Offering amnesty to fighters of the Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram could result in most of their forces laying down their weapons, according to the head of the Catholic Church in Nigeria.
Cardinal John Onaiyekan, Archbishop of Abuja, said that up to 80 per cent of Boko Haram fighters did not share the terror group’s Islamist ideology and were therefore likely to respond to the chance to lay down their weapons and walk away.
In an interview with Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need, which supports persecuted and other suffering Christians, Cardinal Onaiyekan said: “More people are in Boko Haram because they were drafted and had no choice.
“Those who would espouse the theology of Boko Haram are not that many. It means that of those up to 70 or 80 per cent will want to come out.”
The claim comes after more than 100 people are believed to have been killed when alleged suicide bombers from the Islamist separatist group set off explosions near the airport in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State on Sunday.
The targets included a railway crossing, a mosque, a gathering of football fans watching a match on a video screen and a market where Muslims were buying sheep and other provision for the coming Eid al-Adha holiday.
The cardinal’s renewed call for consideration of asylum for Boko Haram fighters comes amid reports of breakthroughs in the struggle against the terror group.
On Saturday, Nigeria’s military reported further gains in its counter-offensive against Boko Haram in its traditional heartland in the north-east, but the terror group’s leader Abubakar Shekaku dismissed the claims as “lies”. President Muhammadu Buhari ordered the Nigerian military to end the insurgency with Boko Haram in three months when he took office in May.
Cardinal Onaiyekan said: “In the past month we have seen evidence of major inroads into the areas of Boko Haram. It can be said that today they no longer control large sections of our national boundary. They no longer hold areas that are out of bounds to everybody but them. But they are still around and can create havoc.”
Survivors walk past the shoes of the victims of Sunday's suicide bombings (PA)
The cardinal praised President Buhari’s initiatives to form a coalition against Boko Haram, collaborating with neighbouring Chad, Cameroon and Niger, as well as negotiating with France and the US to share intelligence.
Soldiers from the terror group who give up arms must make a commitment to renounce their allegiance to the terror group and violence forever, the cardinal added.
“There should be a commitment. If they come out, you will treat them well. That will encourage more to come out,” he said. “But if you treat them badly and slaughter them, that will stop others from coming out.
“Our country is big enough and strong enough to take the risk of amnesty.
“Boko Haram succeeded in destroying all goodwill between Muslims and Christians in those areas where [the terror group] was active. In some cases we have seen a lot of anger between Muslims and Christians.
“A lot will need to be done to recover, to enable them to work together,” he added.
At least 5,000 Christians have been killed and up 100,000 forced to flee their homes, with 350 churches and presbyteries destroyed in the north-east territory Boko Haram is contesting, according to Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need.