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Negotiating with Boko Haram?

By Obi Nwakanma

Sometimes, Nigeria, and things Nigerian seem made for farce. I put the emergence of Boko Haram as one of the aspects of Nigeria’s political theatre that is growing into farce while it of course retains its more tragic dimensions. What exactly am I driving at? Well, folks, this call by some Nigerians, mostly from the north – and I think it is about time we in the press find newer terms to describe this and stop the north-South cleavage in our national narrative – who are calling, in fact insisting on the Federal Government going into “negotiation” with the Boko Haram terrorists.

I think this is the most outrageous of all suggestions in this attempt to bring the extremist sect to heel. You must never negotiate with terrorists. That is a cardinal principle of national security; otherwise, as we have come to find out, we go down a slippery slope. But let me return a bit later to this point, and other some slight but equally valid asides, to this Boko Haram situation.

First, we must understand that there is a movement of Global terrorism, and that terrorism itself is a means both of protest and subjugation. Lenin even talked about “revolutionary terror” as a necessary means of accomplishing revolutionary change. But Boko Haram is no revolutionary movement.

It is a conservative, radical religious extremist movement bent on upturning Nigeria’s modern secular state and forcing a comprehensive Islamic state built on the Sharia. To put it simply, by their own very words, they intend to forcefully convert Nigeria into an Islamic nation by means of conquest, and through violent acts that will upturn the current nation-state, topple it, and allow them to seize power by force.

In other words, Boko Haram is not ambiguous in its intentions; it is at war with the Nigerian state, and its intention is to force change and impose its own conditions of governance. It is not negotiating this. It simply has no grounds for negotiations. So, to those who ask that the Federal Government go into negotiation with the Boko Haram group, negotiate on what basis? There are those who have compared Boko Haram as the North’s response to the “Niger Delta” militia.

Part of this thinking is that the “north” feels itself disempowered, particularly since the return of civil democracy in Nigeria, and particularly with the election of the minority Southerner, Dr. Goodluck Ebele Jonathan over the Northerner, Muhammadu Buhari. That the “north” regards the Jonathan presidency as a usurper regime that took the fair chance of the north after the short term of the late Umar Yar ‘Adua.

That this political incident is the North’s equivalent of June 12th and that Boko Haram is therefore an organized protest movement to render Nigeria under Jonathan ungovernable, and cause the same political mayhem as did the Yoruba OPC or the Niger Delta resistance. I think this thinking is patently false.

The only point of similarity between the Niger Delta militia and Boko Haram is that both movements have sought change, and have done so by using a violent means of defiance against the currently constituted authority of the Federal Government of Nigeria. The difference however is that the Niger Delta militants were fighting for accommodation within the system and for what they perceived to be their rights, economic, political and environmental, within the Nigerian state.

They believed that their lands and resources have been serially and radically exploited and without benefits to the region from whence so much wealth had come, and they sought to both bring closer attention to that fact and to seek a negotiable means of justice. In other words, the Niger Delta militants were not fighting against a negotiable principle; they were in fact insisting on a re-negotiation of the terms of the federation. Not Boko Haram.

Boko Haram is not seeking to re-negotiate the federation; they are seeking the end of the state on the single assumption that they will impose, out of the ruins they are intent on creating, a new “Taliban State” run according to an Islamic principle. Theirs is an utter disdain for the principles of religious toleration and the diversity of faiths, customs, but above all, the foundational principles that gave rise to Nigeria’s charter of independence as a modern secular republic to be run as a secular democracy. Boko Haram is levying war on the roots of the Nigerian state.

As is to be expected, much political theatre has come out of this situation even as people die from the bombings, and as property is destroyed, and as the state – the security of the Nigerian state – is threatened by this increasing organized and well-funded extremist group. To put this simply: Boko Haram is not a “northern” movement.

There are many norths as we ought to have come to terms with by now, and not all are Muslims; and not all the Moslems among them are violent extremists, and not all are even indigenous to that region. Indeed in the north of Nigeria are many new migrants and settlers with as much legal claims to the older settlers or what we call ‘indigenes” of that land; many of these new settlers are from the south, many from across the borders from Niger, Mali, Benin, Ghana, Senegal, Lebanon, Syria, Pakistan, etc.

This agglomeration makes the situation in the north as complex as it ought indeed to be. Now, I think those desirous of understanding the spiritual and ideological backgrounds to the Boko Haram movement should look to history, which is what our security analysts do not do very well. This movement is modeling itself after the movement led by Othman Dan Fodio in the 18th century and the Mahdist movement in Sudan that lopped the head off the English General Kitchener.

It is not simply a religious movement, it is a political movement intent on power.  There are no grounds for negotiation unless you want to give them time to organize more intricately and establish their roots more forcefully, which is indeed what it is currently doing: defiance, recruitment, and consolidation. In spite of what Nigerians also imagine, Boko Haram is not a new movement either. It has always been there, in the shadows, and in sleeper cells.

It is a very patient movement linked to a global Islamic revivalist agenda. We must be clear on these factors before embarking on any attempts to sort out the problem. And here is the problem: President Jonathan’s security staff is unable to come up with very strategic and logical means of confronting and subduing this increasing menace to Nigeria’s national security. Boko Haram lives within government infrastructure. It hides with Nigeria’s security apparatus.

It is funded by very prominent people and its funding sources ought to be the main target. To do this, as the Americans have shown us, we must first identify these sources and their modus operandi. In response to Boko Haram, the president has authorized the use of troops – Boots on the ground – to Maiduguri and Borno State.

Again, from the example that America’s own struggles with terrorism have offered Nigeria, boots on the ground is in fact ineffective. It is  a very futile, primitive, and cumbersome means of fighting a shadowy organization. It requires a subtler use of force and intelligence. It is a hearts and minds issue. First, identify the source of Islamic radicalism, and then, create conditions that would undermine it.

Also, use the time-tested methods of urban warfare: the use of unseen forces. Too many soldiers, and an apparent state of emergency declared in Borno, that would lockdown the state, will not root out Boko Haram. Nor would any negotiations.

Indeed, the Federal Government should not enter into any form of direct negotiations with Boko Haram, except on the condition of surrender and handing over themselves for fair prosecution for acts of terrorism. To achieve this, the Federal Government must put the heat and squeeze.

To squeeze, it must earn the trust and confidence of the citizens it wants to protect, not alienate them by using acts of direct violence which Nigerian soldiers normally enjoy. They should fight shadows with shadows.


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