By Sunday Ani
A handful of Nigerians, particularly, the proponents of amnesty for bandits and kidnappers in the North were likely to be disappointed when the Federal Government categorically stated that it would never grant amnesty to criminals. The arguments on the desirability or otherwise of granting amnesty to bandits who have been causing mayhem in Nigeria, particularly in the Northern part of the country, have been raging for some time now. Those proposing amnesty for bandits, such as Islamic cleric, Sheik Ahmad Gumi, Coalition of Northern Group (CNG), Zamfara State caucus of the National Assembly as well as other proponents have all argued that since amnesty worked to assuage the anger of the restive youths in the Niger Delta when they were kidnapping expatriate oil workers and blowing up oil pipelines, the same strategy could equally be adopted to assuage the anger of bandits and kidnappers in the North who have been killing, maiming, kidnapping and spreading terror in the region.
Gumi had claimed that bandits learnt the art of kidnapping from the Niger Delta militants, and should be granted a blanket amnesty just as it was done to the Niger Delta boys. He said: “I appeal to the government and recommend that the government should do to them exactly what they did to the Niger Delta militants and give them a blanket amnesty. Then, if anybody will continue, we will deal with him.”
In the same vein, the Zamfara caucus of the National Assembly on Wednesday, February 17, the day students from Government Science College, Kangara, Niger State, were kidnapped, equally called on the Federal Government to grant amnesty to repentant bandits in the country. This, they said, is a peace initiative that allows repentant bandits to voluntarily surrender their arms and ammunition in return for government patronages such as stipends, vocational training and job opportunities. They said it would bring peace to the affected states the same way amnesty to the Niger Delta militants in 2009 brought peace to the region.
Aside Gumi’s proposition that amnesty should be given to the bandits in the North, a position that has attracted support from a segment of the Northern elite, some Northern governors have also been romancing with the bandits, pampering them and trying to placate them by offering them huge sums of money.
Besides, there are very many Nigerians who are strongly opposed to any kind of amnesty to bandits and kidnappers. This group of Nigerians has argued that militancy in the Niger Delta is not the same thing as banditry in the North. They stressed that while the militants in the Niger Delta were fighting a justifiable cause through kidnapping of expatriate oil workers and blowing up oil pipelines to draw government’s attention to the level of environmental degradation arising from oil exploration and exploitation, which has ultimately led to the destruction of their means of livelihood, the bandits in the North were busy killing, maiming, kidnapping, and raping innocent Nigerians without any justifiable reason.
They feared that if bandits and kidnappers were rewarded with amnesty alongside its attendant perks, instead of dealing with them decisively, criminalities of all shades and colour would definitely spring up in other parts of Nigeria.
Those who are opposed to amnesty for bandits and kidnappers in the North are quick to point to the activities of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) in the South East, and those of the Oodua Peoples Congress(OPC) and new Yoruba activist, Sunday Adeyemi, popularly called Sunday Igboho in the South West. The implication of such a move, they argue, would be that the OPC, Sunday Igboho and his boys, IPOB as well as other regional or ethnic militias could get out of control, knowing that it pays to commit crimes.
While the back and forth arguments on the quest for amnesty to bandits made headlines, and pressure from some quarters mounted on the presidency to listen to the bandits and kidnappers, many Nigerians waited to see what the government would eventually do.
However, when the Federal Government finally announced its position on the matter, saying there would be no amnesty for bandits and kidnappers, it came with mixed reactions. While some were disappointed, other applauded the announcement. Many said the government’s stance had saved Nigeria from a major crises. This segment of Nigerians was of the opinion that if the President had given amnesty to the bandits in the North, the implication would have been the emergence of bandits in other regions. They insisted that such a move would have given more vents to the alleged violent activities of the IPOB. Their argument is that if the president had not acted fast to give a death knell to the agitation by some elements in the North to grant amnesty to bandits over there, IPOB would have been left with no other choice but to fully get involved in crimes since such acts of impunity attract handsome rewards from the government.
For others, granting amnesty to bandits and kidnappers in the North could have simply encouraged criminals in other zones to up their game knowing that handsome rewards await them at the end of the day.
