Just when Nigerians at home and abroad, as well as the international community, were expecting an improved welfare package for soldiers currently battling the Boko Haram terrorists and the families of the soldiers who have died, the Senate came with a shocker that sent chills down the spines of everyone.
The red chamber is considering a bill that would grant amnesty to ‘repentant’ Boko Haram terrorists. The bill proposes a package, which includes the establishment of an education agency that will be funded by taxpayers’ money, and probably, widows and children of soldiers who were also killed by the same insurgents languishing in hunger. The agency will also train the repentant criminals, including sending them abroad for foreign education.
Many Nigerians, including some federal lawmakers, have condemned the proposed legislation, which has passed its first reading on the floor of the Senate. But the sponsor of the controversial bill, Senator Ibrahim Gaidam, has consistently maintained that this is the best way to go if Nigeria is prepared to end insurgency.
Gaidam, who is the immediate past governor of Yobe State, argued in a chat with journalists in his office last week that since the current use of force to fight the insurgents had yet to achieve the desired result, the amnesty option for the repentant insurgents should be employed to entice those who are still at war with the country.
Gaidam, a member of the All Progressives Congress representing Yobe South in the upper chamber of the National Assembly, argued further that his colleagues and other Nigerians who are calling for his head over the bill will soft-pedal by the time they study the proposed legislation and consider the result it is expected to achieve.
The lawmaker plans to achieve this with his proposed law titled ‘A Bill for an Act to Establish the National Agency for Education, Rehabilitation, De-radicalisation and Integration of Repentant Insurgents in Nigeria 2020, SB. 340’.
Investigations by our correspondent showed that Gaidam and some of his colleagues, whose names he did not mention, are of the opinion that repentant Boko Haram terrorists deserve same treatment like the beneficiaries of the Presidential Amnesty Programme approved in June 2009 for the Niger Delta militants by the late President Umaru Yar’Adua.
Gaidam said his bill would provide an avenue for rehabilitating, de-radicalising, educating and reintegrating repentant members of the insurgent group to make them useful members of the society.
The senator said the proposed law aims to provide an avenue for reconciliation and promoting national security.
He also stated that it would provide an open door and encouragement for other members of the group who are still engaged in the insurgency to abandon the group, especially in the face of the military pressure.
According to Gaidam, the approval of the bill will give the government an opportunity to derive insider information about the insurgents for greater understanding of their group and its inner workings.
Finally, the proponent of the bill said it would enable government to gain greater understanding of the insurgents so as to address the immediate concerns of the violence.
He added that the proposed law would allow some convicted or suspected terrorists to express remorse over their actions, repent and recant their violent ideology and re-enter mainstream politics, religion and society.
Most Nigerians who spoke with our correspondent on the issue expressed worry, shock and disbelief that Nigerian senators could be considering such a bill when soldiers and victims of the insurgents’ “wicked actions” remained substantially neglected.
They noted with concern that Boko Haram victims in the Internally Displaced Persons’ camps were daily being subjected to rape, hunger, malnutrition and other socio-economic vices.
A former Senate Leader, Ali Ndume, told our correspondent, “About 1.7 million people have been displaced in Borno State and the value of the damage is about $9.6bn in the state alone.
“About 60,000 children are orphaned. Only God knows how many children are out of school, have no access to water, food and means of livelihood. The humanitarian crisis that is coming after the war may be more dangerous than the war itself.
“The insurgency is going into its 10th year. Some children haven’t been in school in the last 10 years and we know what that means.”
The Defence spokesperson, Brig-Gen. Onyema Nwachukwu, and Gaidam confirmed that the army had already put in place, an initiative to assist Boko Haram members that were not captured in the battlefield.
But, no programme has officially been launched either by the Federal Government or the military authorities to assist soldiers wounded during battle with the insurgents.
Families of deceased military personnel who died on the battlefield are also crying foul with no assistance coming their way apart from the welfare arrangement they are entitled to by law.
