Talking to Boko Haram

by Sandra Ivanov. Sandra Ivanov is from New Zealand with a postgraduate education in Peace and Conflict Studies. She is currently an editor of the blog “Conflict and Security”, and primarily works in the non-government sector. You can find her through Linkedin or follow her updates on Twitter.

Man claiming to be leader of Nigerian Islamist extremist group Boko Haram, Abubakar Shekau, in video screengrab, unknown location, Sept. 25, 2013.

Man claiming to be leader of Nigerian Islamist extremist group Boko Haram, Abubakar Shekau, in video screengrab, unknown location, Sept. 25, 2013.

Recently, a non-state armed group in Nigeria called Boko Haram has been brought to the forefront by Western media. Through a worldwide “hashtag campaign” on Twitter, attention has been drawn to the kidnappings of over 200 school girls in the Borno State. Public outrage and international condemnation has led to the United Nations applying sanctions, and adding the group to their proscribed list of “terrorist organisations”. But, could this be hindering chances of dialogue between the government of Nigeria and Boko Haram? So far, military offenses have been undertaken, but how long until it is realised that violence against violence is not an effective means to address grievances? Dialogue needs to be the action taken if the world really wants to “bring back our girls” and look deeply into the causes of the crisis.

Boko who?
The Boko Haram movement goes back to the early 2000s, propagated by spiritual leader and preacher, Mohammed Yusuf. In the early days, the group was referred to as the “Nigerian Taliban”, wanting to withdraw from the secular state of Nigeria, and form a society based on Islamic Sharia law. Initially, the movement sought to overthrow the government through a doctrine of withdrawal, and not through violence. However, radicalisation was spurred by clashes with government security forces, including pervasive police brutality. The followers of Boko Haram consist of university students, clerics and professionals, many of whom are unemployed.

The movement was eventually renamed to “Jama’atu Ahlus-Sunnah Lidda’Awati Wal Jihad” (People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad), and it was domestic and foreign media which popularised the name Boko Haram, a phrase interpreted to mean “Western education is sinful”. In a statement by Boko Haram, they revealed their beliefs and intentions:

We will not allow the Nigerian Constitution to replace the laws that have been enshrined in the Holy Qur’an, we will not allow adulterated conventional education (Boko) to replace Islamic teachings. We will not respect the Nigerian government because it is illegal. We will continue to fight its military and the police because they are not protecting Islam. — Boko Haram statement stated in Human Rights Watch, “Spiraling Violence: Boko Haram Attacks and Security Force Abuses in Nigeria“, October 2012.

Clashes which occurred in July 2009 were a significant turning point, and cemented Boko Haram’s choice to use violent tactics to achieve their aims. Targeted killings by Boko Haram, and extrajudicial killings of detainees of members by security forces, were a prelude to what would end up being a brutal massacre of more than 800 people in Borno, Bauchi, Yobe, and Kano states. Yusuf was killed in police custody, and Abubakar Shekau succeeded him. In the aftermath of crushing Boko Haram, security forces tore down mosques, and properties were demolished or seized from those suspected to be part of Boko Haram, as well as of relatives of any members – it was a strategy attempting to wipe out their physical presence in order for them to be forgotten.

A local journalist at the time reflected on the situation saying that the 2009 violence was seen to be bubbling in the weeks beforehand, noting a failure of security and intelligence forces to monitor and act early. Government inaction has seen the movement grow stronger and stronger.

The current situation
Since Abubakar Shekau took leadership of the group, Boko Haram is no longer monolithic – there are at least two organisations operating alongside each other: a larger organisation focused on discrediting the government, and a smaller one becoming more sophisticated, but also more lethal in their actions. Boko Haram’s objectives also expanded after Yusuf’s death to include prosecution of those who killed their leaders, release of members in police custody, compensation for the families of dead members, and rebuilding their mosques and schools. Since 2010, they have taken up violent methods to attempt to achieve these goals, including bombings, shoot-and-run attacks, arsons, robberies, and more recently in the media, abductions.

A police officer walks past shops destroyed in a suicide car bomb attack at the entrance to the Bompai police barracks near the police headquarters in the city of Kano. At least 185 people were killed during coordinated attacks by Boko Haram members on police facilities in the city on January 20, 2012.

A police officer walks past shops destroyed in a suicide car bomb attack at the entrance to the Bompai police barracks near the police headquarters in the city of Kano. At least 185 people were killed during coordinated attacks by Boko Haram members on police facilities in the city on January 20, 2012.

