Notes From the Margins…

Negotiating With Boko Haram?

  • May 15, 2014
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Is Nigeria intending to negotiate the release of the 276 kidnapped schoolgirls or it preparing to attack Boko Haram?    Throughout the crisis the administration of President Goodluck Jonathan has hinted at some kind of behind-the-scenes dialogue with the kidnappers.

The content of these negotiations, if they have taken place, is not known.   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  a military operation against Boko Haram 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 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.  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’s difficult to imagine what the Nigerian security forces can 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.

Hostage-taking always presents the government on the receiving end with the same dilemma.   Should it make concessions and 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 consequences, and effectively prioritise reasons of state over the principle of saving life?

In general most states have adopted a position of ‘non-negotiations with terrorists’, which seeks to call the kidnappers’ bluff and forces them to either release their prisoners and therefore appear ‘weak’ and lacking in resolution, or carry out their threats and appear ruthless, brutal and evil.

In the latter case, this outcome is then used 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 this process, in which hostages have been transformed into political counters, from which both the state and its enemies attempt to extract political capital.   Such confrontations have often ended with dead hostages, and it would be a 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 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, 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 a murderous Boko Haram assault.

In fact 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.

Has the Nigerian government been persuaded to reject negotiation,  with a view to launching a major military operation against the jihadists?   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.   The world does not need another Beslan.    Only negotiations offer the possibility that such a prospect can be avoided, even if Boko Haram ‘wins’ this particular confrontation.

President Jonathan and his administration will just have to swallow that, and find other ways to end it.

For now, 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.

1 Comment

  1. Un análisis de las elecciones en Nigeria | Revista Pueblos

    9th Apr 2015 - 2:22 pm

    […] es la presión de combatir a Boko Haram. Parece ser que Jonathan, el investigador británico Matt Carr también está convencido de ello, estaba intentando dialogar con los terroristas, aunque estaba, como todos los presidentes, […]

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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