Negotiating With Boko Haram?

Is Nigeria intending to negotiate the release of the 276 kidnapped schoolgirls or it preparing to attack Boko Haram?     The answer to this question does not seem clear, even to the Nigerian government itself.     Throughout much of the crisis the administration of President Goodluck Jonathan has dropped fat hints that it is engaging or attempting to engage in some kind of behind-the-scenes dialogue with the kidnappers.

The content of these negotiations, if they have taken place, is not known, which is not surprising.   But reports suggest that they have revolved round two issues a) a prisoner-hostage swap revolving round the 4,000 Boko Haram prisoners and b) longer-term negotiations regarding the causes of the insurgency with a view to finding a political solution to it.

In the last 24 hours however, the government’s position appears to have hardened.   On the one hand it insists that negotiations are still taking place, while explicitly ruling out the possibility of any release of prisoners.     At the same time it has also reported that a military operation is ongoing, with international support.   Yesterday the UK Minister for Africa Mark Simmons   claimed that he had discussed negotiations with President Jonathan, who   ‘made it very clear that there will be no negotiation with Boko Haram that involves a swap of abducted schoolgirls for prisoners.’

Simmons also told journalists that the UK government had proposed ‘a short and medium strategy to effectively tackle the menace of insurgents in the northern part of the country’ that combined the promotion of education with more immediate military assistance.

These developments are not reassuring. The essential objective of the ‘#bringbackourgirls’ campaign is spelt out in its title – to ensure that the kidnapped schoolgirls are returned alive and safe to their families, and even the most well-planned and coordinated operation in the bush is very unlikely to achieve this.   The hostages are almost certainly being kept in different locations, which means that a rescue attempt in one place might produce a massacre in another.

At the moment Boko Haram hold most of the political cards in this grim and disgusting confrontation – the girls themselves.   If the kidnappers are attacked they will almost certainly kill their captives in an attempt to ensure that they ‘win’ a game which has so far been played entirely at the Nigerian government’s expense.

It is difficult to imagine what the Nigerian security forces could do to ensure that this did not happen, even with the Western hardware and military assistance now at their disposal.     This is an outcome that ought to be avoided at all costs.     But the Nigerian government’s priorities may not be the same as the campaigners, and the same might also be said of the countries that are now providing Nigeria with military assistance.

Poltical hostage-taking always presents the government on the receiving end with a dilemna.   Should it make concessions and therefore run the risk of granting ‘victory’ to the hostage-takers and even encouraging similar incidents in the future?     Or should governments hold firm, regardless of the risk that hostages may be killed, prioritising reasons of state over the principle of saving life?

In general most states have adopted a postion of ‘non-negotiations with terrorists’.   Usually presented as an absolute moral principle, this position seeks to call the kidnappers bluff and force them either to a) release their prisoners and therefore appear ‘weak’ and lacking in resolution or b) to kill them and appear ruthless, brutal and evil – an outcome that can then be used by the state to galvanise public support for military/police action and reinforce a position of intransigence towards the movement or organization responsible.

History is filled with examples of the grim consequences of this logic, in which hostages have been transformed from human beings into political counters, from which both the state and its enemies attempt to extract political capital.   Such confrontations have too often ended with dead hostages, and it would be an absolute tragedy if were allowed to happen to the schoolgirls that Boko Haram has so ruthlessly and disgracefully taken from their families and communities.

Because the truth is that states can – and do – ‘negotiate with terrorists’, and the principle that they should not do so is rarely as absolute as it is claimed to be.   As far as the ‘establishing precedents’ arguments are concerned, the refusal to negotiate over one hostage-taking episode does not necessarily mean that such incidents will not be repeated – let alone that the political conflict that produces such episodes will end.

Of course, negotiation does not guarantee a positive outcome, but it should never be rejected out of hand, and the interests of the state should not dictate how society at large responds to these confrontations – particularly a state like Nigeria that has so abjectly failed so much of its population on so many levels, and which has proven itself spectacularly inept in this particular crisis, whether allowing the missing girls to ‘take their exams’ in a known high-risk area in the first place, failing to respond to warnings of an impending attack, or leaving the town of Gamboru exposed to another murderous Boko Haram assault.

So far the Nigerian government’s willingness to keep the possibility of negotiation open has been one of the few things it has done right throughout this ghastly mess.       But the apparent hardening of its position coincides with military aid from the United States, Israel, Britain, France, and Canada – all of whom have consistently taken the ‘no negotiations with terrorists’ position over the years.

Has the Nigerian government been persuading to accept this position, perhaps in the belief that the international militarisation of the conflict will enable it to mount a successful military operation?   Has the government now privately accepted the risk that the girls might die as a necessary price in order to ensure the prestige of the state and the long-term defeat of Boko Haram?

There is no way of knowing.   But the latest signs do not bode well for a happy ending to this disaster.   The world does not need another Beslan.       Only negotiations offer the possibility that such a prospect can be avoidedt, and negotiations must involve real concessions even if that means in the short term, that Boko Haram ‘wins’ this particular confrontation.

President Jonathan and his administration will just have to swallow that, and find other ways to end it.   In the meantime, the government should, and must ‘negotiate with terrorists’ to make sure that as many of these girls are brought back alive as possible, and the #bringbackourgirls’ campaign should do everything it can to see that the next exchange that takes place is one of people, not bullets.

Hashtags, Militarism and the ‘Konyisation’ of Boko Haram

In the last week the Boko Haram kidnappings of Nigerian schoolgirls have become the object of the same crusading zeal that was once directed at Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army.     Hashtag twitter campaigns, celebrity condemnation, political outrage, and now Michelle Obama holding up a placard calling for the release of our girls – all these manifestations of international condemnation have transformed Boko Haram into the personification of evil.

Just so you know: in my opinion the kidnapping of these girls is a crime against humanity, like many of the actions carried out by Boko Haram, and those who carried it out are worthy of all the contempt and condemnation that can be heaped upon them.     Watching the hideous video of the gloating Abubakar Shekhau bragging about selling them into slavery, my first reaction is to wish that he and anyone who thinks like him should be wiped of the face of the earth.

No doubt many people felt the same way.     But such a visceral reaction is not much use when it comes to an event like this, in which there should be two fundamental considerations: a) to do everything possible to ensure that the kidnapped girls are found and brought back alive and b) to eliminate a complex and dangerous insurgency that threatens to become even more violent and destructive than it already is, and which is already far more powerful than it should be.

The Nigerian government does not come of this at all well.   Firstly, the girls should never have been allowed to take the exams in the middle of a war zone in the first place.   According to Amnesty, the military had a four-hour warning of the impending and failed to do anything to stop it.

Naturally the military and the government are denying anything of the kind.   But then this is a government whose First Lady, Patience Jonathan,   recently spent a whole night berating relatives of the abducted girls and had the temerity to accuse them of being members of Boko Haram.   She then compounded this by arresting a leading activist in the ‘bring back our girls’ campaign.’.

Such behavior is just one symptom of the absolute contempt and indifference with which Nigeria’s rapacious ruling elites have treated their own population for decades.     We are talking about what should be one of the richest countries in Africa, whose population is for the most part poorer than it was at independence, whose rulers have looted Nigeria’s vast resources to a staggering degree.

Today, 40 percent of Nigerians are illiterate, and more than 100 million people, 61 percent of the population live on $1 a day.     Nigeria’s poverty is particularly extreme in the northeast provinces, where 72 percent of the population lives in poverty, compared with 27 percent in the south and 35 percent in the Niger Delta.

This does not mean that Boko Haram can be reduced to poverty and misgovernance alone, but not can it be separated from the decades of ‘ failed governance, economic hardship, rising social inequality, corruption and impunity, gross official neglect and misrule’ that the International Crisis Group has highlighted in a searing and compelling report on the insurgency.

Like many radical Islamist movements in other parts of the world, Boko Haram flourished in those areas of society that were more or less abandoned by the state – except when it came to repression or politicians who came to harvest votes – and somehow struck a chord amongst marginalized and desperate people who no one else had even tried to reach.

These aspects of the conflict have been largely ignored during the explosion of hashtagactivist fervour, and received no attention at all during the World Economic Forum in Abuja last week, whose delegates were praised by President Goodluck Jonathan for their ‘moral support in the fight against terror.’

In fact the countries, corporations and institutions that have invested in Nigeria and profited from its economic growth, while ignoring the gross indifference of its rulers to the majority of their population are not ‘fighting terror’ – but contributing indirectly to the circumstances that fuel it, whether it’s Shell Oil, the United States, Britain, or China.

There is now a danger that the ‘Konyisation’ of this crime will provide public support for establishing Nigeria as another ‘front’ in the West’s global   ‘war on terror’ and incorporating the struggle against Boko Haram into the US military’s Africom security axis.   In the last week both Barack Obama and David Cameron have promised to ‘stand up to’ and ‘take on’ Boko Haram.

That is the last thing anyone needs, because such efforts will not ‘bring back’ the girls and may even endanger their lives.   Nor will they   defeat Boko Haram.     There is not a single country where Western militarisation has succeeded in eradicating conflicts of this kind.   In most cases, such intervention has made them worse. Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan – in every case Western militarisation has been like pouring oil onto a fire.

Obama has accused Boko Haram of ‘ruthlessly killing’ hundreds of people, but so have the Nigerian security forces – not to mention his own government. I certainly don’t preclude the use of military force against   Boko Haram – targeted and focused   force waged within the law, which does not involve extrajudicial executions and massacres of the kind that the Nigerian army has carried out before.

But force alone won’t bring this nightmare to an end.   It will have to be accompanied with major political and economic reforms that give people in the north east a reason to want to be part of the Nigerian state.   It will require negotiation and concessions, and not only in order to save the girls lives.

Because there are divisions within Boko Haram that can be exploited, and ending violent conflicts requires all sides to recognize their responsibility for them and to take steps accordingly – and the Nigerian government must accept its share.   There is little indication that it is willing to do so.

Jonathan has requested international assistance from various countries, including Britain, China and the United States.   Fine, if that assistance consists of UAVs and satellite technology to help locate the girls.   But there is also a very real possibility that Nigeria will do what so many countries have done, and use Boko Haram as a justification for money, weapons and military aid,   by declaring it another manifestation of ‘al Qaeda’.

This will not only distract attention from its own failings and postpone any attempt to do anything about them, but it will also ‘internationalise’ a conflict whose solution is ultimately dependent on Nigeria itself.

Hashtagactivism may make people feel better and may be carried out for worthy motives.   And if it helps shame and put pressure on the Nigerian government to take action, then that is a postive outcome.

But such campaigns should not be used to ‘konyise’ the Boko Haram confict.   And the natural desire of so many people to ‘do something’ about a horrible crime like this should not translate into simplistic and reductionist moral crusades that blind us to its deeper   causes,   and fuel the kind of neo-imperialist military interventionism that has repeatedly proven to be worse than the disease it was supposedly intended to eradicate.





Nick Cohen’s Mad Mad World

Even by his standards, Nick Cohen’s column on Boko Haram in The Guardian on Saturday is a stunningly lazy and incoherent piece of gibberish. Pretending to care, really really care, about the 230 schoolgirls who were abducted by Boko Haram, Cohen seeks to indict ‘the left’ not only for not caring as much as he does, but for somehow acting as apologists for these events, and for showing a ‘failure of solidarity’.

Which components of ‘the left’ is Cohen referring to?  As always the object of Cohen’s outrage isn’t always clear even to himself.  He begins by suggesting that ‘parts of the press’ have concealed the horror of the kidnappings through ‘ a world of euphemism’, by using words like ‘abducted’ or ‘kidnapped’, rather than ‘enslaved’ to describe the fate of the girls.

Since when did abduction and kidnapping become ‘euphemisms’, one might ask?  They are in fact accurate terms to describe what has happened to the girls, especially since most them have not been ‘enslaved’ – at least not yet.  That is why the Nigerian government is currently negotiating with Boko Haram to try and get them released.

