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Boko Haram's Abubakar Shekau

If you can’t beat them, negotiate with them

It is high time Nigerians faced up to the reality about Boko Haram.

We just do not have the capacity to defeat the insurgents militarily. Many Nigerians deceived themselves into believing that Goodluck Jonathan’s failure in crushing the insurgency was because he was “weak”. This line of thought led to the belief that a “strongman” like a former general would be the silver bullet needed to defeat Boko Haram.

So many placed their faith in Muhammadu Buhari at the last (s)election, especially after he raged “who are Boko Haram” to challenge the might of Nigeria. But talk is cheap. Boko Haram violence has got worse since Buhari became president, with deaths in about a month coming close to 600 and attacks almost every day.

We need to face up to reality about assymetrical warfare. This is something that more sophisticated, more advanced, more capable militaries have struggled to deal with and hardly ever defeat. The French struggled with Algerian guerrillas during that country’s independence struggle. The Afghan mujahideen ran the Soviets out of Afghanistan. The Lebanese militia Hezbollah chased the mighty Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) out of south Lebanon. And in recent times, the US military could not defeat militants in Afghanistan and Iraq for over 10 years. General David Petraeus’s counterinsurgency strategy in the “surge” of 2007 in Iraq involved paying off Sunni militants to stop attacking US forces.

So what gives Nigerians the idea that the Nigerian military and security services can succeed where better forces have failed? Rather than look at systemic issues, we choose to simplify and personalise them and imagine one individual is either at fault or is the solution.

The reality is that no matter how capable an individual is, he can’t defeat motivated militants without the necessary tools. The Nigerian military and security forces have proven incapable of dealing with Niger Delta militants, kidnappers, armed robbers and so on. This is a country in which a kidnapper can negotiate the ransom with the family of a victim over the phone and still not be tracked down. It is a country in which armed robbers can operate for two hours in Ikorodu last month in the country’s commercial capital of Lagos. It is a country in which herdsmen can attack a village and slaughter people all through the night without being disturbed by the security agencies. But we somehow expect the country to be able to defeat terrorists in remote corners of the country.

We are talking about a country in which smugglers and bandits traipse across its borders fearing only fellow smugglers and bandits. Yet we expect to be able to defeat insurgents.

We have a military that has sacrificed professionalism and competence at the altars of corruption, nepotism, and endless purges that have left the country with a degraded, demotivated and underpaid rank and file. These are the people we expect to defeat a shadowy enemy.

I don’t think so.

The president came up with a barmy idea to shift the command and control of the Nigerian military to Maiduguri which is at the epicentre of the Boko Haram insurgency. There is a rumour that the military top brass simply relocated to a mansion in Yola in Adamawa State, where they continue to frolic with loads to eat and drink in the company of many high maintenance women. The size of the bellies of the joint chiefs of staff is a clear indication that they do not have the stomach to fight.

Nigeria's  service chiefs - no stomach for fighting
Nigeria’s service chiefs – no stomach for fighting

Fighting terrorism should always take a two-pronged approach to have a remote chance of success. You should “fight terrorism and fight the root causes of terrorism”. Ray McGovern a CIA vet once said: “Terrorism is like malaria. You don’t eliminate malaria by killing the mosquitoes. Rather you must drain the swamp.” We must look at the issues that make Boko Haram an attractive proposition to young men in that part of the country and why the message of violence resonates. The National Security Adviser Sambo Dasuki made the right noises about this when he took over, but not much seems to have happened since.

“Draining the swamp” is a medium and long term approach. But something needs to be done now to prevent further bloodshed and bearing in mind that the military solution is looking increasingly unfeasible.

An approach needs to be made to talk to Boko Haram or whoever has their ear. For starters, this is not ideal. The best option is to capture the criminals and jail them. But when you can’t do this and the fighting is not succeeding, you need to find other ways to stop the bloodshed.

Seeking negotiation is not groundbreaking either. The last government used negotiation to end the insurgency in the Niger Delta. At one point, attempts were made by the Goodluck Jonathan regime to negotiate a ceasefire with Boko Haram and they allegedly asked for Buhari (before he became president) as someone they could negotiate with. This shows that he may be someone they can trust – a key issue in any negotiation. A few days ago, Buhari’s spokesman Femi Adesina said: “If Boko Haram opts for negotiation, the government will not be averse to it.”

The government should be proactive and seek negotiation. There are no guarantees that it would work. There is a strong possibility that Boko Haram would ask for stuff that no rational person could sign up to. It is a huge risk in the sense that giving in to them could only embolden them to commit further atrocities and make more unreasonable demands. Nobody is suggesting this is not fraught with risk.

But someone said insanity is doing the same thing and expecting a different result. We have fought them with a military of questionable capacity. It is insane to expect the military to defeat them. Too many Nigerians are dying. It is time to try something completely different.

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