LAGOS, Nigeria (AP) — Nigeria formed a panel that will create an amnesty program for Islamic extremists to try to quell a bloody guerrilla campaign of bombings and shootings that's killed hundreds of people across its north, the government said Wednesday.
The 26-person panel, created by President Goodluck Jonathan, has a 60-day deadline to come up with an offer for fighters belonging to the Islamic extremist network Boko Haram and other groups now fighting against government forces and killing civilians with apparent impunity. A similar program in 2009 worked to halt the majority of attacks by militants in Nigeria's oil-rich southern delta, but those fighting in the north have in the past rejected the idea of overtures from the government.
The presidential committee, including police and military officials, as well as politicians and human rights activists, would "constructively engage key members of Boko Haram and define a comprehensive and workable framework for resolving the crisis of insecurity in the country," according to a statement issued by presidential spokesman Reuben Abati. The committee also would offer a "comprehensive victims' support program," though the statement offered no further details about it.
The presidency said it hoped disarming Islamic extremists would happen within two months' time, a goal that likely could be difficult.
The idea of an amnesty, discussed in some corners by analysts, came to a head in March when the Sultan of Sokoto, one of the country's top Muslim leaders, called for it. While the sultan did not speak in specifics, others have suggested offering an amnesty deal in line with one previously given to militants in Nigeria's oil-rich southern delta in 2009. That deal offered cash payments and job training to fighters in return for them giving up their weapons and halting attacks on foreign oil companies. Until Wednesday, the sultan was the highest-ranking official so far to publicly endorse such a plan for Islamic extremists, many of whom fight as part of Boko Haram and its splinter groups.
The 2009 amnesty deal, however, did not stop attacks in the delta, nor halt the rapidly growing theft of crude oil from pipelines there that has caused serious environmental damage. The militants in the nation's largely Christian south also attacked the commodity that fills the nation's coffers while typically not killing civilians. Those extremists fighting in the nation's Muslim north have shown no hesitation to kill civilians and security forces alike, nor does their fighting affect oil production.
Boko Haram is blamed for killing at least 792 people last year alone, according to an Associated Press count. So far this year, violence by Islamic extremists has killed at least 174 people, according to an AP count.
Boko Haram says it is fighting to free its imprisoned members and install an Islamic government over Nigeria, a multiethnic nation of more than 160 million people. The group, whose name means "Western education is sacrilege," has conducted its guerrilla fight across Nigeria's north over the last three years. The group's command-and-control structure remains unclear, though it appears to have sparked several splinter groups.
A group of men who said they belong to Boko Haram claimed responsibility for the kidnapping of seven French tourists from northern Cameroon late February — a first for the group. Meanwhile, a Boko Haram splinter group known as Ansaru has claimed the recent kidnappings and killings in northern Nigeria of seven foreigners — a British citizen, a Greek, an Italian, three Lebanese and one Filipino — all employees of a Lebanese construction company called Setraco.
Despite the deployment of more soldiers and police to northern Nigeria, the nation's weak central government has been unable to stop the killings. Meanwhile, human rights groups and local citizens blame both Boko Haram and security forces for committing violent atrocities against the local civilian population, fueling rage in the region.
Jon Gambrell can be reached at www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP .