Let our girls come home
Today there is no crisis more potent and more embarrassing than the lingering Boko Haram insurgency and the apparent inability of the security agencies to free the Chibok girls and bring them back home to their parents. Added to the Boko Haram issue is the Niger Delta conundrum that does not seem to be heading for a solution and, of course, the so called cattle herdsmen who have been maiming and killing people across the country, not to talk of the various kidnappers that have turned their heinous crime into a growth industry. The kidnappers have grown more deadly especially in the rural areas where, until recently, there was no semblance of security.
The workshop in the villa must indeed have had a lot to chew. But the most pressing today is the issue of the Chibok girls. And this must be the most embarrassing to President Muhammadu Buhari, too. He had vowed on coming to office last year that the insurgency in the North East would soon be a thing of the past and the girls would be freed and reunited with their parents.Against the background of the impotency of his predecessor in office who, with his wife and a coterie of officials, initially chose to live in denial, President Buhari’s determination was quite reassuring. But one year after, despite the fact that the military, in an impressive move to wipe out the menace of Boko Haram, has freed all the territories that they had laid claim to, the country is yet to be spared the agony and the frustration of the kidnapped Chibok girls.
I recall that former President Olusegun Obasanjo appeared doubtful at a point whether the girls were indeed alive. At other times, President Buhari himself admitted that so far there was no intelligence report on their where about. While the military offensive was routing the insurgents and getting many of the captured women and children freed from their grip, there was no iota of information on the Chibok girls. As if, like spirit, they had disappeared into the thin air
This was the chilly situation until Amina, one of the Chibok girls, miraculously escaped into freedom with her child and her alleged husband and raised the hope of other parents that one day their own daughters might also walk to freedom. Her escape gave us hope that all the girls were not dead after all. She actually reported that six of the girls were dead. An excited President Buhari laid red carpet for Amina who became the instant symbol of hope.
We don’t expect the security agencies that debriefed Amina to tell the public what they learnt from her. But one is alarmed by the public admission of their inability this week to locate the Chibok girls when they declared Ahmad Salkida, a Nigerian journalist on exile in Dubai and two others, Barrister Aisha Wakil and an activist, Ahmed Bolori wanted because, according to military spokesmen, they knew where the girls are kept by Boko Haram.
As a lay man, I think it was unwise for security to declare potential informants publicly wanted. In what way can they help the authorities if they have been publicly invited to come and volunteer information? Are they not being put in the harm’s way with Boko Haram? But as it has turned out, these people apparently are not on the run. From what we now know, the security agencies know them and know where they live. Some of the wanted people have even confirmed their relationship with security agents.
It is a pity that each time Boko Haram sends out its video, there seems to be incoherent reaction from officials of government, a reaction that borders on embarrassment, if not panic. Now that the government has confirmed through Information Minister, Lai Mohammed, that the authorities are in touch with the insurgents, let us hope that meaningful negotiation will commence soon to free the Chibok girls and all others still in the gulag of the insurgents. Government should not have any qualms negotiating to free its citizens, no matter the number and wherever they may be. Nigeria would not be an exception. In fact, didn’t our leaders go all the way to Aburi in Ghana from 1966 to 1967 before the outbreak of the civil war to find a solution to the brewing crisis in the country? Under the auspices of the Organisation of African Unity, now African Union, various peace conferences were held to explore the way out of the pernicious crisis threatening to tear the country apart.
We are in a similar situation today, a state of anarchy if not a state of war, and no efforts should be spared to get the country back to normality. Without peace, nobody can reasonably talk about investments and development. But those who negotiate must go to the negotiation table with their eyes wide open.
Boko Haram, in the latest video, has made certain and definite demands. It wants some of their leaders in detention set free in exchange for the Chibok girls. To date many people suspected to be Boko Haram members or their agents have been set free from detention in various locations in the country. If the courts expeditiously conclude the trials of those still on trial, the number of detainees would have considerably reduced.
One life is as important as another life. Certainly the lives of 200 innocent school girls are important. Also important are the lives of hundreds of thousands of other women and their children still held by Boko Haram. They too should be taken into consideration in any negotiation and any swap arrangement that may be made.
One or two examples from other lands may help to convince us, if there is any doubt, that at critical moments, governments enter into negotiation with terrorists and other criminals to save lives. An American Army Sgt Bowe Bergdahl, serving in Afghanistan was captured by the Taliban on June 30, 2009. He was the only U.S. soldier captured by the Taliban.
After five years in captivity, the Taliban agreed to release him to the U.S. in exchange for five senior Taliban detainees at the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. The five Taliban soldiers were held for nearly eight years. They were captured by the U.S. troops shortly after the U.S. led invasion of Afghanistan in which they toppled the Taliban from power in Kabul. The negotiation for the swap was mediated by the government of Qatar in the Persian Gulf.
The United States of America have had more than its own share of international embarrassment and humiliation in the hands of terrorists. But it did not hesitate to negotiate with them, even if through third parties, to save the lives of its citizens. On June 14, 1985, for instance, an American airliner, Trans World Airline, TWA, flight 847 took off from Athens in Greece heading for Rome with 153 passengers, 135 of them Americans. Immediately on take-off, two gunmen who identified themselves as members of the Islamic Jihad ordered the captain at gun point to fly the plane to Beirut. That was the beginning of a sensational hijack that lasted more than two weeks, with one fatality and plenty of sleepless nights for President Ronald Reagan.
There were of course arguments for and against negotiating with terrorists. President Reagan naturally took the position of a non-negotiation with criminals but his officials persuaded him to look the other way. When it was all over, it was thanks to a strategy that combined deceit with pragmatism. Reagan turned a blind eye and U.S. officials persuaded the international media to switch off the terrorists who were enjoying the publicity attendant on their bragado. Exhausted and worn out, the terrorists who were no longer enjoying the klieg light of publicity were persuaded by media men who served as mediators to let go the hostages.
If Nigerian government officials engage the Boko Haram in talks and extend this to the Niger Delta militants in a comprehensive manner, so that no community is left out, I am certain that our daughters from Chibok will be back home alive and the Niger Delta militants will give peace a chance. What is required in this situation is tact, magnanimity and sincerity.