said, it might prove a difficult feat to achieve in inter-communal conflicts such as the Farmer-Herder conflict due to the thin line between perpetrator and victim in such instances — since victims have often resorted to retributive violence to protect themselves due to the lack of intervention from the state level and federal governments. Indeed, some of the root causes for the exponential increase in banditry and vigilantism in the region can be attributed to local communities taking law and order into their own hands, a situation that further fuels instability in an already volatile region.

As the debate around the role of amnesties in the de-escalation of Nigeria’s nationwide Farmer-Herder conflict continues to unfold, this commentary sees an opportunity for a review of the workings and failings of Nigeria’s amnesty programmes. While amnesty and peace deals have already been applied to the crisis of banditry in the North-Western region of Nigeria (see, for instance, the Kaduna and Zamfara peace deals), they have followed the same template of handing out cash in exchange for the relinquishing of weapons. The Farmer-Herders conflict presents an opportunity to collaboratively tackle key governance issues in the area. Considering the scale and impact the conflict has had on both sides, it is imperative that state governments in the Northwest commit to fostering sustainable reconciliatory efforts, including but not limited to DDR initiatives.

Equally pertinent to the application of amnesties would be the active involvement of local and community-based associations in peacebuilding efforts aiming to smoothen the reintegration component of Nigeria’s amnesty efforts. This, in tandem with an analysis of more established amnesty frameworks from around the globe, could help establish a consistent application of amnesties to Nigeria’s conflictual regions. More importantly, it would ultimately eliminate some of the inconsistencies and inequities surrounding amnesty in Nigeria. This commentary has sought to present an analysis of Nigeria’s ongoing amnesty programmes to highlight the challenges bedevilling these policies and identify opportunities for their improvement. Recognising their capacity to aid rather than hinder accountability and peacebuilding efforts in Nigeria, the analysis has ultimately served to point out the potential that exists to enhance the legitimacy and success of amnesty programmes.

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