Boko Haram and the ceasefire that wasn’t

Boko Haram and the ceasefire that wasn’t
Archive photo: Boko Haram armoured vehicles seized in northern Nigeria

Well, that didn’t last long. The ceasefire between Boko Haram and the Nigerian government – announced on Thursday, with much fanfare, by government spokesmen – has already been broken. If, that is, it actually existed in the first place. A skeptical SIMON ALLISON considers Nigeria’s track record on this subject.

To understand what’s going on in north-eastern Nigeria, it is first necessary to pick your way through a maze of ambiguity, misinformation and misdirection; a dense fog of spin compounded by the fog of war that makes actual reporting there so difficult and so dangerous.

Neither Boko Haram nor the Nigerian government indulge in much straight talk. The foundation of Boko Haram’s public communications are long, violent videos that begin with a sermon and end in a messy public beheading, the irony of that juxtaposition lost on the wild-eyed fanatics who exhort supporters to more and bloodier killings in God’s name. Nonetheless, it is effective. Boko Haram, and especially the group’s leader Abubakar Shekau, are experts at turning acts of violence into media attention.

The response of the Nigerian government, meanwhile, is fractured and unreliable. It has as many spokespeople as the mythological Hydra had heads, all talking at the same time, all making different and often contradictory statements. It’s difficult if not impossible to know who among them is telling the truth, or even an approximation thereof.

That’s why, when one of these talking heads announced last Thursday a ceasefire with Boko Haram and a deal to return the 200-odd girls kidnapped in April – in theory, a major breakthrough that would put an end to five years of increasingly brutal fighting – no one got too excited. We’ve all been here before. The boy has cried wolf too often.

Take, for instance, the last time a ceasefire was declared in 2013, or even the time before that in 2012. On both occasions, the “ceasefire” was an un-implementable agreement between government negotiators and a minor cleric who had no authority to speak on Boko Haram’s behalf. Or take the news that Shekau had been killed in action last month, gleefully broadcast by the Nigerian military as proof that the war is not being lost. But barely had the ink set on his obituaries when the man himself appeared on yet another video, claiming that reports of his death were greatly exaggerated (and not for the first time either) and that the military had killed an unfortunate lookalike instead. Or was the real Shekau dead, and the lookalike making the video, as some government sources implied? Yet more layers of obfuscation.

And sure enough, it didn’t take long for cracks to start appearing in Thursday’s ceasefire story.

“Note the announcement was made by the Nigerian government and there has been no response to date by Boko Haram, which begs the question if such negotiations were held with Boko Haram, why would they allow the Nigerian Government to get the spotlight. This is contradicting the Shekau we know, a person that uses every opportunity to gain media attention,” said Jasmine Opperman, Africa Director at the Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium.

This is far from the only inconsistency. Who exactly was this Boko Haram envoy, Danladi Ahmadu, who was apparently speaking on Shekau’s behalf? No one had heard of him before. Did he really agree to a cessation in hostilities, or just to the return of the kidnapped Chibok girls? Ahmadu wouldn’t say. Was the agreement with Boko Haram as a whole, or with just one faction or an increasingly fractured organisation? No one seemed to know.

And then the Boko Haram attacks resumed as if nothing happened – because, of course, nothing of substance had really happened. There were reports of another 40 women abducted, a town attacked by fighters, and another 30 people killed as Boko Haram sought to consolidate its control over another town. Meanwhile, elements within the Nigerian military knew nothing about the ceasefire. “Honestly, we are yet to receive any operational order on the ceasefire. As such, we are battle-ready and would confront the terrorists if we see them,” one senior officer told AFP.

So what happened? Was the ceasefire, and the deal to finally #bringbackourgirls, nothing more than an invention? Had Nigerian negotiators just put their faith in the wrong Boko Haram representative? Was Boko Haram itself reneging on an agreement? Was Boko Haram actually responsible for the new attacks? And what could all this mean for a country desperately trying to figure out a solution to this problem?

Ryan Cummings, chief Africa analyst at risk analysis firm Red24, took a stab at exploring the tangled web of permutations: “If this is fiction, it remains difficult to assess how it could benefit the [President] Goodluck Jonathan regime,” he said. “Negotiating with Boko Haram will be seen by many Nigerians as a sign of weakness and many are already questioning the terms of this purported ceasefire. While the cessation of violence in the north east and associated release of Chibok girls would be seen as a major victory for the PDP [the ruling party], the perceived success of this could be offset by concerns regarding what concessions were given to Boko Haram.

“On the other hand, if the ceasefire is rendered null and void for any reason by Boko Haram, perceptions that the Nigerian government is losing its grip on the insurgency will only become more entrenched. That said, claiming that a fictitious ceasefire has been reached with Boko Haram, which would inevitably be denounced by the sect, could emphasize government claims that Boko Haram is beyond negotiation, thereby lessening the pressure on Goodluck Jonathan to explore negotiation as an option to secure the release of the Chibok hostages.”

For now, it’s hard to say anything with certainty. All we know for sure is that every day, people are dying as the battle between Boko Haram and the government intensifies – and that this ‘ceasefire’ has done nothing to end the suffering. DM

Photo: Nigerian soldiers display one of the captured Boko Haram armoured vehicles as they drive it through Maiduguri, Nigeria, 17 September 2014. EPA/Tony Nwosu


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