Protests, petitions and social media campaigns helped spread the awareness of the kidnapping of over 200 school girls by Boko Haram from the town of Chibok in April 2014. Widespread public pressure called for action – and the international community did indeed respond. The United States gave experts, resources, and defence personnel, and the United Kingdom sent an aircraft and government experts. Other states have also expressed their willingness to assist Nigeria. Most notably, however, is the United Nations’ blacklisting of Boko Haram and imposing sanctions on them as suspicions linger that they are linked to al-Qaeda. But it is not verified that Boko Haram is involved with al-Qaeda, all evidence has so far been unsubstantiated and remains anecdotal.

Nigeria has had previous interaction with Boko Haram, Borno state officials tried to reach out to the group in 2011 where a negotiated settlement was a possibility. Nevertheless, the situation has changed – having the UN listing the group as official terrorists, and with states such as the US who are leading the so called “War on Terror” aiding Nigeria’s search for the group and girls, the chances of talking to Boko Haram have suddenly reduced. Being branded as terrorists, Boko Haram may radicalise even further because it has cast them in a non-negotiable category, ignoring attempts to examine how the group has emerged and understanding their grievances.

Southern residents tend to have better access to healthcare, as reflected by the greater uptake of vaccines for polio, tuberculosis, tetanus and diphtheria. Some northern groups have in the past boycotted immunisation programmes, saying they are a Western plot to make Muslim women infertile. This led to a recurrence of polio, but the vaccinations have now resumed.

Southern residents tend to have better access to healthcare, as reflected by the greater uptake of vaccines for polio, tuberculosis, tetanus and diphtheria. Some northern groups have in the past boycotted immunisation programmes, saying they are a Western plot to make Muslim women infertile. This led to a recurrence of polio, but the vaccinations have now resumed.

A global issue?
Boko Haram has made out to be a global terrorist threat, but the tensions have boiled inside Nigeria. The group is concerned with the country’s internal dialogue within Islam, in northern Nigeria, and as a consequence of socio-economic and political imbalances. Many living in northern Nigeria have lost faith in their institutions and their leaders, as well as being deprived of basic infrastructure and reliable electricity and roads. The north is considered relatively backward in comparison to south of Nigeria – disproportionate educational development, wealth distribution, and corruption, are contributing factors to the desire for a rebirth of fundamentalist Islam in the region. The state security forces have also contributed to the tensions in the region as they have been accused of abuses which include the killing of civilians, the burning of homes, and summary executions.

Dialogue first
“We do not negotiate with terrorists” is the famous phrase uttered by states, but it’s important to distinguish between “dialogue” and “negotiation”. Negotiation comes in the form of a formal peace process, usually with the means to resolve a tension, and the parties both have to make compromises to achieve a resolution. Dialogue is different; it comes before negotiation, and does not have to lead into a formal process at all. This form of talking is beneficial to unmask the identity of an armed group, to understand grievances, and to reveal root causes of tensions.

At this point, it is important to consider that terrorist tactics used by a group should be seen as a form of political communication – an intentional and pre-determined strategy of political violence which is intended to cause fear and intimidate its audience. Through these methods, armed groups are grabbing the attention of those in power to respond – but this is where those in power can make a choice: violence or non-violence, arms or dialogue. So far, Nigeria has attempted to supress the movement by military and police force, but once this fails, they will eventually have to consider some form of political engagement. The more Boko Haram engages with state security forces, the stronger the intrusive nature of the state in the internal dialogue among fundamentalist Islamic groups is perceived, fuelling the cycle of violence further.

There is definite potential for the Nigerian government to engage in dialogue – Boko Haram, in academic terms, could be classified as “contingent terrorists” – a group which actively seeks to negotiate as part of their strategy. In the case of the recent kidnapping, they claim that nothing will happen to the girls as long as the government releases their group members from prison. Once there is something tangible to bargain for, it is easier to enter talks.

Nigeria’s reluctance to engage and possible pitfalls
When deciding to open dialogue with a group, there will always be potential risks. The Nigerian government may sense that engaging in talks will be perceived as legitimising the group and their actions. It may also risk side-lining other groups with more moderate views who have been using peaceful means to voice their concerns, and a group may splinter and divide because of this engagement.

Boko Haram has attacked many schools in northern Nigeria.

Boko Haram has attacked many schools in northern Nigeria.

Boko Haram, like other non-state armed groups usually comprise of loosely linked networks, and have splinter groups which make it difficult for the government to know who to interact with. Another hurdle the government will need to overcome is that dialogue will not be able to take place over Boko Haram’s aim to create a state built on Sharia law. The government would be breaching the Nigerian constitution if it makes any attempt of interfering in the internal changes within any religious group, as all groups are at liberty to direct their own affairs. Any attempt to change religious ideology can only be credibly left to Islamic spiritual leaders and clerics. This has already been a suggestion, to reach out to moderates and clerics who can engage with Islamists intellectually to deconstruct their radical views about Islam.

