Following the recent declaration of a state of emergency in parts of northern Nigeria, the government of President Goodluck Jonathan has once again reinforced its militaristic position against the sectarian group Boko Haram. Over the last week, the Nigerian Joint Task Force (JTF) -composed of troops from the Army, Navy, Air-Force, Police and State Security Service- has launched what has been described as the biggest offensive against the extremist group. Although the government has in the past attempted to resolve the crisis through non-violent means such as mediation and an amnesty proposal, these efforts have so far been short-lived. This is because the government lacks a clear (counter-terrorism) strategy capable of prioritising the timing and judicious application of each of these non-violent options. It is therefore important to revisit these options and reflect on the prospects they hold as part of a comprehensive solution to the sectarian crisis.
Mediation is the first key area where a number of attempts have featured prominently in the past. Some of these include the failed discussions in March 2012; inconclusive talks held in Saudi Arabia in August that same year; and unsuccessful meetings facilitated by the governments of Mali and Senegal later in November 2012. These unfortunate trials notwithstanding, calls for mediation with Boko Haram have actually increased recently. However, it should be acknowledged that there are now higher stakes involved if the option of dialogue is pressed further. The challenge is underscored by two main issues: First, any attempt to mediate with what previously appeared to be a single sect has now been complicated by the rise of splinter groups such as the Jama’atu Ansarul Muslimina Fi Biladis Sudan. Second, prospective mediation efforts run a higher risk of being impeded due to the announcement by the JTF to place bounties on the heads of prominent Boko Haram leaders. These two issues require further examination.
Reports of schisms within the Boko Haram sect have emerged in the past. In 2012, a group calling itself the Jama’atu Ansarul Muslimina Fi Biladis Sudan, or Ansaru, reportedly disagreed with Boko Haram’s attacks on Islamic religious leaders and Muslim civilians. Furthermore, an attack on 19 January 2013 against a detachment of Nigerian troops heading for deployment in crisis-ridden Mali finally corroborated suspicions about the existence of the breakaway faction. Ansaru claimed responsibility for the attack on the military convoy as it passed along the Okene-Lokoja road in Kogi State, Nigeria. Rather than view the Nigerian military contingent as part of the African-led International Support Mission in Mali (AFISMA), Ansaru made it clear that the attack was a warning for the Nigerian government against joining Western countries in their "aim to demolish the Islamic empire of Mali''. The government’s reacognition of a new group to battle (or mediate) with is compounded by the fact that Ansaru appears to also have a particular focus on issues beyond the Nigerian crisis landscape. This has so far been illustrated by the group’s interest in Nigeria’s (and France’s) external engagement in the Sahel. Hence, the group’s assault on Mali-bound troops as well as its abduction of a French engineer, Francis Colump in Katsina State. These incidents further raise the already looming spectre of transnational ties between sectarian groups in Nigeria and those in the Sahel. There are also reports of another faction, Yusufiyya Islamiyya under the leadership of Sheik Abu Usamata Al’Ansari. However, little is known about this group except for its expression of disapproval with the terms of mediation with the Nigerian government in late 2012. It is clear that there is a multiplicity of splinter groups and this highlights the difficulty of discerning which sectarian personalities to confer with. More so, there is now a complexity of agendas to contend with because each faction appears to be driven by diverse motives.
In addition to this dilemma, future headway in the direction of mediation may inadvertently be trumped by the JTF, whose actions are often not in tandem with the central government’s approach. For instance, in November 2012, the JTF released a statement authorising various cash rewards for the capture of senior Boko Haram figures. The allocation of bounties has serious implications because it sends contradictory signals regarding the position of the Nigerian government on the issue of mediation. Furthermore, it is important to note that the JTF’s declaration of bounties came shortly after the government had engaged Boko Haram through meetings in Senegal in November 2012. Therefore, the pronouncement of cash rewards on the heads of leaders of the sect with whom discussions are sought will only jeopardise future attempts aimed at negotiation. Moreover, it points towards a lack of cohesion among actors within the Jonathan government because while the presidency has expressed interest in meeting with the sect and offering amnesty, members of the JTF have veered in the direction of an approach that obscures the conciliatory efforts of the government. The JTF bounties might also counteract the willingness of sect members who may have previously been interested in a peace-making deal and could actually lead to more attacks and violence in the country.
The second major area where the Nigerian government explored a non-violent approach is in regard to the amnesty proposal for Boko Haram militants. This ill-timed approach by the government has already elicited disparaging opinions across the country, as well as the voluntary withdrawal of some members of the 26-member amnesty committee. To offer sect members an outright amnesty prior to mediatory talks will only undercut the incentive to resolve perceived grievances, which ought to establish the basis of a lasting settlement. In addition to the billions of naira that will be spent on the scheme, further signs of this flawed proposal are reflected by the brusque reaction of the sect’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, who stated that the group had done no wrong to warrant reprieve from the government. Pressures on the Jonathan administration to offer amnesty to the sect have come largely from members of the traditional ruling class in the north such as the Sultan of Sokoto. The amnesty plan thus appears to be fraught with the suspicion that members of this class in the north -who themselves have been victims of attacks- are acting based on fear of future attacks against their individual entities, and not out of consideration for Nigeria as a whole.
As painstaking as it appears, the call for a negotiated resolution to the Boko Haram crisis still draws appeal from several reputable circles within Nigeria. Endorsement for the use of mediation has come from human rights advocates and legal luminaries such as Itse Sagay and Femi Falana. While some of these approvals are expressed with caution, former legislator Senator Folashade Bent spoke with a high level of optimism about the potential intercessory role that women can play in brokering dialogue between Boko Haram and the government. Other individuals also include a former Secretary General of the Commonwealth, Emeka Anyaoku, who has emphasised the use of dialogue before the offer of any amnesty. These positions highlight the overarching point about the need for the government to reconsider the timing of its options, as well as the order in which they are set in motion. Historically, such negotiations induce more violence before a resolution is achieved because factions often tend to disagree on certain terms of the dialogue. In spite of this, the possibilities that can be favourably exploited through mediation with Boko Haram or any of the splinter sects should not be entirely ruled out. Indeed, the prospects for mediation will also depend on the outcome of the current state of emergency, which has clearly put pressure on Boko Haram, as well as other actors in the northern region of the country. The Nigerian leadership should nonetheless endeavour to prioritise (successful) dialogue before amnesty while capitalising on the expanded range of support from constructive stakeholders in the polity.