But semantics aren’t really the issue here.  According to the straight-talking,fearless Cohen, ‘writers’ use such ‘euphemisms’ because they are afraid of ‘demonising the other.’ Which writers?  Cohen doesn’t say.  These politically-correct moral cowards can be found in ‘today’s papers’, he says.  But then again, they can also be found in the ‘theoretical pages of leftwing journals’ where ‘you find that the grounds for understanding Boko Haram more and condemning it less were prepared last year.’

Which journals?  What did they say to ‘prepare’ for this outcome?  Cohen does not enlighten his readers.  Instead he indicts ‘socialists’ who ‘without fully endorsing’ Boko Haram, have nevertheless found that Boko Haram ‘ finds “resonance in the hearts of many poor and dispossessed” people, who are revolted by “the corruption and flamboyant lifestyle of the elites. Islamism is recast as a rational reaction to local corruption and the global oppression of “neoliberalism”, one of those conveniently vague labels that can mean just about anything.’

This a flat-out, flagrant smear, of the kind that anyone familiar with Cohen’s dire output will already be familiar with.  I know of no one, either left or right, who even comes close to ‘endorsing’ Boko Haram, and I doubt if Cohen does either.

Let’s just go back to political primary school here, and remind ourselves that there is no political movement or manifestation, no matter how horrendous or brutal, that cannot be subjected to intellectual analysis, regarding its motives, its history, its organizational structure, the sources of its popularity, the political and historical context that gave rise to it, its ideology, and so on.

Two weeks ago I took part in a radio discussion with four panelists who were extremely knowledgeable about Boko Haram.  I have no idea what their politics were, but all of them agreed that Boko Haram is to some extent a consequence of the staggering failure of governance in one of the most corrupt countries in the world – a failure that has been particularly striking in the northeast provinces of Nigeria where Boko Haram is predominantly centred.

The International Crisis Group – not a ‘socialist’ organization, by any stretch of the imagination – also sees the Boko Haram insurgency – in part – as a product of a government that has abjectly failed to do anything for the population of the northeast except repress them, and whose blunders helped transform a religious revivalist movement into the deadly jihadist/gangster insurgency that has now reached the Nigerian capital.

To point this out does not mean that Boko Haram is ‘rational’ and it certainly does not mean that it is ‘good’.

For Cohen however, ‘understanding’ and analysis is a form of intellectual collusion, because Boko Haram are beyond any understanding except his own childish notion that Boko Haram is ‘fascistic’ because it calls itself ‘western education is forbidden’.

In fact it doesn’t call itself that – its actual name is ‘The Congregation of the People of Tradition for Proselytism and Jihad’.   Boko Haram is a Hausa nickname that was imposed on it and which has come to stick.  But never mind; in Cohen-land, Boko Haram is ‘Islamist’ and therefore ‘fascistic’  because ‘they will stop all teaching that conflicts with a holy book from the 7th century’ and because ‘ a desire for sexual supremacy accompanies their loathing of knowledge.

Historians may be surprised to know that this is what defines fascism.  For Cohen, however ‘fascism’ simply means ‘bad people’ or rather ‘bad people who should be bombed’, and anyone who thinks otherwise might as well be walking around in black shirts and swastika insignia.

There are Salafist revivalist groups, in Nigeria and elsewhere, that also dream of the ‘virtuous’ Islamic community modelled on the Koran, but would never dream of engaging in violent jihad or waging war against the state.  Are they ‘fascist’ too? Why did Boko Haram take the course that it did?  How come it evolved from a small, but essentially pacific religious revivalist movement into an armed insurgency?  What explains the indisputable fact that it has got larger, not smaller?

These are not questions to delay the anti-fascist crusader, because somehow, Boko Haram is the left’s fault.  How so?  Because ‘western leftists’  espouse ‘the belief that the west is the root cause of the only oppression worth mentioning’ and therefore ‘resemble American neoconservatives’, in promoting a reductionist view of the world that is ‘in its own way racist.’

Say whaat?   And what has this ‘occidentalism’, as Cohen calls it, got to do with Boko Haram?   Because ‘Boko Haram is not reacting to western intervention in Nigeria, for there is none.’

