Dialogue with Boko Haram: back on the agenda?


There is a hurting stalemate in the Lake Chad Basin. Countries under the mandate of the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) are locked in a protracted struggle against two factions of the terror group Boko Haram.

Benin, Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria all have their military resources stretched to the limit in battles that appear to have no end in sight. The region’s predominant counter-terrorism approach that focuses on the use of force is yet to deliver peace to communities.

Al-Shabaab in the Horn of Africa has similarly resisted military efforts by the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). As recently argued in the case of al-Shabaab, is this the time to revisit the unpopular question of dialogue with Boko Haram? Can dialogue complement the use of force?

Many feel that governments shouldn’t negotiate with terrorists at all. There also seems to be little hope offered by the terror factions when it comes to accepting an invitation to the negotiating table. And Nigerian citizens, who are the most affected by the crisis, remain divided over the issue of dialogue.

The crisis is more complicated than in previous years when attempts at dialogue were made

Boko Haram currently comprises two main factions – one led by Abubakar Shekau, and the other, Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), led by Abu Abdullah Ibn Umar al-Barnawi. The crisis caused by these factions is more complicated than in previous years when attempts at dialogue were made.

Neither the MNJTF nor the terror factions would currently be able to achieve total military victory. This stalemate is precisely why dialogue should be explored as part of a comprehensive set of policy choices.

The option of negotiating with either Boko Haram or ISWAP is complex. What would be the exact talking points or areas of compromise for opposing sides? For instance, a fundamental point of dispute is that while Boko Haram’s factions aim to establish an Islamic caliphate, Section 10 of Nigeria’s constitution prohibits the adoption of a state religion.

Compared to Somalia where the country’s constitution defines Islam as the state religion, dialogue over issues of sharia in the case of Nigeria offers limited scope for negotiation with terror groups. Despite the obstacles, potential openings for engaging in talks should be more deeply explored – and this requires real imagination and will on the government’s part.

Past Nigerian administrations have tried to initiate talks. These efforts failed not because it was entirely impossible to negotiate but because of the dearth of political will, and a lack of consensus about objectives and outcomes on the part of government actors. Former president Goodluck Jonathan for example, raised the alarm regarding Boko Haram sympathisers in his government.

Exploring the potential for dialogue requires real imagination and will from Nigeria’s government

The first major attempt at dialogue with Boko Haram was in September 2011 when a meeting was facilitated between former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo and Babakura Fugu, the brother-in-law of the late Boko Haram leader Mohammed Yusuf. What should have been the first step in a series of peaceful meetings was cut short by Fugu’s assassination. It was initially suspected that Fugu was killed by a Boko Haram member, but the group refuted this.

In March 2012 Boko Haram accepted Supreme Council for Sharia in Nigeria president Sheikh Ahmed Datti as an intermediary. But Sheikh Datti withdrew from the talks, claiming that the government was indiscreet and prematurely released information to the media.

The 2014 abduction of young women from the town of Chibok in Nigeria and the release of some of them signalled further possibilities of negotiation with Boko Haram. It exposed divisions among the insurgents, some of whom disagreed with the idea of abducting the young women in the first place.

This shows that Boko Haram is by no means monolithic in terms of members’ views, and that it is indeed possible to engage with and possibly win over followers if avenues are genuinely explored. There have even been times when members have voluntarily given up arms and surrendered. In such cases, intelligence obtained from them could inform a communication strategy for broader engagement with the terror factions.

Boko Haram is not monolithic, and followers can be won over if avenues are genuinely explored

There are some first steps that should be taken towards the route of dialogue. On the side of government, there must be agreement on the objectives of the initial phase of talks. Local communities must be consulted and the views of leading voices, as well as victims of terror attacks, must shape conversations.

The government should consult a mix of individuals and groups comprising militants’ family members, Islamic clerics, mediation experts, women’s groups, traditional institutions and civil society organisations. Insight from this cross-section of the population would prove invaluable regarding the approaches, channels and phases that dialogue could adopt.

There is a common notion that dialogue should be initiated when terror groups are on the defensive. But governments hardly ever initiate talks at this stage due to the misleading perception that a military triumph is in sight and a final blow is all that is needed. Gauging the mood of the battlefield however remains vital with regards to timing for talks, as is the willingness to make certain concessions when considering dialogue.

The distinction between Boko Haram and ISWAP needs to be recognised, and should inform the government’s communication strategy. At the same time, the lack of unity among government actors must be addressed. In both the Horn of Africa and Lake Chad Basin, weak cohesion and mistrust erode governments’ ability to achieve a unified stance on policy matters.

Dialogue may not be an immediate or total solution to ending terror. Nevertheless, countries must overcome the limits of the assumption that extremist groups anywhere can be defeated with guns and bombs.

Akinola Olojo, Senior Researcher, Transnational Threats and International Crime, ISS Pretoria

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Picture: Amelia Broodryk/ISS

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