Opinion: On Boko Haram, dialogue is inevitable

by Bukar Usman

The state of emergency imposed on 14 local government areas in some states of the federation, following violence attributed to Boko Haram, was not re-imposed when the 6-month duration lapsed. That was a good decision by the Federal Government. The emergency rule was gradually becoming counterproductive and did not seem to have significantly reduced tension in the affected areas. However, to move towards a fundamental resolution of the crisis, there is one step the government needs to take with single-minded determination – that of engaging in dialogue with Boko Haram.

There are arguments for and against this move, and government appears somewhat indecisive as to which voice to follow. But it is not difficult to discern which side the government seems to be tilting to at the moment. In one breath it says it would enter into dialogue with Boko Haram if the sect’s representatives come forward. Soon after, government says it could not discuss with an “invisible” group. The fact that no Boko Haram representative has stepped forward to take up the offer only goes to reinforce the position of the “No dialogue with Boko Haram” advocates. Such a hardline position can only worsen the resolve of Boko Haram to continue with its campaign.

With the current volatile situation in parts of the country troubling the hearts of peace-loving citizens, all of whom are praying for a speedy end to the crisis, the prolongation of the impasse, no doubt, leaves government in an uncomfortable position.

In trying to deal with the Boko Haram issue, it is quite apparent that government is drawing ideas from everywhere. By everywhere, I include influences outside Nigeria. So far, as much as one could detect, the advice from external quarters seems to be no dialogue. This could well stem from the well known principle of “no dialogue with terrorists” which is extolled mainly by the United States and its allies.

Given the above scenario, which leaves the government at a crossroads and Nigeria in limbo, it is worthwhile for us to pause and postulate on the best way of dealing with this challenge of urban guerrilla skirmishes in our cities. The mode of engagement is clearly not amenable to frontal attack, which happens to be the current tactic. The emphasis should be on intelligence gathering and aborting plots to launch attacks. But I think the best policy should be government taking the initiative to enter into dialogue with the sect.

To put this question of dialogue in perspective, it is worthwhile to recall how the British Government was able to bring the situation in Northern Ireland under control after decades of security challenges. The situation there was arguably similar to what our country is facing now. In spite of the initial policy of “no dialogue”, the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, which ushered in the relative peace in that part of the United Kingdom, was the product of a negotiated settlement. It was not the product of a military victory.

For that to be possible, known leaders of Sinn Fein were not hounded down even when its paramilitary wing, the Irish Republican Army, continued committing violence. If they were, they could have gone underground. That would have made it much more difficult to engage in dialogue. At least we know that Gerry Adams, a prominent leader of Sinn Fein, was neither arrested nor killed by security forces.

Looking at the situation in the Middle East and, more particularly, the Israeli-Palestine conflict, there are Palestinian leaders who have not been killed by Israel or its backers in order to have someone to engage in dialogue with on behalf of the Palestinians. Arguably, Yasser Arafat was left standing under the pretext that he was an advocate of non-violence. Though Israeli leaders had reported put him in their gun-sights, he was strategically left to facilitate dialogue as and when it became expedient. That strategy worked, even though questions are being raised lately about the circumstances of his death.

Equally important to note is that the “no dialogue” stance of some countries is particularly emphasised mainly when they are not dealing with their nationals or where a terrorist siege is short-lived. While openly advocating the “no dialogue” policy, many kidnappers had been negotiated with and ransom paid to bail out victims. This was often through subtle discreet negotiations made possible by credible third parties who could be mediators, negotiators, statesmen or humanitarian organisations.

Back to the Nigerian situation, it is my considered view that there is the need for an urgent review of tactics regarding Boko Haram. Some names had been thrown up in the recent past as possible negotiators for the sect, but they were quickly disowned by the sect, apparently on suspicion that the move was only a trap to lure them out and capture or kill them. While the hardliners on both sides may have their say, the inevitability of dialogue should not be overlooked. For that to happen, government, which always has the upper hand, must clearly demonstrate that it would genuinely grab the opportunity for dialogue if it presents itself.

So far, the signs are not there and the opportunity can’t present itself in such situations of ambivalence and cat-and-mouse attitude. Above all, brute force and grandstanding would not yield the desired result. Government, as a matter of deliberate policy aimed at promoting dialogue, should tolerate Boko Haram’s spokesman or leader who may come out and also actively explore the behind the scenes strategy.

Dialogue is inevitable. All parties should have faith in its usefulness as a tool for confidence-building and conflict resolution. After all, after we might have gone full circle with violence and senseless killings, we would still return to dialogue. The Holy month of Ramadan may well provide the opportunity for a change of mind by all concerned.

*This piece was first published in The Punch

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