Essays | May 20, 2013

Amnesty for Boko Haram: Lessons from the Past

Boko Haram, a cause of concern for Pres. Jonathan
©Annaliese McDonough/Commonwealth Secretariat

On April 24, 2013, President Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria inaugurated the “Committee on Dialogue and Peaceful Resolution of Security Challenges in the North.” The committee, a presidential statement said, “has been given the task of identifying and constructively engaging key leaders of Boko Haram, and developing a workable framework for amnesty and disarmament of members of the group.”[1] It is headed by Special Duties Minister Kabiru Tanimu Turaki and composed of former and current government officials, religious authorities and human rights activists.

Boko Haram, a militant jihadist organization, grew from a Muslim sect that emerged in northeastern Nigeria in the mid-1990s.[2] It launched a massive uprising in summer 2009, and since fall 2010 it has attacked Nigerian government targets, Christian gatherings, schools, and businesses. Boko Haram’s goals include the imposition of Islamic law (Shari’a) across the Nigerian state.

Having rejected these demands, Jonathan has countered Boko Haram with military force. Twice—from January to July 2012 and again on May 15, 2013—he imposed states of emergency on areas affected by Boko Haram, particularly Borno, Yobe, and Adamawa states. Although the establishment of the Committee on Dialogue reflects his acknowledgment that purely military means cannot eradicate the group or solve this problem, it is also consistent with policymaking tendencies toward Boko Haram that are reactive, ad hoc, and cyclical. Proponents of this dialogue process hope it will break the cycle of cracking down and muddling through in the aftermath of military operations. Yet even dialogue faces obstacles, and Nigeria has to look no farther than its own Niger Delta to find lessons on the limitations of amnesty programs.

While the Niger Delta’s experience with its own rebellion has certainly influenced government thinking and public discussion about the possibility of an amnesty for Boko Haram, the example of the Delta amnesty program should offer greater cause for concern than optimism. First, key aspects of the Delta’s experience cannot be transferred to the north, due to the differences in composition and goals between Boko Haram and militants in the Niger Delta. Second, the medium-term trajectory of the amnesty in the Delta reveals deep flaws in its design and implementation.

A Rebellion (and an Amnesty) in the Niger Delta

Militancy in the Niger Delta focuses primarily on resources, rather than the commonly perceived narrative of religion. Nigeria, according to 2011 estimates, is the world’s twelfth largest oil producer. Most of the 2.5 million barrels it produces per day come from the Delta, located in the country’s southeast. While oil generated $68.4 billion in government revenues in 2011,[3] much of the wealth lines the pockets of politicians rather than benefiting ordinary Nigerians. Delta residents face not only poverty and inadequate services, but also environmental devastation; for example, an assessment of pollution in the Ogoniland region of the Niger Delta conducted by the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) concluded that the oil-related pollution there would require twenty-five to thirty years to clean up.[4]

Groups from the Delta have long demanded greater assistance and attention from the federal government to deal with these important issues. Some residents, frustrated by government oppression and indifference, have taken up arms. From 2006 to 2009, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) kidnapped and killed oil company personnel, attacked oil installations, and fought Nigerian soldiers. MEND’s activities reduced Nigeria’s oil production by more than 28 percent during this period. The government responded with force, deploying the military’s Joint Task Force (JTF). Yet attacks continued. Amid the violence, the administration of President Umaru Yar’Adua (Jonathan’s predecessor, under whom he served as vice president) pursued political solutions. In September 2008, the government formed a Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs to explore new avenues of engagement. From August to October 2009, the government offered amnesty to Delta militants, encouraging them to turn in their weapons in exchange for pardons, job training, and employment. In October, after an estimated 8,000–15,000 fighters had come forward, the government announced a $1.3 billion jobs and infrastructure program for the Delta. The basic equation underlying the amnesty—money for peace—has remained in place under the Jonathan administration, which plans to continue the program through at least 2015.

A Similar Model for Boko Haram?

Some Nigerians, in and outside the government, hope to recreate this equation for Boko Haram. In Borno State, epicenter of the sect’s violence, the then governor-elect Kashim Shettima (who remains in office) proposed an amnesty for Boko Haram fighters in May 2011. In July 2011, Jonathan appointed a committee to explore the possibility of negotiating with the sect. Efforts at dialogue faltered, however, due to difficulties in establishing contact with credible spokesmen for Boko Haram; one mediator withdrew from the process in March 2012, accusing the government of leaking information to the press.

Despite these failures, calls for dialogue, negotiations, and amnesty have periodically resurfaced. The persistence of these ideas stems partly from pessimism about military approaches to the violence. The military (again in the form of the JTF) has cracked down heavily in the northeast, killing and arresting scores of fighters. But attacks have continued, sometimes shifting forms and targets as Boko Haram responds to the military’s advances. Most recently, on May 8, 2013, the group staged an attack on the northeastern town of Bama, freeing over 100 prison inmates and leaving 55 people dead. Widespread military abuses are also said to fuel recruitment by Boko Haram. The crackdown against its July 2009 uprising, during which police executed the movement’s founder, Muhammad Yusuf, remains a key grievance for some members of the sect.

