Nigeria – What amnesty for Boko Haram?

The dominant theme in national discussion has been the Amnesty for members of Boko Haram. Monsignor Matthew Hassan Kukah, the Catholic Bishop of the Diocese of Sokoto, looks at the issues of Amnesty and how it challenges Christians in Nigeria.
Rather than looking at the issues of Amnesty in the light of the past, present, and future of the nation, we have focused more on how they fit the survivalist instincts of the President and his ruling party. As usual, selfish interests overtake national interests. Sadly, as it is with Nigeria, the truth gets lost in the cracks of deceit, lies, and prejudice.
The word Amnesty found its way from Greek through Latin to public use in the 16th century. It means forgetfulness. It was used more in the political realm especially in relation to ending the belligerence of rebels and combatants, or for political prisoners. Thus, at the heart of the discussion on amnesty lies the need to evaluate public interest, balancing the larger gains and benefits for the common good with the irritation, instability, anger, physical or psychological injury incurred by the belligerent elements.
ni3We are concerned here with the moral dimension of amnesty as a true test or measure of the depth of our faith and whether its consideration and application override mere political posturing. Here, the challenge is how our faith affects our decisions. In the political or spiritual sphere, the question is: are we Christians who are politicians, or are we politicians who are Christians? Where we stand here has substantial impact on the decisions we make. If we are politicians who just happen to be Christians, then it means that when certain Christian principles are challenged in the course of our public life, we temporarily suspend our faith and give reign to the political expediency of the moment.
For example, a politician or an electoral officer knows it is morally wrong to steal an election or manipulate the results of an election. However, for political loyalty or for a bribe one could decide to rationalize this moral obligation on the altar of political or economic benefit (this is the only chance to get into power, or this is the only chance to pay my children’s fees or build my own house!) This is a politician who is accidentally a Christian. On the other hand, a person who weighs the convictions of his faith and decides to act according to his conscience, to stand by the truth, and say No, is a Christian who happens to be a politician.
ni2Is our discussion about amnesty motivated by political convictions or our convictions as Christians who know the mind of Christ? If, as we say, amnesty is about forgetting, forgiving as a means of reconciliation and healing, what did Jesus have to say about this to Christians? Here, contrary to what the political choristers are saying, it is not about what a President has to say or what all this will do to his political survival. It is about what choices a Christian should make considering the mind of Christ and not his Party’s manifesto.
I believe that the President ventured into this debate too early, without having done enough homework and allowing the systems to exhaust the options. In other words, after weighing the pros and cons, it would have been important to ask, what would Christ enjoin me to do in these circumstances to prodigal children? This would require prayer and deep reflection. Here, the Bible and not the PDP’s Manifesto should be a guide. Indeed, deep moral convictions would lead to truth. The truth would set a leader free. Whether his people are Christians or unbelievers, truth is eternal. Thus, even if this means a temporary political setback, the end, founded on truth, would be justified.
ni5It is a terrible mistake to think that the moral convictions of a leader should not bear on public policy. A leader should approach public policy with the sense of his conviction as long as it is in keeping with the basic rules of engagement, namely the Constitution and his conscience. It is unlikely that these convictions can be in serious conflict with the spirit of a democratic Constitution, except perhaps in their application.
Therefore, on amnesty, a Christian should be guided by the words of the prophet Isaiah. He speaks about the inviting, unfathomable, and boundless nature of God’s forgiveness when he says, “Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool” (Isaiah 1: 18). The Psalmist reminds us “The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast Love. He will not always chide, nor will he keep his anger forever. He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast Love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us” (Ps 103: 8-12). If we understand that it is God who forgives us, then we must leave the doors of forgiveness forever open, looking on the sinner with beckoning eyes. The sinner is lost and his return is a restoration for the larger society.
I have noted that we have sadly turned the theme of amnesty into political football and have drained it of its moral content. No matter the crimes committed by members of Boko Haram, the Nigerians among them have not lost their membership of our community.
The ways in which an amnesty can be achieved are complex. No one receives amnesty for nothing. They surrender something in return. They renounce their moral deceit. A sense of remorse, an assurance that one will be heard, that a prodigal son might be considered for the role of a servant by a benevolent father. These are conditions we must create as we search for the lost sheep. The return of the prodigal son would have been of no use had his father not been waiting. When he decided to return, he sought a much lower role (see Lk 15:11-32).
If Christians were just a group of people who merely defended themselves, we would be no better than a tribal union. If we turn Christianity into a religion that merely defends itself, then we are living in a laager, a prison, and can never grow. St Thomas Aquinas assures us that were we to ni4withhold this precious gift of the love of God from anyone on grounds of their status, faith, gender, for any reason whatsoever, we would not be worthy of the name Christian. Clearly, this message of withholding God’s love, then as now, is senseless, and people who preach it do not deserve to be heard.
Many Christians have been tempted to use the persecution of Boko Haram, the destruction of our Churches, and the brutal murders of our fellow citizens as a justification to reject amnesty. Every true believer must understand that these sufferings, these trials are not outside the mind of God and His plans for our faith. The challenge is for us to remain faithful and steadfast, and not be swayed by the dictates and needs of the moment.
To reject amnesty is to place oneself at the same level as these miscreants. Their destruction of our nation is in no way near the devastation of apartheid in South Africa. Yet, under President Mandela, Archbishop Tutu had to offer amnesty to leapfrog the reconciliation process. To paraphrase the Yoruba adage, the hand that gives amnesty is on top of the hand that receives. An offer of amnesty is not the same as a declaration of amnesty. An offer of amnesty brings the penitent to the table as a first step. Amnesty is a process not a destination. The offer of amnesty will not solve all our problems, but it will bring us closer to a new dawn. May the spirit of the risen Christ guide us and restore wholeness to our dear country.


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