Boko Haram: Can a Peace Deal be Negotiated?

Very few insurgencies are stopped using military force alone. Data from the RAND Corporation suggests that only 7% of terrorist campaigns end through military defeat. And yet many in Nigeria still pin their hopes on a swift military victory against Boko Haram, the Islamist insurgency that has been plaguing the country since 2009. Since the Chibok abduction in April, the world has woken up to the group’s increasingly bold and dangerous tactics – and also to the Nigerian government’s failure to turn the tide.

Lake Chad as seen from Apollo 7. The lake's drying basin is the crucible of Boko Haram's insurgency in Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon and Chad. (Source: NASA, via Wikipedia)

Lake Chad as seen from Apollo 7 in 1968. The lake’s drying basin is the crucible of Boko Haram’s insurgency in Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon and Chad. (Source: Wikimedia)

Realistically, Nigeria is not in a position to inflict a military defeat on Boko Haram. Like most insurgencies, Boko Haram avoids concentrating its forces. It prefers to skirmish and build its presence in lots of places at once. The security forces must therefore spread wide to protect the population and root out insurgents village-by-village. According to the orthodox counter-insurgency formula of 20 soldiers and police to every 1000 people, 200,000 soldiers and police would be required in north-east Nigeria.  This is about five times the current deployment level.

It also assumes that such forces would be adequately equipped and trained and motivated to protect the civilian population. Even the troops that are deployed in the north-east are given little ammunition, and their weapons routinely malfunction. The air force, which gives Nigeria its one clear military advantage, has been struck by multiple equipment failures and crashes in recent months. And the strategy is also to blame. There has been too much focus on a military-only approach and not enough attention paid to the underlying drivers of the conflict.

Yet Nigerian politicians and generals still line up to claim imminent victory, usually giving three month’s notice for Boko Haram’s projected downfall. Time after time the deadlines pass and Boko Haram is anything but defeated. In fact, the insurgency has never been stronger. Since July, Boko Haram has shifted from hit-and-run tactics to the capture and control of swathes of territory and even large towns across three states: Borno, Adamawa and Yobe.

The obvious alternative to a military solution – a negotiated political settlement – is admittedly unpalatable. After the appalling war crimes committed by Boko Haram over the last five years, it is hard to contemplate offering them a share of power and, most likely, an amnesty. Yet if it wants to stop the violence, the government has little choice. Indeed it has shown itself willing to enter into negotiations, as the failed attempt to broker a truce through Chadian president Idriss Déby in October showed. But is such a deal even possible?

Obstacles to a deal

There is much that stands in the way of a deal with Boko Haram. Probably the most immediate obstacle is the insurgency’s own success. Why would Boko Haram want to do a deal when it is achieving its aims already? To force Boko Haram to the negotiating table, the military may have to retake some of the captured territory to create the impression that the momentum is with the army.

Abubakar Shekau, leader de Boko Haram, still from an October 2014 Boko Haram video communique. (Source: VOA, via Wikipedia)

Abubakar Shekau, leader of Boko Haram in a still from an October 2014 Boko Haram video communique. (Source: VOA, via Wikipedia)

The second obstacle is even greater. Over the past five years, Boko Haram has become increasingly extreme and violent. It has transitioned from a menacing but peaceful movement focused on preaching, to an insurgency focused on attacking government targets, and now to a group willing to indiscriminately kill civilians.

The insurgency’s growing extremism is a major driving force behind its violence. As Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, said in a recent video, “our religion and our way of worship is nothing but killings, killings and killings”. Indeed, as Ahmad Salkida, a Nigerian journalist with rare access to Boko Haram, has said, “the fuse that drives Boko Haram’s terror is the sect’s doctrine”. Their religious ideology, a form of Salafi Jihadism, focuses on purging Islam of corrupting influences and returning to the ‘pure’ Islamic practices of the distant past. Over the years, Shekau has purged Boko Haram of more moderate commanders, leading to an increasingly fanatical take on what methods are acceptable to purge Muslim society of impure elements and what constitutes an impure element. Violence has become the method of choice, and the targets include children.

