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Should Nigeria dialogue with Boko Haram?

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Nigerian soldiers stand at the ready at the headquarters of the 120th Battalion in Goniri, Yobe State, in Nigeria’s restive northeast on July 3, 2019. – Boko Haram’s decade-long campaign of violence has killed 27,000 people and displaced about two million in Nigeria. The insurgency has spilled over into neighbouring Niger, Chad and Cameroon, prompting formation of a regional military coalition to defeat the jihadist group. (Photo by AUDU MARTE / AFP)

For most of Nigeria and the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) militaristic approach against Boko Haram, there has been no end in sight in the distressing decade-old conflict.

The insurgency in the north-east of Nigeria has spilled into neighbouring Cameroon, Chad and Niger with more than 30,000 people killed, hundreds of minors abducted and over 2 million displaced.

Boko Haram started as an extreme Islamic movement that vehemently called for the application of Islamic law and the eschewing of Western education.

Their violent campaign started in 2009 after Nigerian forces clashed with the group in Borno State and the death of its leader Muhammad Yusuf in police custody.

The remnant of Yusuf’s leadership was quickly eroded by his successor Abubakar Shekau with his band of extremist followers.

As the jihadists terrorise parts of the Lake Chad Basin, the Nigerian government with the help of international troops have battled to reclaim territories from Boko Haram but there has not been lasting success as the terrorist group looks to have gained some ground recently.

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Success has been difficult to measure despite the Presidency of Nigeria holding the position that the “Boko Haram terrorism has been degraded and defeated.” It expressly stated that the “real Boko Haram we know is defeated”.

Curiously, the assertion came three days after 65 people were killed at a funeral by the extremists in a revenge attack.

President Muhammadu Buhari had said in 2015 that Nigeria had “technically won the war”, however, attacks have continued with the terrorists emboldened, hitting military bases and carting away weapons.

Dr Akinola Olojo, a senior researcher at the Transnational Threats and International Crime Programme in Pretoria, said since the use of force as a strategy has not delivered a sustainable solution, dialogue with terrorists has to be explored.

In the Institute for Security Studies Policy Brief, Olojo admits that dialogue with terror groups is a sensitive and complex undertaking but it can be employed to complement existing counter-terrorism approaches.

“Contrary to the popular official position of many states, dialogue with terror groups should not be perceived as a sign of weakness,” Olojo, himself a Nigerian wrote in the brief. “Among other things, exploring dialogue would suggest that the human security of communities is being prioritised by governments and that states are willing to bargain for peace through nonviolent exchanges with a conflicting party.”

Olojo argues that it is “increasingly unsustainable for both African states and Western donors to keep channelling funds solely towards a military engagement.”

In December 2017, the Nigerian government took $1 billion from the excess crude account meant for oil-revenue savings to boost its war against Boko Haram Islamist militants. Still, there are reports that the military is under armed as the country grapples with tough economic conditions.

In February 2018, the Nigerian government ‘deigned’ to dialogue with the Islamic State West African Province, a faction of Boko Haram, after 110 girls were abducted in a Secondary School in Dapchi.

“The fact that elements within ISWAP were open to secret negotiations and some level of compromise regarding the release of abductees from Dapchi hints at possibilities for engaging this faction through non-military means,” Olojo said.

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The negotiation followed two separate attempts by past governments to dialogue with the insurgents. In September 2011, a meeting was facilitated between former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo and Babakura Fugu, the brother-in-law of the late Boko Haram leader Mohammed Yusuf, in Maiduguri, Borno State. However, Fugu was assassinated with both sides of the negotiation accusing themselves of the killing.

Another negotiation could have had an impact in 2012 but it was scuppered. Boko Haram selected Sheikh Ahmed Datti, president of the Supreme Council for Sharia in Nigeria to be an intermediary. Sheikh Datti later pulled out from the talks. He said the government displayed poor handling of the process shown in the premature release of information to the media.

In October 2018, Hauwa Mohammed Liman, an aid worker held hostage by Boko Haram has been executed after a negotiating deadline expired.

Olojo faults the lack of political will to follow through, as well as a lack of consensus regarding objectives, process and expected outcomes on the part of government actors as the result of failures in negotiation.

He notes that dialogue is by no means a silver bullet or a panacea but it has to be explored and with the support of the global community. For dialogue to have any form of success, Olojo says the ideological objectives of the terror groups must be studied and understood, along with their structures and strategies.

“Governments must, however, be mindful that hardliners within the terror groups may be impossible to win over.”

He recommends that the government should consult extensively with local communities while prioritising their concerns regarding the idea of dialogue. “This would help identify, among other things, acceptable third parties or mediators. Truth and reconciliation platforms should also be established to facilitate healing in communities.”

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