BOKO HARAM: To Negotiate Or Not To Negotiate?

Only time will tell whether or not this is a valid question for the Boko Haram terrorist group, which boasted only in January that “We will consider negotiation only when we have brought the government to its knees…You don’t put down your arms in Islam, you only put them aside.” However, it is no longer the question for the Federal Government, which appears ready to embark on yet another attempt at negotiation with Boko Haram.

Ordinarily, negotiation, typified by give and take between the negotiating parties, is not a bad approach to conflict resolution. The practice of “engagement” in international diplomacy is premised on the idea that the two parties to a conflict must talk to each other, either directly or indirectly through some mediators, in order to achieve a resolution.

But negotiation could be a dangerous method of resolving conflict with a terrorist group which has no sovereign status whatsoever. It is even worse when the demands of such a group are rooted simultaneously in faith-based fanaticism and anti-Western ideology like Boko Haram’s. Negotiation may lead to  temporary ceasefire. It will not take away their faith or change their anti-Western stance.

This partly explains why controversy has always surrounded the Federal Government’s attempt to negotiate with Boko Haram, which is viewed as the weakening of state power. Another reason for controversy is whether or not Boko Haram should be granted amnesty like the Niger Delta militants. President Goodluck Jonathan’s “No” on this issue should be total. It should not be premised on the facelessness of Boko Haram alone.

What is even more worrisome is Nigeria’s lack of the four major conditions to be satisfied before such a negotiation is embarked upon. First, the state involved must have a subsisting terrorism policy. It must not make negotiation the policy upon which conflict resolution is based. We know, for example, that the United States has a policy of elimination — capture or kill terrorists wherever and whenever you find them — while Israel has a policy of containment — prevent terrorists from entering your territory. Second, the leaders and sponsors of such a terrorist group must be known in advance, usually through state intelligence. Third, such negotiation must be limited in scope and targeted at a specific goal. Fourth, the terrorist group must have been sufficiently weakened by the terrorised state in order to make negotiation attractive to the terrorists.

Israel provides a good example. It negotiated the 1993 Oslo Accord with the Palestinian Liberation Organisation and the prisoner swap with Hamas in 2011. The Israeli government had satisfied the four conditions listed above before entering into these negotiations. First, its policy of containment, supplemented with elimination, of terrorists is well-known: The movement of the terrorists into Israeli territory is controlled through the erection of a fence and the mounting of a checkpoint with tanks and armed soldiers. Terrorist activities are further curtailed with 24-hour surveillance, intelligence gathering, and ad hoc preemptive and reactionary strikes. Second, the rank and file of the PLO and Hamas leadership as well as army movement by these groups are always well-known to Israel. That’s why it has been possible for Israel to eliminate the leaders of the terrorists at the slightest opportunity.

Third, negotiation was often targeted at a specific goal. It was never meant to be a substantive policy upon which lasting national security was based. Otherwise, Israel would have been in a dilemma when the Oslo Accord eventually flopped. Finally, Israel has put the entire Palestinian territory, including Gaza, on the defensive for nearly 65 years. The exchange of hundreds of Palestinians for only one Israeli is symbolic of the stronger position from which the Israeli government negotiated with Hamas.

Compared to the Israeli case, the Federal Government’s negotiation with Boko Haram rests on a very weak foundation. To start with, neither the leader nor the sponsor of the terrorist group is known. This means that the Federal Government may well be negotiating with “shadows” again. It will be recalled that Boko Haram once denied the government’s publicised negotiation with the group, arguing that “fake negotiators who are pretending that they are in talks with the Federal Government on our behalf …  are collecting large sums of money from the government under false pretences.” The Federal Government’s inability to identify the leaders of Boko Haram and its genuine representatives is surely a disastrous lapse that must be corrected.

But, what if the leaders show their faces and the negotiations eventually fall apart? What plan would the government fall on in the absence of a substantive terrorism policy? The Anti-Terrorism Act passed by the National Assembly only focuses on what to do with and to terrorists after they have been captured. It does not state how they will be captured. The latter should be the focus of the government’s terrorism policy, no matter how covert it may be.

Understandably, the Federal Government cannot adopt the Israeli policy of containment, because Boko Haram is located within Nigerian borders. But then, its version of the American policy of elimination is not yet a coordinated policy. On several occasions, various security agencies and the Presidency have talked past each other on Boko Haram. In the absence of a coordinated policy, the group remains elusive to the government. Only recently, a Boko Haram spokesperson, Sheikh Muhammad Abdul’aziz, indicated that the group, or at least a faction of it, has been in negotiation with the government of Borno State: “As regards the statement by Mr. President that we are ghosts, let me say with due respect that we are not ghosts; we have sat with officials of the Borno State Government and a delegation of Northern State Governors’ Forum on Peace and Reconciliation, headed by Air Vice Marshal Mukhtar Muhammad (retd.).”

In the same breath, Abdul’aziz denied allegations by yet another spokesperson for Boko Haram, said to be Sheikh Abubakar Shekau, who denounced such peace talks. According to Abdul’aziz, whoever spoke on behalf of Shekau was an impostor. The pertinent questions are: How many factions exist within Boko Haram? Which faction is the Federal Government negotiating with, if one was already negotiating with the Borno State government? And what exactly is the relationship between the two negotiations?

On the basis of available evidence, it is safe to conclude that Boko Haram has not been sufficiently weakened. Nigerian security agents have devoted more time to taking charge of terrorist crime scenes, and capturing or killing suspected terrorists, than to pursuing a coordinated policy of fishing out and eliminating them. To date, it is not clear how many of those captured or killed were actually terrorists and what percentage belonged to the leadership rank.

Two critical questions still remain: One, if the Federal Government negotiates with Boko Haram, what will it do with Ansaru, another terrorist group on the rise, and others that may still surface? Two, how will negotiation address the root causes of terrorism, whether they be religious fanaticism, poverty, or power politics?



Niyi Akinnaso (

Article culled from Punch

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