Talking to Terrorists: Nigerian Edition

A willingness to resist force, unaccompanied by a willingness to talk, could provoke        belligerence-while a willingness to talk, unaccompanied by a willingness to resist          force could invite disaster[1]


Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari at the 71st Session of the UN General Assembly in New York

In the early hours of yesterday, news broke that the Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari informed the United Nations Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, that Nigeria will welcome negotiators from the UN in talks that could lead to an exchange of Boko Haram fighters in government custody for the release of the abducted Chibok girls. This statement was released by the presidential spokesperson Mr Femi Adesina. The President spoke with Secretary General Ban Ki-moon during a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the ongoing 71st UN General Assembly in New York.

This news came as a shock because the Nigerian government has in the past exhibited a tough stance towards issues relating to the Boko Haram group even in the face of floundering military efforts. Additionally, it is interesting that now that it seems that the military efforts are finally paying off, the attacks have been reduced to the barest minimum, arguably, the group has lost a lot of the territory which it controlled at the peak of its success and it seems that considerable progress has been made, the government signals its intentions to negotiate.

Negotiating with Terrorists: Is it Right or Wrong?

Boko Haram Leader Abubakar Shekau. It is unclear whether he is alive or dead

I have had conversations with different people, who present very different reactions to the question whether it is appropriate to negotiate with terrorists generally and with Boko Haram in particular. What I have found is that among lawyers and non-lawyers alike, despite the differing reactions, the general consensus is that it is vastly inappropriate for a sitting government to negotiate with a group which utilises terror to achieve its aims. This is  because it gives a sort of recognition and legitimacy to the group, which every terrorist group craves and it might embolden potential groups in the future as to what the stance of government will be.

A major issue that came up is the legality of such supposed negotiations. Another challenge is the moral questions trailing negotiations with Boko Haram. Thousands of lives have been lost, many people have been left without family and friends, a huge humanitarian crisis has been created, the economy of the northwest nearly wrecked and untold hardship has been caused to those who are lucky to live to tell the tale of Boko Haram barbarity. It will be interesting to see how the people who have been primarily affected receive this news.

There was the suggestion that the willingness to negotiate with Boko Haram suggests that the government is weak and that an active government will not call for negotiations. This is a very crucial point that might affect the way the citizens perceive the government and consequently affect the legitimacy of the government negatively.

Additionally, although Boko Haram has used several opportunities to give an idea of its aims and objectives , the question that agitates my mind is whether their aims and objectives are issues that the Nigerian State can negotiate on, legally (constitutionally) and procedurally. For example, Boko Haram ideology that western education and civilisation is forbidden, or the creation of a ‘pure Islamic State’ and the imposition of Shari’a Law, is the Nigerian government willing to negotiate on these issues in an acclaimed secular State?

Prisoner Swap

The release by the Presidency further states that the major aim of the proposed talks will be an exchange of the Boko Haram suspects in custody with the Chibok girls. This implies that the objective of the talks is to get the Chibok girls back. In the first instance, this seems to be a very narrow view of the situation as it seems as if the presidency is treating the abduction of the Chibok girls as being synonymous to the Boko Haram violence in Nigeria.

It is clear that although the singular incident of the abduction of the Chibok girls brought overwhelming international attention and outrage to the Boko Haram violence, however, it is not the only act of Boko Haram that needs attention. In the past, the individuals that have been rescued or have somehow escaped from the clutches of Boko Haram have constantly asserted that there are many more people in the custody of the group, kidnapped under varying conditions. In fact, at a time, the group was accused of running a slave market where many of the kidnapped individuals including women and children are being traded for cash to finance the terror effort. It is interesting that now that the government is open to swap prisoners, only the Chibok girls are spoken for while the government ignores the plight of others in the clutch of Boko Haram.

The question remains whether this is a smart way to respond to the violence. Over 200 Chibok girls are still in the custody of Boko Haram, how many suspects does the presidency intend to release for them? How about other individuals, presumably in higher numbers who are unfortunate to not be part of the famous Chibok girls? What happens to them?

Negotiations as a means to end the conflict

The question whether negotiations can be a useful response to terrorism is a moot point. While some people agree and others disagree, it is clear that in the past, negotiations with so-called terrorists have been a very useful tool for ending conflict. Negotiations have been utilised, whether successfully or not, in the situation of the IRA rebels in Northern Ireland, to end the impasse as the apartheid regime in South Africa floundered, in the situation of the Maoists in Nepal and in many other cases around the world.

However, whether it is an appropriate response for Boko Haram in Nigeria is a separate question altogether.  From the body language of the government, it does not appear as if the aim of the negotiation is to end the conflict but rather to get the Chibok girls back. It appears to me, as if this is some sort of save-face mechanism to make it appear as if the government is making concerted efforts into ending the impasse. How best to say that, than to produce the famous Chibok girls alive and well? Think about what that will do for the reputation of the government in power and their international credibility as a result!

Personally, I am not completely anti-negotiations because I believe that terrorism can be overcome through a combination of military efforts, intelligence savvy, political wizardry and intense negotiations. A proper use of these in the right measure by seasoned actors will lead to considerable progress in the fight against terrorism. However, no government wants to appear weak. I believe that in the case of Nigeria and Boko Haram, as with other parts of the world where it has been used, these so-called negotiations should have been commenced privately, to prevent the distracting effects of public opinion and that at the point when considerable progress is achieved, it might be made public.

This situation seems to be a case of playing to the gallery, in this case, the ‘international gallery’.  How this so called negotiation will help the country in its tussle with Boko Haram and its war against terror remains to be seen. Perhaps, as with all things, time will tell.

[1] Jonathan Powell quoting President Kennedy in ‘Talking To Terrorists: How to end armed conflicts’ (2015)pg 40 Penguin Random House UK.




One thought on “Talking to Terrorists: Nigerian Edition

  1. I could not agree any less. The negotiations appear to be the way out seeing especially that the situation has been quelled to a satisfactory extent . what needs to b defined before the talks is the objective of such negotiations. The country needs to learn from past mistakes. Negotiations leading to the amnesty program years ago in the Niger Delta was only temporary because the object of the process was to reform named members of the terrorist group in the south south. Today we know the rest of the story.
    Firstly we don’t even know the exact number of chibok girls that were abducted, released and are still in the Book Haram custody. Next we can’t tell for certain that Book Haram will not abduct them again after all a release of their human resources gives them reinforcement for better strikes.
    Going to the UN to express need for help in my opinion is not a bad idea after all keeping peacearound the world forms part of the UN’s objects.
    I believe the drawing board should define clearly these issues as raised.


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