President Buhari’s action, many insist, has disabused people’s mind about his person as somebody who is despotic and only interested in the interest of his ethnic nationality.
The president of Arewa Youths Consultative Forum (AYCF), Alhaji Yerima Shettima, said that if amnesty could be given to the Niger Delta militants, what stops the government from giving amnesty to bandits and kidnappers in the North who are willing to come out and surrender?
He said: “If we want to do justice, we should do justice for all. We should give the benefit of doubt to those who are willing to surrender and look critically at those who are not willing to surrender as the criminals and treat them so.”
On whether the government’s stance could have led to what happened in Zamfara State last Friday where over 300 students were kidnapped barely 24 hours after the Federal Government said it was not ready to grant amnesty to kidnappers and bandits, he said he wouldn’t know because he was not part of the bandits. “I don’t hold any brief for the bandits; I don’t know their motive but whatever motive they have is unreasonable. Nobody has the right to hold another to ransom, so we must all rise up to condemn kidnapping and banditry in whatever form,” he added.
Former deputy speaker, Jigawa State House of Assembly, Yawale Abdu Yankwashi said the Federal Government must have acted based on the experiences of the Zamfara and Katsina States governors, who granted amnesty to the bandits in their domains without success. “Amnesty to the bandits has not stopped banditry in Zamfara and Katsina States. It is not working. Maybe, the Federal Government wants to learn from that experience that granting amnesty to the bandits is not a solution because it has not worked. So, the decision is a welcome idea because when you grant amnesty to them, they have another access to commit more havoc. You know that when you grant amnesty to them, you support them financially and they will use the money to acquire more arms to cause more havoc,” he said.
He also noted that bandits are in different gangs. “So, when you grant amnesty to one gang, another gang may get angry that they were not granted amnesty and cause more trouble. And the gangs are not connected, so the best thing to do is just what the government has done; no amnesty for them,” he submitted.
Former General Secretary of the Nigeria Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers, NUPENG, Frank Kokori described the government action as a step in the right direction. He said: “For the first time, the government has taken the right step.”
He stressed that those who were talking about amnesty for the bandits were not thinking properly. “I say so because I don’t expect a person like Sheik Gumi to be saying that kind of rubbish. These are people who have brought sorrow and misery to millions of Nigerians and then you grant them amnesty and give them money again and you talk rubbish. So, why do we have a government if it cannot drive out bandits from its territory?” he thundered.
He insisted that it is a shame for the government to reward criminality, stressing that any government that does that is a failed government. “The president, the governors and the National Assembly members can save Nigeria if they are thinking properly. So, every sane person will support the government’s stance not to grant amnesty to bandits and kidnappers in the North or anywhere else for that matter,” he stated.
Former governor of Anambra State, Dr. Chukwuemeka Ezeife described the whole drama surrounding the call for amnesty for the bandits as one of those things peculiar to Nigeria. He said: “Maybe because it is Nigeria, that’s why we are talking about it.” He stated that a bandit is a bandit by birth and by culture and would always go back to banditry after amnesty.
Reacting to those comparing banditry in the North with the Niger Delta militants, Ezeife said: “It is a matter of whether you are fighting a justified war. You can go to the Niger Delta and find people who are fighting a justified war. People whose resources were taken away and they were fighting those who took their resources away from them. If you say you grant them amnesty, it doesn’t mean much to them because they are not fighting an unjust cause.
“If you find people who are killing and massacring other people for no just cause, then giving them amnesty is giving them some leeway to continue with their banditry.
“So, I congratulate the government for taking this bold step but I think we are making too many mistakes in this country. Everybody should support the government’s decision but we must know the people we are calling bandits and criminals. The Niger Delta militants who were granted amnesty were not criminals because they were fighting a just cause.”
Spokesman of the Afenifere Renewal Group, Dr. Yinka Odumakin described the Federal Government’s pronouncement as deceptive, saying, “telling us that they are not granting amnesty to the bandits is self-deceptive. So, we are not impressed.”
In all, the dominant argument is that indeed, the Federal Government has, at last, saved the country from embarrassment and crises of unknown proportion and magnitude. The socio-political implication of granting amnesty to bandits and kidnappers would have been too much for the country to bear.