Nigerian authorities continue to battle the rebel group Boko Haram, and authorities recently uncovered a bomb plot in Kano. But both purported leaders of Boko Haram and powerful figures within the political class are now floating the idea of dialogue once again. On Sunday, a man called in to AIT, a Nigerian television station, demanding that President Goodluck Jonathan meet one on one with a member of Boko Haram, and threatened further attacks if the meeting did not happen. Yesterday, Senate President David Mark seemed to urge dialogue with Boko Haram. The Waziri of Katsina (Counselor to the Emir) also recommended dialogue in a statement this week; the Emir of Katsina is a major figure among the Northern Muslim aristocracy and this call is significant.
Is dialogue feasible? The obstacles are daunting. Nearly two months ago, talks between Boko Haram and the Federal Government collapsed when the mediator withdrew, accusing the Federal Government of leaking information. The same problem, and others, may haunt any renewed effort at negotiations. Who will mediate? What form will the talks take? How will the two sides establish the trust necessary to move forward? Who can credibly speak for Boko Haram? I think analysts are sometimes too quick to assert that Boko Haram has fragmented, and to draw conclusions from that premise, but in any case how can the Federal Government have confidence that an agreement it reached with a spokesman would be followed by the entire group?
There is also the question of what the two sides would negotiate about. One issue where some agreement might be possible is that of imprisoned members of the group; Boko Haram has long demanded that state and federal authorities release its comrades from prisons, and Boko Haram has staged several jailbreaks. The government might be persuaded to release some prisoners in exchange for a cease-fire. Other issues, however, seem impossible to resolve from a logistical and political point of view. I do not see how the Federal Government would or could agree to strengthen shari’a law at the national level, or to take other major steps to Islamize the state; such moves would draw massive objections from non-Muslim communities and from outside forces. Perhaps there are other areas of compromise – a development program for the North, amnesties for Boko Haram fighters, payments to its leaders, prosecutions of politicians for corruption, etc. – but if Boko Haram demands that the Federal Government accept its core stated platform, namely the idea of strengthening shari’a, Islamizing the state, and eliminating Western influences from schools, government, and culture, I see an impasse.
So my view on the chances of dialogue succeeding in the short term is pessimistic. The hopeful sign in talk of dialogue, however, is that both sides may be getting tired of the fighting. Maybe that is wishful thinking; attacks have come fast and furious of late. But if voices from multiple constituencies – the Government, the political class, the Northern aristocracy, and Boko Haram itself – are floating the idea of dialogue even after a previous failure, then perhaps all of them, in different ways, are looking for a way out of endless violence.