Who says that it is?   Once again, Cohen doesn’t say.  But he still somehow manages to indict ‘leftists’ for a failure of solidarity towards the kidnapped girls and the ‘denial of women’s rights’ that they embody, because ‘leftists, and again I am generalising’ tend to ‘change the conversation to anything except the deeds of the criminals in front of them.’

In fact Cohen is not generalising;   he is constructing fantastic straw men to make himself appear like some brave moral crusader.  He is doing what many people who have undergone the evolution from liberal-leftists into establishment drones have done before him, namely, trying to indict ‘the left’ by presenting himself as the real genuine upholder of leftist principles.

For Cohen, it was the left that abandoned him, not the other way round.  They no doubt love this kind of thing in The Spectator and Standpoint, and judging from the number of ‘likes’ his piece has got, readers of The Guardian  are also partial to Cohen’s banalities.

That is a great pity, because for readers looking for an understanding of the horror that is Boko Haram, this is really very thin gruel indeed.  And for this this reader at least, a writer who would use an awful event like the Nigerian kidnappings to conduct a fake ideological vendetta, is neither brave nor honest, but a contemptible narcissist peddling self-aggrandising delusions to himself and his readers.


I was in London today, participating in a radio discussion for the Voice of Russia about Boko Haram.     I was probably the most anomalous presence there, given that I’m not – to say the least – an expert on either Nigeria or Boko Haram, so it was a really interesting and thought-provoking experience for me to discuss the subject with some people who really do know their stuff.

They included Dr Titilola Banjoko from the Nigeria Leadership Initiative,   the anthropologist Professor Murray Last from UCL and the journalist and fellow Hurst author Andrew Walker. Murray Last first went to Nigeria in 1961, where he studied the impact of Islam on Northern Nigeria as part of his Phd research at the University of Ibadan.

With guests like these, it was always going to be an informed and lively discussion, and so it turned out.     My own invitation was largely due to my more general writings about terrorism and counter-terrorism, both here on this blog and also in books and articles, and my contributions mostly revolved around the international context of Boko Haram and its parallels with similar movements.

Listening to my co-panelists tracing the history and the complex intersection of local and national power politics, religious revivalism and gangsterism, official neglect, poverty and corruption   that produced Boko Haram – whose Hausa nickname, usually translated as ‘Western Education Forbidden’, doesn’t even begin to describe what this horrendous movement is all about – could not have been further from the fatuous and fanatical generalisations that Tony Blair inflicted on the world yesterday.

For Blair, and for those who wish to reduce every political conflict with an Islamic component to a ‘totalitarian versus free society/good versus evil’ narrative whose remedy is always war, complexity of any kind is anathema.     For these moral crusaders, complexities undermine the certainty and conviction that makes Blair’s form of ‘engagement’ possible.

No one on the panel doubted that Boko Haram is a tragedy for the northeastern provinces where it holds sway, and also for Nigeria itself, but what was clear from the discussion was that its savage crimes were also a terrible symptom of official misgovernance, that could not be eradicated by military action alone – let alone the kind of brutal over-the-top violence that the Nigerian military has engaged in.

War is always bracing and – to some – appealing, whether it’s the Bush administration’s   ‘war on terror’ or   Al Qaeda’s ‘war against the Zionist Crusaders.’       It clears away ambiguities and seems to reveal who the ‘sides’ are.   It transforms the every corruptions and compromises of politics, into dramatic binary confrontations, with blood, martyrs and revenge and a heroic narrative of the eventual triumph of good over evil.

Boko Haram is just one more political conflict that will not be solved through this framework, and cannot be reduced to another battleground in ‘the war on terror.’   Such a resolution demands a radical transformation in the behavior of the Nigerian state, and a comprehensive and holistic strategy that looks at all the different tributaries that have fed the insurgency.

Something similar could be said of other 21st century ‘terrorist’ conflicts.         Today the establishment security thinktank published a report which described the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as ‘strategic failures’.   These are failures that have cost hundreds and thousands of lives and billions of pounds.

Perhaps if the politicians who had started these wars had sought the same kind of analysis that was on offer today, they might not have rushed so giddily into them, and perhaps a credulous media would not have lapped up the dangerous inanities that were served up yesterday.