It is hard to see how this extremism and violence can be accommodated in a negotiated settlement. Is it even possible to have a meaningful dialogue with a group that seems to have gone beyond any kind of rational political or socio-economic programme?

What does Boko Haram want?

Yet there are discernable grievances underlying the conflict in northern Nigeria. Even if Shekau is only interested in purgative violence, many of the group’s followers and fighters are likely to have more tangible motivations and aims. They are also rumoured to be growing increasingly tired of life in the bush, so it’s possible a deal could be done if a strong enough offer were made.

A core driver of the insurgency is an escalating cycle of grievance and revenge. Boko Haram first became violent after security forces attacked its members who were participating in a funeral procession in Maiduguri in 2009. After a series of skirmishes, its founding leader Mohammed Yusuf was arrested, detained, and summarily executed. Since then, numerous suspected Boko Haram supporters have also been murdered. On March 14 of this year, the military was accused of summarily executing 600 prisoners in response to a Boko Haram attack. The families of suspected Boko Haram members have also been targeted. Many women and children who are related to militants are believed to be in detention, including the family of Shekau, and there are rumours that female family members have been raped.

Central to any deal must be accountability and compensation for these excesses, as politically difficult as that may be. Many imprisoned Boko Haram supporters and relatives will also have to be released.

There are also political and socio-economic factors feeding into the conflict. North-east Nigeria is one of the most impoverished places in the world, with three-quarters of the population living below the poverty line. People there feel politically as well as economically marginalised, as northerners have been increasingly locked out of power in recent years. President Goodluck Jonathan, a southern Christian, has broken an unwritten rule by running again for the presidency in 2015. Convention on rotation of power dictates that a northern Muslim candidate should be put forward by the ruling party.

Corruption and poor governance in the region have also played a role in promoting alienation from Nigeria’s institutions and fostering an environment ripe for insurgency. The government would do well to include measures aimed at boosting development, improving governance, and ending the region’s political marginalisation in any deal.

An amnesty from prosecution and jobs for former insurgents must be the final element of a deal. It is unlikely insurgent leaders and fighters will come out of the bush if they believe they will be prosecuted, and jobs will be vital for re-integrating them into society. Again, this would depend on massive federal and/or private investment in the northeast, what some have called a ‘Marshall Plan’ for the northeast.

There have been signs that the Nigerian government is willing to engage with these questions. The “soft” counter-terrorism strategy unveiled by Nigeria’s National Security Adviser in March included an emphasis on tackling under-development and other underlying drivers of the conflict. Its commitment to address social injustice, joblessness, and poverty may well be attractive to Boko Haram members who have joined the insurgency for those reasons. However, the international storm following the Chibok abduction, Boko Haram’s territorial gains, and the national elections due in February 2015 seem to have dragged momentum away from these measures.

Talking to Shekau

One of the major challenges of doing a deal with Boko Haram is finding a way of talking to Shekau. Since the Chibok abduction, all sorts of people have reportedly come forward claiming to be intermediaries representing the insurgents. Many of them, if not all of them, are bogus – including the one who did the supposed deal with Idriss Déby.

The government has to find the right interlocutor. One possible option is to go through Ahmad Salkida, and the government did reportedly bring him in to discuss the Chibok abduction. He is one of very few people with a credible connection to the insurgents who may be able to advise on how to reach out to them.

Whatever the case, and as Salkida has said himself, it will be difficult to achieve any kind of peace deal until the army is able to stem the tide of Boko Haram’s advances. The first step must be to summon the political will and train, motivate and deploy the resources necessary to adequately protect the civilian population in north-east Nigeria.

Andrew Noakes is Coordinator of the Nigeria Security Network. He is on Twitter at @andrew_noakes 

Image: Lake Chad as seen from Apollo 7 in 1968. Source: Wikimedia.