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 militants 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, though those fighting in the north have in the past rejected the idea of overtures from the government.
Problems with the committee, however, immediately became apparent after it was announced. At least one member said he hadn't been consulted before his name was released, and the list of panelists included no member of any armed insurgent group.
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, an ambitious goal that likely will be extremely difficult. The command-and-control structure of the main extremist network Boko Haram remains unclear. It also has sparked several splinter groups, including those wanting to increasingly target Western interests and who have connections to other al-Qaida-linked groups.
Boko Haram's leader, Abubakar Shekau, also has repeatedly said he would refuse any amnesty offer. Shekau's past demands included the release of all the sect's imprisoned members and instituting Shariah law across all of Nigeria, a multiethnic nation of more than 160 million people.
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.
The 2009 amnesty deal, however, did not stop all attacks in the delta, nor did it 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.
Until Wednesday, the sultan was the highest-ranking official so far to publicly endorse such a plan for Islamic extremists. However, his name was absent from the list of amnesty panel members. Included on the list was Datti Ahmed, a Kano physician who heads a prominent Muslim group, the Supreme Council for Shariah in Nigeria. However, Ahmed last year publicly backed away from the suggestion that he work as a mediator after the idea leaked out and local newspapers began to publish stories about him.
Ahmed also is a controversial figure in the north, as he sparked a boycott of polio vaccines in 2003 in Nigeria after saying the vaccines were "corrupted and tainted by evildoers from America and their Western allies." That led to hundreds of new infections in children in Nigeria's north, where the disease is still active today, as well as a global polio outbreak that reached as far as Indonesia.
Ahmed did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday.
Another named panelist, Shehu Sani of the Kaduna-based Civil Rights Congress, told The Associated Press that Nigeria's government never consulted with him before publicly announcing his name. Sani said he would only serve as a member if Islamic extremists told him through an intermediary that they would consider an amnesty deal and would serve on the panel as well.
"In the absence of that, we would simply be doing something hoping it would work," Sani said. "And hope is not a strategy."
The Islamic insurgency in Nigeria grew out of a 2009 riot led by Boko Haram members in Maiduguri that ended in a military and police crackdown that killed some 700 people. The group's leader died in police custody in an apparent execution. From 2010 on, Islamic extremists have engaged in hit-and-run shootings and suicide bombings, attacks that have killed at least 1,548 people, according to an AP count.
Westerners in Nigeria have been targeted as well, including an August 2011 suicide bombing at the United Nations headquarters in Nigeria's capital, Abuja, that killed 25 and wounded more than 100 others. 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, two Lebanese and two people believed to be Syrian — 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.