Last week, news broke that the Federal Government of Nigeria was holding indirect talks with the rebel movement Boko Haram. Further reports emerged that “the group was ever ready to stop the bombings in the next four weeks only if the federal government would release all its arrested members as well as guarantee the security and safety of all members whose names would be given to the federal government through [a trusted mediator.” That trusted mediator was Dr. Ibrahim Datti Ahmed, president of the Supreme Council for Sharia in Nigeria. Then yesterday, in a major blow to the negotiations, Ahmed announced that he was withdrawing as mediator.
Some, of course, have said that talks were a non-starter no matter what. Reuters has pointed to rumored factionalization within Boko Haram as a reason why “it will be difficult to negotiate any ceasefire deal with all elements.” But Ahmed’s withdrawal points to an even more basic problem, which is the lack of even minimal trust between the relevant parties involved, and between them and the public.
Ahmed’s original involvement resulted, according to Leadership, from his credibility with Boko Haram and his simultaneous stature as an established Muslim leader. Unfortunately I haven’t been able to find a full biography of Ahmed, but this excerpt points to the salient points in his background:
The group has named the president of the Supreme Council for Sharia in Nigeria, Sheik Ahmed Datti, as their mediator. It said the choice of Datti was based on the fact that its former leader, the late Mohammed Yusuf, served as a member that represented Borno State in the council of Sharia in Nigeria, the cleric could be trusted not to betray the confidence reposed in him to speak for the sect, a source close to the group told LEADERSHIP yesterday.
It seems reasonable to conclude that Boko Haram accepted Ahmed not only because he had worked with Yusuf, but also because of Ahmed’s pro-shari’a credentials; Boko Haram has repeatedly demanded broader implementation of shari’a in Nigeria.
The moment when Ahmed represented a bridge between Boko Haram and the government proved brief. It is worth reading Ahmed’s statement regarding his withdrawal* in full, both for his account of how the talks began and for the fact that he blames the Federal Government – not Boko Haram – for breaking faith. Ahmed writes that after he had contacted both Boko Haram and the Federal Government, talks began in early March, but were quickly derailed.
To our shock and dismay, no sooner had we started this dialogue; Nigerian newspapers came out with a lot of the details of the meeting held.
This development has embarrassed us very much and has created strong doubts in our minds about the sincerity of the Government’s side in our discussion as the discussion is supposed to be very confidential to achieve any success.
Ahmed’s withdrawal obviously represents a setback for this round of talks, and his experience might decrease the willingness of other potential mediators to serve. Will other Muslim leaders, after watching this episode unfold, want to come forward now? The Nation reports that there has been a “flurry of activities” among Northern elites recently, and that the region’s leadership is taking the problem of Boko Haram more seriously than ever before, but so far most of these discussions are taking place behind closed doors.
It is also worth noting that it is not just the Federal Government and Ahmed, or the Federal Government and Boko Haram, who have difficulty establishing trust. Ahmed’s emergence as mediator also occasioned a backlash in segments of the Nigerian press, at least online. Ahmed has caused controversy before, notably in debates about polio vaccination in Northern Nigeria and about the introduction of Islamic banking in Nigeria. Ahmed’s strident rhetoric on such issues was remembered last week. Bloggers linked to past op-eds that had appeared in major newspapers, where columnists had called Ahmed names like “a rabble-rousing religious extremist.” It is possible that the resurgence of such criticisms against Ahmed played into his withdrawal. It also seems likely that any Muslim leader who was acceptable to Boko Haram as a mediator might have similar rhetoric in his past. That’s yet another reason why other leaders might now be reluctant to come forward. I don’t want to take sides – I am attacking neither Ahmed nor the bloggers and columnists who have criticized him – but it seems fair to say that the entire atmosphere is laced with suspicion and mistrust.
*The statement was posted by the site Naija Pundit, with which I am only slightly familiar. I believe the statement to be genuine.