Dialogue, can however occur around concerns over excessive brutality, and provide talks on how to limit violence by both sides. The state can also address grievances over Boko Haram members currently in prisons – Nigeria has the responsibility to bring these members to trial and punish them accordingly, if there happens to be members kept in prisons without trial it can cause further injustice.

The Nigerian government also has to be genuinely willing to engage with Boko Haram. The government has previously been accused by the group for being deceptive, by opening calls for dialogue and arresting members instead. An intermediary between Boko Haram and the government also decided to quit his role because the government was insincere.

There are opportunities to create channels for dialogue which are informal and non-commital to promote understanding and find common ground. Dialogue is a significant mechanism for accountability and justice, especially for the victims of Boko Haram’s actions. Boko Haram has chosen to use terrorist tactics to achieve their aims, but can choose to use non-violent alternatives if they can see the strength and success in them. Through experience and observation of previous armed groups, it has prompted them to choose violence. If the government can make creative open channels for grievances, and methods to genuinely listen to groups such as Boko Haram, violence may be discarded as an option for groups to pursue their aims. Opening up opportunities for dialogue may also prevent other groups in the region from taking up arms in the future.

In the end, the international community may assist in the search for these girls, but ultimately, this is a local problem and Nigeria will have to resolve it. International pressure, however, may be a positive catalyst for Nigeria to begin to address the root causes which encompass the grievances of groups such as Boko Haram. Nevertheless, what should not be forgotten is that talking should not be a consideration, it should be the first action. Dialogue is simply a conversation and it can always stop. Listening and talking to a group does not mean their claims and methods are legitimate or are being endorsed, and that needs to be understood from the outset. There will always be risks involved when engaging, but these risks can be mitigated. It is difficult to see how the girls will be rescued through the use of force – engagement is necessary to bring them back safely, and to understand long standing tensions.

More information
Patrick Truffer, “The softening of Hamas – Moderation through political participation“, offiziere.ch, 23.01.2012.

This entry was posted in English, Nigeria, Sandra Ivanov, Security Policy, Terrorism.

One Response to Talking to Boko Haram

  1. ZzeeGerman says:

    Everything she says is correct. However, the question remains can you at the end of the day have a fruitful dialogue with a religious extremist/fundamentalist? Yes reaching out to moderates and clerics is obviously a sensible thing to do. Yes any attempt to change religious ideology can only be credibly left to Islamic spiritual leaders and clerics. Getting Islamic scholars/clerics to engage with Islamists intellectually to deconstruct their radical views about Islam is obviously a good idea. They are obviously unlikely to listen to a non-Muslim, and if anyone has a chance it is Islamic clerics.

    But it does mean that they need to be willing to engage in such dialogue. It is not as if Islamists don’t engage in discussion regarding Islamic doctrine or its interpretation. It is true that they may be lacking in the necessary religious education, however there is clearly no shortage of clerics who share their radical interpretation. Also are they willing to accept that they may not be sufficiently knowledgeable? Due to the nature of Islam’s organisation or lack there of there is no equivalent to the Catholic Church, no final authority. And even if there were, is it one that they would recognise? Also there is the assumption that such an authority would disagree with them. The fact remains that the Saudis as stewards of Mecca and Islam’s major scholarly centre carry major responsibility for radicalisation through their financing (official & private) of Islamic missionary work which propagates their extreme Wahabi version of Islam.

    Clearly Boko Haram’s demands in regards towards western education, or non-Islamic, Sharia law contravening education are rediculous. Clearly they have a right to practice their religion regardless of how extreme their interpretation is as long as it does not interfere with the rights of anyone else to practice their religion according to their interpretation. But it is questionable that these Islamic fundamentalists who want to establish a Sharia state are willing to do so. And then what? It takes us back to square one, you have a group of extremists who are willing to use violence to achieve their vision of a religious utopia. If necessary against fellow Muslims who do not share their interpretation. Changing their interpretation of Islam would indeed be the ideal, however it would already be enough to get them to agree to not use violence to achieve their political aims. Of course they would still remain a challenge to society, but one that can be addressed with educational, preventive or deradicalisation programs such as are used to combat right-wing extremism.

    It is not as if we do not have political extremists or religious fundamentalists in the West, such as right or left wing extremists, or Christian fundamentalists. However because they adhere to the idea that the state is the only legitimate user of force, or at least don’t use violence, they’re not a security issue. At least not in the immediate sense. The same would be and is true of Islamists who do not break the law. Of course we would all like to deconstruct the radical views of extremists, or rather it would be nice if simply doing so would actually work, but unfortunately logic and reasoning is not something that factors into the ideology of such people.

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