Goodluck Jonathan’s lose-lose dilemma: To negotiate, or not to negotiate with Boko Haram?

Goodluck Jonathan’s lose-lose dilemma: To negotiate, or not to negotiate with Boko Haram?

Finally, Boko Haram has laid out its terms: give us our prisoners, said the group’s leader, and we’ll give you your girls back. Some of them, anyway. Pity poor Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, who has to decide whether to negotiate or to opt for the military option (not that he even knows where the girls are yet). It’s an impossible choice, and he’ll lose either way. By SIMON ALLISON.

It’s been more than four weeks since 276 Nigerian school girls were kidnapped by Boko Haram. Apart from a brief message confirming responsibility, and threatening to sell the girls, the Islamist militant group has remained silent on why the girls were taken and what it really intends to do with them. Until now.

In a video released on Monday, Boko Haram leader Ibrahim Shekau, smiling and cradling what looks like an AK47, said that he would release the girls in exchange for Boko Haram prisoners being held by the Nigerian government. “We will never release them until after you release our brethren,” he said. The video showed footage of about 100 girls sitting on the floor, all with matching robes and head scarves. Shekau claimed that these were the kidnapped girls, and that many of them had already converted to Islam. “These girls, these girls you occupy yourselves with…we have indeed liberated them. These girls have become Muslims.”

Shekau’s is a strange form of liberation: a conversion made under duress, at the barrel of a gun, does not seem worth celebrating. And his ‘liberation’ may mean precisely the opposite for the girls involved: Shekau indicates that only the girls who have not converted to Islam will be exchanged.

Then again, much of what Shekau does is at odds with his self-proclaimed beliefs. Muslim leaders in Nigeria and all over the world have condemned Boko Haram’s tactics, which include kidnapping, murder and assault.

The new video is an important development in a situation which has finally grabbed the world’s attention despite being ignored by mainstream media for a good two weeks (not us, though). If its contents can be relied upon, then it reveals that most of the girls are alive and well, and that there may be some way out of this nightmare for them. Crucially, it reveals that Boko Haram are prepared to negotiate, as political analyst Ryan Cummings pointed out on these pages last week.

“Boko Haram already are or likely will use the hostages to negotiate some form of concessions from the Nigerian government,” said Cummings. “This could either see the Chibok girls being exchanged for Boko Haram detainees and/or to extort a ransom payment or other material assets. Any such outcome will not only seek to strengthen the operational capacity of the sect, but do so to the detriment of the Nigerian government. By drawing as much attention to the incident as it has, Boko Haram has placed itself in an extremely strong bargaining position.”

Cummings is right. When it comes to negotiating, Boko Haram are in a much stronger position – especially given that Nigerian authorities still don’t know where the girls are being held.

So far, the closest the government has got to the girls is a claim from Borno State governor Kashim Shetty, who said on Monday that the girls have been “sighted” and that their location has been passed on to the relevant military authorities. This claim should be treated with plenty of suspicion – there have been several supposed sightings, and other reports suggesting the girls have either been forced to marry their Boko Haram captors or are being trafficked in modern-day slave markets. It is telling that Shetty’s claim has yet to be confirmed by the federal government.

This puts President Goodluck Jonathan in an impossibly situation. On the one hand, there is the almost irresistible public pressure to #bringourgirlsback (say what you like about the effectiveness of social media campaigns, but this one has almost single-handedly driven the increased attention on situation, internationally at least). If there really is a chance to bring some of the girls back, in exchange for a few prisoners, then surely Jonathan needs to take it? Bolstering this argument is the fact that any military raid on the girls’ location would be extremely dangerous, both for the forces involved and the girls themselves. Boko Haram are heavily armed and experienced fighters, and would not go down without a very bloody fight.

On the other hand, a prisoner exchange sets a very dangerous precedent. It might encourage Boko Haram to do it again, or spark copycat attacks (there are no shortage of groups in Nigeria with an axe – or an AK47 – to grind against the Nigerian government). There’s also a simple question of trust: even if he did issue some presidential pardons, Jonathan can’t really guarantee that Boko Haram would uphold their side of the deal.

The sheer volume of publicity generated by the abductions could also mitigate against a negotiated settlement. The awareness campaign has put the Nigerian government in the spotlight, embarrassing it badly. It could also have the unintended outcome of making it harder for the government to make any kind of compromise with Boko Haram, as this would be considered an even greater humiliation for a very proud country.

It is perhaps significant in this context that the USA has sent military, intelligence and law enforcement advisors to assist in the search for the missing girls. George W. Bush famously said that “no nation can negotiate with terrorists”, and this mantra has defined US counter-terrorism policy since 9/11. The American advisors will be telling President Jonathan to stand firm, and to back a military solution – this, after all, has been the American approach towards Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Yemen (this tactic has had limited success: it may have damaged Al Qaeda and prevented large-scale terrorist attacks on western targets, but only at the expense of civilian lives in the targeted countries). The US has already offered to assist the Nigerian authorities with surveillance drones operated out of its base in Niger. Anxious to protect its sovereignty, Nigeria has so far declined the offer (there’s that pride thing again).

For President Jonathan, there’s no easy way out of this mess. At the moment, Boko Haram holds all the cards – 276 of them, to be precise. And the hapless Nigerian government doesn’t even know where the game is being played. DM

Photo: Nigerian students from the University of Ibadan protest over the government’s failure to rescue the abducted Chibok school girls, in Ibadan, Nigeria 09 May 2014.  EPA/STR


Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

We would like our readers to start paying for Daily Maverick...

…but we are not going to force you to. Over 10 million users come to us each month for the news. We have not put it behind a paywall because the truth should not be a luxury.

Instead we ask our readers who can afford to contribute, even a small amount each month, to do so.

If you appreciate it and want to see us keep going then please consider contributing whatever you can.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options