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Nigeria Declares Emergency Rule as Christians Debate Amnesty for Boko Haram Islamists

(UPDATED) Controversial proposal to end terror campaign creates another faultline for Christians in Africa's most-populous nation.
Nigeria Declares Emergency Rule as Christians Debate Amnesty for Boko Haram Islamists
Image: Pius Utomi Ekpei / AFP / Getty

Nigerian Protestants and Catholics are largely divided over a government proposal to grant amnesty to members of Boko Haram, the violent Islamist sect whose attacks and suicide bombings have killed more than 4,000 people and destroyed hundreds of churches in northern Nigeria since 2009.

Labeling recent attacks as a "declaration of war," President Goodluck Jonathan has declared a state of emergency in three of Nigeria's northeastern states (full text). More military troops will be sent to Adamawa, Borno and Yobe states, believed to be the strongholds of the sect, though the Associated Press notes "a similar effort [previously] failed to stop the bloodshed."

The same day, the Borno state leader of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), Pentecostal pastor Faye Pama Musa, was killed by suspected Boko Haram members. (Morning Star News offers more details.)

The declaration was widely applauded by many, with CAN describing it as long overdue. One of Nigeria's top Anglican leaders, Nicholas Okoh, is among those that oppose the emergency powers, urging the government to host a national dialogue instead. "The federal government had tried this emergency rule in other parts of the country but it didn't work," he told Nigerian reporters at a press conference. "There is need for Nigerians to talk about how they want to live together."

Though the West African nation's military continues to engage the insurgents in fierce gun battles, the bombings have remained unabated, forcing northern leaders to demand a political solution to the crisis.

In 2008, Nigeria granted amnesty to militants in the oil-rich Niger Delta who violently protested the environmental degradation and neglect of their communities. The deal ended hostilities and restored peace in the region, swelling oil production in Africa's most-populous nation.

Northern leaders now argue a similar gesture should be extended to Boko Haram members in order to achieve lasting peace. (Meanwhile, the militants in the Niger Delta have made Boko Haram their next target.)

In response, the government has created a 26-man committee charged with developing a plan for amnesty in exchange for disarmament within the coming months.

But the plan has suffered several blows that dent its workability. Two prominent members of the committee—human rights activist Shehu Sani and Supreme Council of Shari'ah leader Ahmed Datti—turned down membership, citing insincerity by the government and failure to follow previous peace agreements with sect members. Meanwhile, Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau also declined the offer, claiming it was Nigeria and not the sect that need amnesty.

Many Christians fear amnesty is being used as a tool to appease aggrieved northern political leaders ahead of presidential elections in 2015. President Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian from Nigeria's predominantly Christian south, is believed to be dependent on votes from Nigeria's predominantly Muslim north for his re-election. (CT has regularly reported on Nigeria's Christian-Muslim divide.)

Broadly speaking, Pentecostal Christian leaders consider amnesty for Boko Haram unacceptable (favoring stronger responses), while their Catholic counterparts believe the option should be embraced.

Earlier this year, the Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria suspended relations with the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) at the national level over its approach to peacemaking as well as its alleged romance with the federal government. The disagreement on amnesty further strains relations within the nation's apex Christian organization.

CAN president Ayo Oritsejafor has described the proposed amnesty for insurgents as wickedness. He argues it is wrong to forgive killers when their victims have not been compensated.

Bassey Josef, general overseer of God's Heritage Church Calabar, agrees. "Amnesty is not forgiveness," he said. "Dangling amnesty as a carrot before [Islamists] will not do. What the government needs to do is to flush them out like it has done elsewhere."

But John Onaiyekan, the Catholic archbishop of Abuja, disagrees. He believes amnesty will bring about peace in Nigeria's troubled north. "Even if we fight them militarily for years, we would still have to have dialogue," he said. "Dialogue, not violence, is what ends wars everywhere in the world."

Matthew Kukah, the Catholic archbishop of Sokoto, also supports the proposed amnesty. "I believe amnesty will resolve whatever grievance Boko Haram members have against the state," he said.

By contrast, Jeremiah Gado, general overseer of the Evangelical Church Winning All, a prominent Pentecostal denomination, frowns at what he terms attempts to sacrifice justice on the altar of peace.

"Even God does not forgive a sinner until he confesses and repents," said Gado. "Boko Haram believes it has done nothing wrong. So why force amnesty down their throats?" He said amnesty for the sect will amount to "rewarding violence and punishing restraint on the parts of Christians who have suffered most directly from the attacks."

Gideon Para-Mallam, regional secretary of the International Federation of Evangelical Students, agrees that Christians should forgive their worst offenders. However, he points out that "certain normal procedures that should precede amnesty"—such as determining the actual demands of Boko Haram and whether achievable compromises exist—have not been followed.

"Pursuing amnesty without first addressing the plight of victims of Boko Haram attacks," he said, "remains a dangerous political journey."

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