Even recently, Jonathan appeared to oppose the idea of amnesty. When northern Nigeria’s most prominent hereditary Muslim ruler, Sultan Sa’ad Abubakar III of Sokoto, proposed amnesty in March of this year, Jonathan again pointed to the difficulties of identifying Boko Haram’s leaders and demands as a basis for negotiations. In April, Jonathan changed course, reviving the earlier idea of dialogue. The sultan’s persistence and the calls of other prominent Nigerians likely influenced this decision, and heavy civilian casualties inflicted by the military during fighting with Boko Haram in the northern village of Baga on April 16–17 may have reinforced the pessimism, even within the administration, about the effectiveness of the military approach. The concerns Jonathan raised in March, however, remain unaddressed: How will the new Committee on Dialogue identify credible interlocutors? Can anyone speak for Boko Haram, particularly if it proves increasingly fragmented and prone to the emergence of splinter groups like Ansar al Muslimin fi Bilad al Sudan (The Defenders of Muslims in West Africa)? If Boko Haram has already rejected amnesty, as its purported leader, Abubakar Shekau, did in a video released to the media on April 11, what conditions would induce its leaders to change their minds? Does the group have grievances and demands that an amnesty program could feasibly address? The re-imposition of a state emergency in the northeast adds yet another concern: will the state of emergency and efforts toward amnesty prove mutually reinforcing, constituting a “carrot and stick” approach to Boko Haram, or does the state of emergency signal that the government is continuing to lurch from tactic to tactic, lacking a clear strategy?

The Committee on Dialogue exists to answer these questions. It must, however, navigate uncharted political territory. Many analysts cite widespread anger in northern Nigeria at corruption, poverty, and unemployment as a partial explanation for Boko Haram’s emergence; an amnesty could attempt to assuage this anger by providing jobs and infrastructure. But the equation “money for peace” may not adequately address the factor of religion. Boko Haram members who fight not for a larger slice of Nigeria’s oil revenues but for the vision of a more Islamic Nigeria may be unmoved by offers of jobs and payments. Even if the committee locates leaders who can speak for Boko Haram, negotiations over the content of amnesty could hit deadlock on issues like Shari’a. The model of the Delta amnesty, in other words, could prove inapplicable in the north.

Flaws in the Niger Delta Amnesty

The Delta amnesty itself appears increasingly flawed, which further calls into question its applicability in northern Nigeria. After 2009, violence declined in the Delta. Yet today, as MEND commanders lounge in Abuja hotel rooms and receive lavish payments, other MEND members, from mid-level commanders to foot soldiers, voice discontent with the amnesty’s implementation. By spring 2010, ex-militants were already complaining that payments were irregular and job options unsatisfactory. Corruption in the Delta has also gone largely unaddressed.

Perhaps most tellingly, oil theft has risen in 2012 and 2013, with the gangs perpetrating it often including ex-militants. Oil companies are responding by shutting down pipelines and declaring force majeure, which in turn deprives the government of revenues. The trend in theft suggests frustrated ex-militants are tiring of waiting for jobs and payouts and engaging instead in criminality. Deploying soldiers to pursue thieves could trigger clashes between them and the ex-militants, setting the stage for cycles of reprisals.

MEND, too, appears restless. Violence by Delta militants never completely ended after 2009; MEND is generally blamed, for example, for bombings in Abuja in October 2010. Actors claiming to speak for MEND have periodically made threats of a renewed uprising. Gauging the seriousness of these threats, or of the broader prospect of a return to prolonged violence in the Delta, is difficult. At a minimum, however, the possibility for sustained violence looms larger at present than it did before. In April of this year, a South African court convicted former militant leader Henry Okah for involvement in the 2010 bombings. In response, MEND (or a segment of it) promised to renew its attacks. While Okah and other former commanders distanced themselves from the statement, two incidents—an attack on a police boat that month and a gun battle involving former militants in May—have raised fears that MEND will follow its threats with actions.

The Delta’s experience suggests caution is warranted about what amnesty programs can achieve. Even if the federal government brought Boko Haram to the negotiating table and signed an amnesty deal, the implementation of that program might falter. Under that scenario, former Boko Haram fighters might take up arms again in a few years, perhaps during Nigeria’s next national elections in 2015.


The limitations and drawbacks of the Nigerian military’s fight against Boko Haram are clear, especially in light of the killings in Baga. Addressing the problem of Boko Haram will require a political component, but political solutions will be constrained by contentious regional and interreligious rivalries in Nigeria and may be undermined by ad hoc policymaking. Releasing imprisoned Boko Haram members may prove politically possible, but implementing nationwide Shari’a likely will not; creating special zones where Boko Haram members may live may prove possible, but expelling Christians from the north likely will not. Given the wide gulf between what Boko Haram wants and what the state can offer, Boko Haram may continue to reject amnesty as an alternative to its armed struggle. Ambitions to implement an amnesty program in northern Nigeria, therefore, will most likely continue to face resistance, especially if the flawed experience of the Niger Delta is taken as a model. President Jonathan’s Committee on Dialogue must confront the challenge of discerning how and with whom to negotiate, and how to devise a model for the north that accounts for both the particular problems posed by Boko Haram and the particular needs of northern communities.




[1] Ben Agande, “Jonathan Inaugurates Committee on Boko Haram Today,” Vanguard, April 24, 2013,, accessed April 30 2013.

[2] Although there is not complete consensus regarding the origins of the group, it is generally believed that Muhammad Yusuf, the group’s early leader began developing the group’s ideology and its followers in the mid-1990s.

 [3] Nigeria Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, “Financial Audit: An Independent Report Assessing and Reconciling Financial Flows within Nigeria’s Oil and Gas Industry—2009 to 2011,” December 2012,, accessed April 30 2013.

 [4] United Nations Environment Programme. Environmental Assessment of Ogoniland. Nairobi: UNEP, 2011.



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