With his promise recently to grant amnesty to cultists and some criminal elements who have been wreaking havoc on the state, the Lagos State Governor, Babajide Sanwo-Olu, appears to have bought into the hackneyed policy of appeasement towards criminals in Nigeria. It is a trend that is becoming increasingly popular in the country, even when it has become obvious that, in most cases, it is not only ineffective and defeatist, but also amounts to pandering to the authority of criminals and violent non-state actors.
Taking advantage of lax security, street urchins, euphemistically referred to as “area boys” in local parlance, criminal gangs, cult groups and protection gangs now run riot in Lagos. Going under such quirky names as Aiye, Eiye Confraternity, Akala Boys, One Million Boys and Black Axe, to mention but a few, these criminals, whom some would prefer to describe as cultists, roam the streets regularly, smashing people’s vehicles, maiming and killing innocent people and making life generally unbearable for residents of areas of their operation.
When they engage one another in one of their usually frequent street wars, it could last for hours, during which deadly weapons such as guns, broken bottles, machetes, knives, axes and cudgels are deployed freely, without any swift intervention by security services, especially the police, who normally show up hours after everything has died down. These are the same people that become useful as thugs to politicians during elections. In plain language, these people are criminals engaging in acts of criminality. Often, when a few of them do get arrested, they are soon back on the streets, having been bailed out by their patrons.
Lagos State, with its well-funded security trust fund and well-equipped security outfits, has what it takes to keep criminals, especially the so-called cultists, quiet; these criminals are well-known characters to both the security services and residents of their areas of operation. Last year, the Badagry Local Government Chairman, Onilude Adeniran, lamented that these deviants, whose activities are often driven by drugs, had spread their influence to primary schools.
But instead of enforcing the relevant laws and ensuring that the rest of the peace-loving and law-abiding citizens are protected against the criminals, the state has chosen to hide behind an offer of amnesty. Speaking after a state security meeting, Sanwo-Olu said, “There is a programme coming up, hopefully before the end of the year, to provide amnesty for cultists and people with criminal tendency.” This is absolutely unnecessary.
If the truth be told, this is a classic example of surrendering state authority to non-state actors. It is an admission of government failure and inability to enforce its writ. When criminals become imbued with the belief that they are invincible and call the shots, it is ominous.
Apparently, Lagos is not the only state to have taken this option. States such as Imo, Rivers, Benue, Ondo, Taraba and, recently, Katsina, Zamfara and Kaduna have extended such offer to criminals. But it has not changed things. In all the cases, criminals are required to surrender their weapons and are, in turn, asked to go and sin no more. Typically, an offer of amnesty in Nigeria goes with government dispensing cash to the criminals, an odious act that people interpret as rewarding criminality.
What could be termed the most successful amnesty deal was the one the late President, Umaru Yar’Adua, made with militants in the Niger Delta in 2009. It involved the offer of huge sums of money and the training of some of the militants in various vocations within and outside the country. The measure of stability achieved in that oil-rich region is a function of the fact that the militants came out publicly to make a request for material compensation as a result of the criminal exploitation of the resources in their land, which had left the environment seriously despoiled and the people gravely impoverished.
Interestingly, the government is still generously funding that programme, 10 years after. Yet, it has not completely guaranteed peace as was the case when the militants started bombing oil facilities in the aftermath of the 2015 elections. Oil is still being massively stolen, while pipelines are being attacked on a regular basis, even though the militants have been rewarded with multi-billion naira pipeline protection contracts.
It is surprising that Lagos State could come up with this plan after the experience in other places where amnesty had been offered and failed. A good example is Benue where insecurity heightened after a celebrated amnesty offer in which known criminals reportedly surrendered their weapons voluntarily. Last week, 14 people were killed in Karaye village, Gummi Local Government Area of Zamfara State by bandits after a noted amnesty deal in which the state government was said to have started counting its gains. Besides, it should not be forgotten that the last governor of Lagos State, Akinwunmi Ambode, also offered amnesty to cultists. “Anybody who is a cult member, we are going to offer you amnesty,” he had said in Ikorodu in 2017. If this had worked, would Sanwo-Olu be talking about a fresh amnesty offer?
The case of the London Bridge attacker, Usman Khan, should serve as a good reason why proven criminals caught in the act should be punished rather than be given reprieve. A convicted terrorist, Khan’s sentence, on appeal, was reduced from interminable to 16 years, which was surprisingly further cut to eight years. It did not make him a changed man or stop him from carrying out further terror attacks.
Amnesty has become a cure-all for security problems in Nigeria. Rather, the country should make sure the security agencies are very well equipped and the justice system able to seek and punish offenders. That in itself should be a deterrent. When a country rewards criminals, as is done in Nigeria, it only encourages further criminality.