Nigeria moves closer to amnesty offer for Islamists

Nigeria took a further step towards granting amnesty to Boko Haram Islamists on Wednesday, with the president setting up a panel to study how the offer should be made.

Earlier this month, President Goodluck Jonathan instructed his security advisors to look at whether an amnesty could help curb the Boko Haram insurgency which has left thousands dead since 2009.

Jonathan received the report from his security advisors late Tuesday, a statement said.

His office then announced the creation of a fresh panel tasked with "developing a framework for the granting of amnesty."

The new 25-person body plus a chairman, composed mostly of people from Nigeria's mainly Muslim north where Boko Haram is based, has also been instructed to set up a "framework through which disarmament could take place within a 60-day timeframe."

It is unclear whether an amnesty offer would help reduce the violence, or whether members of the radical Islamist group are open to the proposal.

The new panel includes both allies of Jonathan and some political opponents who have fiercely criticised his handling of the northern crisis.

On the list are clerics tied to the radical Salafi and Wahabi branches of Islam and those who have made previous, discreet attempts to set up peace talks.

Jonathan has come under intense pressure over the issue, with politicians from the violence-torn north as well as Nigeria's highest Muslim spiritual figure, the sultan of Sokoto, calling for an amnesty.

The president initially dismissed the idea of an amnesty, saying Boko Haram was made up of "ghosts" who could not be talked to.

But his position appears to have changed as pressure mounted.

Manoeuvering has also begun ahead of 2015 elections, and support from northern governors will be key if Jonathan runs again as expected.

In an audio recording sent to AFP last week, Boko Haram's purported leader Abubakar Shekau, designated a global terrorist by the United States, rejected the amnesty idea.

But the group is believed to consist of many different factions. It has said it is fighting to create an Islamic state in the north, but its demands have repeatedly shifted.

Analysts say some members are likely hardcore Islamists who would resist any concession to Nigeria's secular government.

Other members are thought to be dejected northern youths who have been radicalised out of frustration with massive government corruption and extreme poverty.

The US, European leaders and others have urged Jonathan to tackle the social causes fuelling the insurgency, including steps to improve the economy in the north, considered poorer than the mostly Christian south.

The new panel will also look at "the underlying causes of insurgencies that will help to prevent future occurrences," the statement said.

The Boko Haram conflict is estimated to have left more than 3,000 people dead since 2009, including killing by the security services.

Nigeria offered an amnesty to militants in the oil-producing Niger Delta region in the south in 2009 credited with greatly reducing unrest there, though oil theft has since flourished.

The long-term success of the amnesty deal with the oil rebels remains uncertain, and an attack that killed 12 policemen on April 5 in the Niger Delta offered fresh signs that the pact may not hold.

Substantial cash payment to ex-oil militants were considered key to the amnesty package and Boko Haram analysts have warned that a financial solution may be less effective with the Islamists.

Nigeria is Africa most populous country and top oil producer.