Dialogue with terrorists should start with community voices

2020-06-24

Dialogue as a plausible method for countering violent extremism has gained traction in the past year as international and regional actors consider new ways to end terrorism in the Lake Chad Basin region. A violent insurgency initiated by Boko Haram in Nigeria’s north-east has spread to communities in Cameroon, Chad and Niger, resulting in a protracted conflict with dire humanitarian consequences.

Negotiating with terrorists – while worth considering alongside other responses – is complex, often poorly understood and not always popular among those affected. Institute for Security Studies (ISS) research among civil society organisations and community actors working in the Lake Chad Basin found that most doubted that dialogue with Boko Haram would succeed.

These perceptions matter a great deal, because for negotiations to deliver lasting peace, those directly affected by terrorism must accept the principle and support the process.

For communities trapped between violent extremism and repressive state responses, the human and material costs have been devastating. Military operations have been criticised for their excessive use of force and inability to end the conflict.

Those directly affected by terrorism must accept the principle of dialogue and support the process

As a result, complementary approaches should be explored alongside existing counter-terrorism measures, says ISS Senior Researcher Dr Akinola Olojo. ‘The problem facing the Lake Chad Basin is multi-dimensional. The use of force is yet to deliver a sustainable solution, evident in the continuing loss of lives and livelihoods, which means it is worth expanding the current counter-terrorism toolkit in affected countries.’

But dialogue isn’t a once-off event – it is a process. In Lake Chad it will need to take place over a significant period of time with the consistent participation of many actors, both local and external. An inclusive approach must draw from the many perspectives of community actors, including traditional and religious leaders, women and youth groups, and civil society groups.

The voices of the community must be magnified when considering dialogue as a counter-terrorism intervention. As trusted local interlocutors in conflict settings with the ability to access reliable information, community actors are best placed to understand the required concessions and possible successes of any dialogue process.

However although many respondents in the ISS study agreed on the need for different approaches for dealing with terrorism, not all believed that dialogue was the answer. They raised a number of pivotal challenges centred on communities’ perceptions of governments and violent extremist groups alike.

Before dialogue can begin, the motivations and interests of all parties must be widely understood

Many doubted that governments in the Lake Chad Basin area would agree to Boko Haram and Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) demands. These views could indicate that the timing may be not right for dialogue. Interviewees were also worried that neither party would engage in a sincere and open reconciliation process.

Another concern was whether violent extremist groups would agree to end hostilities, or agree to concessions, and whether they could be trusted to act on any final settlement. Religious perspectives were of particular concern, with one respondent questioning for example whether democracy should be discarded for Sharia Law.

The unclear communication strategies of violent extremist groups were another issue raised in the ISS study. Attempting dialogue with groups such as Boko Haram and ISWAP that have a diverse structure and lack clear lines of communication pose a problem. These varying perspectives show the problems associated with negotiation itself.

Civil society organisations did however agree that military operations were not helping to bring peace to their communities. One respondent described how the heavy-handed actions of security forces had helped groups such as Boko Haram to recruit more fighters.

Governments in Lake Chad seem reluctant to explore dialogue as a counter-terrorism approach

While some West African countries, such as Mali, have initiated dialogue with violent extremist groups, governments in Lake Chad seem reluctant to explore this approach. One likely concern is that proposing dialogue could be seen as a sign of weakness, or as government capitulating to terrorists’ demands.

Some community actors view the Lake Chad conflict as a zero-sum game and any attempt at dialogue would be interpreted as a failure on the part of the security forces involved. However the Nigerian government did successfully negotiate with Boko Haram in the Chibok girls case, and in an effort to reach a ceasefire in 2018.

The views of affected communities are a reminder that before any dialogue process can begin, the motivations and interests of all parties – as well as concessions that may be expected – must be clearly understood by all involved.

The continuing deadlock, deteriorating security conditions and constant fear faced by communities creates conditions in which support for alternative approaches can be galvanised. States in the Lake Chad region should earnestly consider their options.

As a first step, countries should engage community actors and civil society on the issue of dialogue with extremists. This would provide insights into the expectations and obstacles that face such a process. Such information is key to laying the groundwork, finding more precise entry points, building local support and offering an inclusive approach.

The format for negotiations is determined by governments, but support from those directly affected by terrorism is crucial to success. Without the voice of local communities as interlocutors of this process, dialogue as an approach to preventing terrorism will continue to be overlooked by governments and civil society alike.

Maram Mahdi, Research Officer, Complex Threats in Africa, ISS Pretoria

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Photo: Amanda Nero / IOM

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