ABUJA — The Nigerian government has declared it is ready to negotiate with the dreaded sect known as Boko Haram. The announcement, coming as it does so soon after a new spate of attacks by the group that has pledged allegiance to the so-called Islamic State, suggests that the recently elected government of Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari is looking for a way out of confrontation. But there is certainly more to the story than that.
“If Boko Haram opts for negotiation, the government will not be averse to it,” Buhari’s spokesman, Femi Adesina, said in a statement released on Saturday. “Government will, however, not be negotiating from a position of weakness, but that of strength,” it said.
As if to add horrible punctuation marks to this reticent dialogue, at least 25 people were killed when a bomb blast ripped through a packed government office in the northwestern town of Zaria on Tuesday in a suspected suicide attack capping a week in which close to 300 people died in Boko Haram violence. Since Buhari was sworn in as president on May 29 the fanatics have killed an estimated 800 people.
The Nigerian government’s apparent willingness to speak with Boko Haram contradicts the earlier stance of Buhari, who promised during his campaign not to negotiate with the insurgents if elected president.
“Boko Haram is not interested in peace—if they are interested in peace, how can they kill 13,000 Nigerians?” Buhari told BBC News in February.
Now, the former general knows defeating the sect is not child’s play. And this could be a tactical move while Buhari is consolidating and preparing his own forces for an all-out assault on the jihadists. His spokesman gave a hint of that when he said in the statement “the machinery put in place, and which will be set in motion soon, can only devastate and decapitate insurgency.”
The message is not exactly “surrender or die,” it is more like “negotiate or die.” But even so there comes a critical question for the government: Negotiate with whom?
This is not the first time a Nigerian government tried dialogue with Boko Haram, and there have been a number of “fake” deals with militant groups in the past.
Last year, the administration of then-President Goodluck Jonathan claimed to have held a series of talks and reached a ceasefire with the jihadists that would lead to the release of 219 schoolgirls whose abduction in the remote northeastern town of Chibok in April 2014 caused international shock and outrage.
But six hours after the deal supposedly was done Boko Haram unleashed an attack on Abadam Village in Borno State, killing one person. The following day, eight people were killed in Dzur Village, also in Borno, which made the so-called ceasefire look like a hoax—and that may well be what it was.
When Abubakar Shekau, the leader of the group, appeared in a video two weeks later he made it clear something had gone very wrong. “We have not made ceasefire with anyone,” he said. “What is our business with negotiation? We did not negotiate with anyone… It’s a lie; it’s a lie. We will not negotiate," he said in the video released last October.
The Boko Haram leader’s comment suggested Alex Badeh, Nigeria’s chief of defense staff, who broke the news of the ceasefire, had told another lie about the country’s anti-terror progress. But in fairness to him, ceasefire negotiations had been held—just not with the right Boko Haram men. The government had most likely communicated with an unauthorized negotiator, perhaps an impostor.
Ahmad Salkida, a Nigerian journalist who gained unfettered access to Boko Haram at the start of the crisis in 2009, told Al Jazeera that Danladi Ahmadu— the man who supposedly represented Boko Haram in the negotiations—would never have been brought into the terrorists’ ruling Shura Council because the name “Danladi” (meaning “born on a Sunday,” the Christians’ holy day) is considered “filthy” by the sect’s very particular interpretation of Islam.
It’s amazing to think that the Goodluck Jonathan government could have entered into negotiation with a deadly terrorist group like Boko Haram without paying attention to such details.
If Jonathan couldn’t achieve anything but self-ridicule in his attempt to reach a deal with an organized Boko Haram, then his successor, Buhari, will need something like a miracle to reach an agreement with what now appears to be a very loosely organized sect.
Boko Haram’s latest video, released last month, neither featured nor mentioned Shekau, prompting questions about whether he may have been killed, injured or removed from the group as its overall commander. In the northeast, where the militants operate, there is widespread belief that he has fled the country, shaving off his Islamist beard to help him travel incognito.
Those with deep knowledge of Boko Haram leaders and senior members say the man who did appear in the video is not known in the Borno area, and didn’t speak with the local accent of the Kanuris (the main ethnic group in Borno, and small parts of Niger and Cameroon), an indication that he is unlikely to come from the Kanuri region where Boko Haram picks its commanders, and may likely be an impostor.
“Boko Haram’s hatchet men are either Kanuris or were born in the Kanuri region and have the Kanuri accent,” says a senior Arabic scholar in the Borno State capital, Maiduguri, who knows most of the leaders of the sect from their younger days. “He may have decided to arrogate power to himself, perhaps having observed a vacuum in Boko Haram’s ranks, which could mean that Shekau is no longer in charge or alive.”
Indeed, Boko Haram may have split into different factions, and officials risk negotiating with the wrong or less powerful group.
The government on its own must have envisaged a public backlash over its decision to offer talks with the jihadists when it stated on Saturday that “most wars, however furious or vicious, often end around the negotiation table,” and asked rhetorically: “Didn’t the Taliban and Americans also negotiate in Afghanistan?”
In other words, what the government is saying is if “mighty” America can negotiate with a terrorist group, then the Buhari administration shouldn’t be questioned for seeking to negotiate with Boko Haram.
Its decision may also have been influenced by the West, as it comes ahead of Buhari’s planned meeting with President Barack Obama in Washington next week, and soon after Buhari attended a meeting of G7 heads of governments in Germany, where he got the support of the world’s most powerful leaders for his anti-terror plans. Not many will bet that he didn’t discuss the idea of negotiating with Boko Haram. But if devastating and decapitating the insurgency is Buhari’s real agenda, and he can do that successfully, few would object.
Meanwhile, the Chibok girls have yet to be brought back.