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Can talking to Boko Haram give peace a chance?
Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan's challenge to the Boko Haram group to identify themselves and state their demands surprised many Nigerians. Boko Haram's identity and demands are no secret. But can talks bring the peace Nigerians seek?
When Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan challenged the militant Boko Haram Islamist group to identify themselves days after a series of deadly attacks in the northern Nigerian city of Kano, quite a few Nigerians were puzzled.
Jonathan noted that if the Boko Haram group identified themselves and stated their demands, he would be amenable to negotiating with the terror group that has seriously threatened the security of Africa’s most populous nation.
“If they clearly identify themselves now and say this is the reason why we are resisting, this is the reason why we are confronting government or this is the reason why we destroyed some innocent people and their properties, why not,” said Jonathan in an interview with Reuters Thursday.
For most Nigerians, it was a rather strange statement. The identity of the group responsible for the deaths of thousands of Nigerians in the past decade is no secret. What’s more, most ordinary Nigerians would be able to parrot the group’s demands.
How do they know? Well, for starters, it’s because the clearly identified, self-promoting leader of the group periodically puts out audio and video statements explicitly stating the reasons for Boko Haram’s attacks and reiterating the group’s long-term goals.
The most recent statement by Boko Haram chief Imam Abubakar Shekau was released on YouTube days after the January 20 bombings in Kano killed 185 people. Shekau, the terror chief who came back from the dead, also released a videotaped message earlier this month warning Jonathan that his security forces were no match for his group.
All of which, made Jonathan’s challenge to Boko Haram a bit baffling.
“If Jonathan thinks that by his call, the Boko Haram will jump into a train from Maiduguri [the northern Nigerian birthplace of the group] to Abuja [the Nigerian capital] to talk to him, I think he’s wasting his time,” said Shehu Sani, president of the Civil Rights Congress of Nigeria, in a phone interview with FRANCE 24.
But Sani - a prominent human rights activist and mediator who has helped facilitate talks between the government and Boko Haram in the past - concedes that there was an underlying message in Jonathan’s latest statement.
“Jonathan’s call is an admission that the use of force has proven to be ineffective,” he said. “It’s also the realization that calls for dialogue by people like me for years have proven to be the only viable option.”
Negotiations: The only solution
Founded in Maiduguri around 2002, Boko Haram - which in the local Hausa language means “Western education is sacrilege” – aims to implement strict Sharia law across Nigeria, a multi-ethnic nation of more than 160 million people split largely into a Muslim majority north and a Christian and animist south.
Attacks by the group have multiplied since the deadly 2011 Christmas Day bombing of a church. At least 262 people have been killed in 2012, more than half of the estimated 510 people the sect killed in all of 2011, according to an Associated Press count. On Thursday, gunmen killed 15 traders in broad daylight and a German national was kidnapped in Kano in the latest incidence of violence.
The violence has raised fears that the long-simmering divisions in the oil-rich nation could ignite a sectarian civil war and has increased the pressures on Nigeria’s embattled president.
Nigerian community elders, including Christian leaders, have argued that negotiations with Boko Haram are the only sustainable way to meet the latest internal security challenge.
There have been attempts at negotiations in the past, but they have failed due to the lack of political will in the Jonathan administration, according to Sani.
Shortly after the August 2011 attack on the UN headquarters in Abuja, which killed at least 24 people, former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo attempted to negotiate with moderate Boko Haram members.
According to Sani, who was involved in the negotiations, some Boko Haram members could be amenable to dialogue but, “they don’t believe in the government being able to meet their demands and they have been proved right since their suggestions were ignored in favour of the use of force”.
Turkey as a possible mediator
Boko Haram’s longstanding preconditions for dialogue has been the release of hundreds of prisoners - many of them held without charges – as well as a return of seized property, the rebuilding of mosques and schools destroyed by security forces, and compensation to the families of Boko Haram members killed in security operations.
Sani believes mediators are required for the talks to succeed.
“From my knowledge of the group, I think it’s possible to have a peace dialogue if there will be a peace conference hosted by a third country such as Turkey, Qatar or Saudi Arabia,” said Sani.
Turkey, according to Sani, would be a particularly effective mediator since the philosophical and ideological basis of Boko Haram is founded on the teachings of Sheikh al-Islam ibn Taymiyah, a 13th century Turkish Islamic scholar who sought the return of Islam to earlier interpretations of the Koran.
Boko Haram’s founder, the charismatic Mohammed Yusuf, paid tribute to the 13th century scholar by naming the mosque in his Maiduguri compound after ibn Taymiyah. The ibn Taymiyah mosque was destroyed in the 2009 security crackdown that resulted in the arrest and subsequent death in custody of Yusuf.
Senior Nigerian officials are currently in negotiations with some Boko Haram members, according to a Wall Street Journal report.
But details on the ongoing talks have not been released and it was not known if Nigerian authorities are seeking any third party moderator.
‘He’s lying. He cannot do it’
Responding to Jonathan’s negotiations offer, Shekau, Boko Haram’s current chief, dismissed the suggestion in his audio message posted on YouTube Wednesday.
“He's lying. He cannot do it. If Jonathan does not repent as a Muslim, even if I die myself, Jonathan's going to see. He's looking at me like I'm nobody, but he'll see,” said Shekau ominously.
Tough talk like this does not inspire much confidence in Shekau’s willingness or ability to negotiate.
Martin Ewi, a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies, a Pretoria-based, pan-African policy institute, maintains that as long as Shekau is controlling the shots, the prospects for a peace dialogue are bleak.
“If Shekau is captured – or killed – that will create disintegration within Boko Haram ranks and the government can create factions with which it will be able to negotiate,” said Ewi. “But if the leader is still there and if they have loyalty to him, it’s difficult to break the group.”
According to Ewi, the current push for dialogue “is coming from the Nigerian elites and public. They are pushing Jonathan to negotiate even though Jonathan does not see the merit in it. But the way things are going now, I don’t see how dialogue can happen.”
Unlike Ewi, Sani is more optimistic about the talks. When confronted with Boko Haram’s unrealistic hard-line agenda of imposing Sharia law across the multiethnic nation, Sani maintains that the solution lies in a short-term step-by-step process.
“Sharia law across Nigeria is not achievable,” he explains. “But if the government reaches an agreement to release Boko Haram members and a ceasefire, the government will have the moral upper-hand. Boko Haram has said it is attacking the police because its members have been detained. But if you free them, that will certainly make it difficult for Boko Haram to use it to justify their attacks.”
The problem though is whether Boko Haram’s attacks would stop if and when their demands are met. For many Nigerians, it’s worth the try.