Socio-cultural groups in the country have rejected the proposed amnesty for the repentant insurgents and condemned the use of taxpayers’ money to fund the insurgents’ foreign education, among others.
Afenifere leader, Pa Ayo Adebanjo, said it was an insult to Nigeria and a big scandal for the National Assembly.
“How can anybody think of feeding criminals and enemies of the state? This is impunity taken too far,” he said.
Similarly, the President of the Arewa Consultative Forum, Alhaji Yerima Shettima, described the proposal as an unfortunate one.
Shettima said, “Why can’t the government cater for the direct victims of the Boko Haram suspects? Why can’t they address the plights of the soldiers that are risking their lives to contain the insurgency?
“The soldiers are crying foul over poor welfare package and the Senate is considering granting amnesty to the suspects.”
Also, the #BringBackOurGirls movement, which has been tasking the government to ensure the release of schoolgirls abducted from Chibok in 2014 by the insurgents, said the plan to set up the agency should be done concurrently with the rehabilitation of thousands of internally displaced persons.
A civil society organisation, Centre for Anti-Corruption and Open Leadership, knocked the Federal Government over its plans to deduct from the Tertiary Education Trust Fund and the Universal Basic Education Commission’s funds for the rehabilitation of the Boko Haram terrorists.
CACOL Executive Chairman, Mr Debo Adeniran, said the education sector was already underfunded and the Federal Government must rather seek ways to increase funding and not make deductions for the terrorists’ rehabilitation.
He said, “It is not right and it will be criminal if anyone dips his hands into education funds of whatever description to fund the rehabilitation of the Boko Haram.”
Speaking on the proposed bill, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Chief Mike Ozekhome, described the proposed legislation as “madness taken to its very ludicrous zenith and apogee.”
Ozekhome alleged, in an interview with our correspondent, that the bill confirmed the regime of the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), had been treating the Boko Haram terrorists with “kid gloves.”
He said, “It’s an unfortunate confirmation of the long-held view that this government has been treating the Boko Haram insurgents with kid gloves. If not outright, its embrace is suggestive of close affinity or patronising consanguinity.
“How can lawmakers establish an agency for the rehabilitation of alleged repentant members of a murderous, deadly organisation, which has since been declared as the third most deadly terrorist organisation in the world.
“How will they distinguish between genuinely repentant ones and those pretending to have repented, but nonetheless playing along to wreak further maximum damage to an already devastated populace?”
Ozekhome further described the terrorists as “walking literally on hot crimson blood of savagely butchered Nigerians,” saying, “It is morally reprehensible and ethically odious to reintegrate into the society with taxpayers’ money, earth-scorching killers who are daily destroying the very essence of humanity.”
He cautioned that such a provision or repentant Boko Haram fighters could send a wrong signal to the soldiers sacrificing their lives to protect the territorial integrity of the country.
The lawyer said, “What regrettable lesson is the Senate sending to those marine soldiers taking on these deadly insurgents on empty tummies and with antiquated weapons? How unfair can such a bill be for the memory of thousands of soldiers cut down in their prime while fighting this societal scourge of rampaging marauders?
“This Senate that appears idle, visionless and rudderless should save us further denigration, opprobrium, ridicule and embarrassment.”
He advised the Senate to drop the “ill-advised, ill-conceived and ill-digested retrogressive bill and face the current asphyxiating challenges that threaten Nigeria’s survival and assail her very existence daily.”
Meanwhile, the Convener, Nigerians Unite Against Terror, Dr Joe Okei-Odumakin, said she was appalled by the bill on the floor of the Senate for the establishment of an agency for repentant Boko Haram terrorists with “our collective patrimony.”
Okei-Odumakin told our correspondent that “terror is a crime against humanity and it must be met with punitive measures.”
She said, “At NUAT, we strongly feel that the bill offers further concessions to Boko Haram militants who are still terrorising the country and this would further embolden terrorism.
“We must, as a people, rise up in unison against such broad-daylight assault against our sense of humanity. We rise in unison as a people of conscience to demand better welfare and insurance for soldiers fighting the insurgents.”