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Nigeria Ponders Amnesty for Boko Haram Militants

Suspected members of the radical Islamist sect Boko Haram are detained by the military in Bukavu Barracks in Kano state, Nigeria, March 21, 2012.
Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan has set up a committee to investigate the possibility of granting a general amnesty to militants from the group known as Boko Haram. That news came after a meeting with leaders from the country's volatile northern states.

In recent weeks, religious, political and traditional leaders in northern Nigeria have been lining up in support of granting some kind of amnesty to Islamist sect Boko Haram. The line is long, and it includes the leader of Nigeria's Islamic community, the Sultan of Sokoto.

Other leaders, including the general secretary of the Christian Association of Nigeria, have railed against the idea, calling Boko Haram members “brutal killers” undeserving of amnesty.

On Tuesday, presidential adviser Doyin Okupe said the government’s current approach to combating the sect has been effective in Yobe and Borno, two of the worst-hit states, but the militants have moved on to Kano State.

“These violent attacks will be curtailed," he said. "It appears that the activities of the insurgents have been relatively put under check in Yobe and Borno states and what you’re observing presently is a regrouping in Kano.”

But now it appears the administration may have changed its mind, and has set up a committee to investigate the possibility of amnesty. In 2009, Nigeria quieted an insurgency in the south by offering militants job training and stipends in exchange for their weapons.

However, the southern militants had targeted big oil companies, not the local population, and officials had an idea of whom they were dealing with. In contrast, Boko Haram's leaders remain unknown, and President Jonathan has said he cannot grant amnesty to people who refuse to identify themselves.

Boko Haram

Boko Haram Facts

  • Based in the northeastern city of Maiduguri
  • Began in 2002 as a non-violent Islamist splinter group
  • Launched uprising in 2009; leader was subsequently killed in police custody
  • Has killed hundreds in bombings and shootings since 2010
  • Boko Haram translates to "Western education is sinful"
  • Wants Nigeria to adopt strict Islamic law
  • Says it will kidnap women and children as part of its campaign
  • Has taken over parts of northeastern Nigeria
Human Rights Watch says Boko Haram-related violence has killed 3,000 people since 2009. That toll includes killings by security forces.

The violence in the north continues, with a new twist added this year. Sixteen foreigners have been kidnapped by Islamist militants, and five are believed dead. One person who said he was Boko Haram’s spokesperson flatly denied the group is involved in hostage-taking. But in a YouTube video, Boko Haram has claimed responsibility for the abduction of a French family still among the missing.

In the chaos, many development companies have pulled out of northern Nigeria. University of Abuja political science lecturer Abubakar Kari says if the trend continues it could devastate the already impoverished region.

“They hire a number of indigenous people so if they stop work they will no longer have work. So it will compound the problem of unemployment. There will be hungry mouths to be fed. Many people will find it difficult to make ends meet,” said Kari.

More importantly, he said, northern Nigeria is badly in need of roads and other infrastructure to develop its economy. Poverty, he said, sometimes drives young men to militancy, making the problem even worse.