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Should Nigeria Negotiate With Boko Haram? By ‘Tope Oriola

July 11, 2015

Special Adviser to President Muhammadu Buhari on Media and Publicity, Femi Adesina, announced about a week ago that the Nigerian government was willing to negotiate with the deadly terrorist group, Boko Haram. If we leave aside the problematic of using a foreign platform (BBC Africa) to communicate such a salient national issue, the comment appeared to signpost a new trajectory in the stance of President Muhammadu Buhari, who as presidential candidate discountenanced such overtures. Thanks to Boko Haram, terrorism in Nigeria is now comparable with similar attacks in Afghanistan. Analysis from the Global Terrorism Database also indicates that terrorism in Nigeria is growing at a faster rate than in Iraq and Pakistan, the two leading countries in global terrorism. A June 2015 Amnesty International report indicated that Boko Haram had claimed 17,000 lives.


These figures are now outdated due to the attacks of the last few weeks.

Consequently, there are many Nigerians with legitimate reservations about negotiating with such an entity. Some have pointed to public pronouncements by Western liberal democratic states such as the US concerning negotiating with terrorists. The statement “we don’t negotiate with terrorists” is popular in that regard. Of course, Western powers do not negotiate with terrorists — in Hollywood movies. In reality, governments have from time immemorial engaged in negotiations with states, non-states, extra-state, extra-legal, and transnational private actors. The statement “we don’t negotiate with terrorists” is therefore a mere manifestation of masculinist braggadocio. It is meant to showcase the “toughness” of states, which are often led by men and provide psychological succor to the citizens. The statement is not meant to be taken literally. A few contemporary examples may suffice.

The US government engaged in a prisoner swap with the Haqqani network, an affiliate of the Taliban, to secure the release of American soldier, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who was abducted in Afghanistan in 2009. Bergdahl’s release was secured in May 2014 in exchange for five US-held Taliban fighters. That prisoner exchange was a product of negotiations. In addition, negotiations between the US and Cuba led to the 2014 release of the remaining members of the “Cuban 5” held on charges of espionage on US soil. This was also followed by the 2015 delisting of Cuba as a state-sponsor of terrorism. Cuba had been on that list since at least the 1980s. Many Nigerians would also recall that a French family of seven was abducted allegedly by Boko Haram near the Nigerian border with Cameroon in February 2013. The family was released two months later after negotiations between their captors and the French government. It is unclear what commodities changed hands in the negotiations.

It is didactic that the Obama administration announced in June 2015 a change in US hostage policy. The Executive Order among other provisions indicated that families of abductees could no longer be prosecuted for paying ransom to secure the release of their loved ones. I believe the point is made.

Femi Adesina indicated that Nigeria would not negotiate with Boko Haram from a position of weakness. This is a brilliant and important qualifier. Military offensives have to be carried out to the point when Boko Haram would realize that it is suicidal not to negotiate. The question of when to begin such negotiations is thus fundamental. The GOCs and field commanders in the Northeast as well as our various intelligence agencies would know when the time is right based on empirically verifiable assessment of conditions on the ground.

The new standpoint of the government tacitly acknowledges that in the long run there is no military solution to terrorism. The fact that Boko Haram has not gained new territory in the last several days and continues to lose its previously held territories is a good sign despite the upsurge in suicide bombings. Suicide bombings are difficult to legislate against. How do you know that the innocent 12-year old girl in the market has bombs strapped to her waist? Other than large-scale harassment of citizens and complete evaporation of what is left of our human and citizenship rights as Nigerians, we must accept that negotiations have to take place to put an end to this seemingly intractable menace.

Keith Patrick Dear wrote a brilliant piece in the journal, “Defence Studies” in 2013. Mr. Dear found that the US and Britain took different tracks to tackling terrorism and insurgency. He argued that the US often adopted complete neutralization (that is, targeted killing) of terrorist leaders. This meant that overtime, the average age of terrorist leaders drastically dropped. This coincided with increase in the level of brutality carried out by the terrorist organizations under younger, and immature leaders, who assumed their positions precisely because of their track record of violence. Britain, on the other hand, neutralized terrorist or insurgent leaders they considered irrational while preserving for purposes of negotiations those they considered rational. The question of who has the right to engage in such life and death econometrics is a topic for another day. The consequence of the British approach is that overtime, terrorist and insurgent leaders were coopted sometimes through bribery and/or inclusion in the political process. The organizations they represented therefore went into oblivion or became political parties. Bloodshed was therefore reduced.  

State policy ought to be shaped by findings of empirical research. I have had the opportunity to discuss some of these issues on several occasions on the national network of Radio Nigeria and more recently a privately-owned television station. These are the choices available to the Nigerian people. Do we want the feel-good ephemeralness of military victories which may not stop Boko Haram from carrying out suicide bombings despite being militarily defeated or do we want the government to carry out scientifically coordinated attacks on Boko Haram and then engage in negotiations with the remnants of the terrorist organization?

‘Tope Oriola is Carnegie African Diaspora Fellow. Twitter: @topeoriola