On the Freeing of 21 Chibok Girls and the Question of Negotiating with Jihadists

On October 13, the Nigerian jihadist group Boko Haram released twenty-one of the 276 schoolgirls who were originally kidnapped in April 2014 in the northeastern Nigerian town of Chibok. There are an estimated 197 girls still in captivity or otherwise missing.

The release was an extraordinary event for Nigeria and, in several senses, for the world. For Nigeria, the release occasioned widespread celebration and has become one of the brightest spots in the presidency of Muhammadu Buhari, who faces broad and mounting criticism at home, especially over economic issues.

For the world, the release is a reminder that negotiation, at least in limited areas, is possible with jihadist groups. That reminder comes at an important time, amid the looming recapture of Mosul, Iraq, and the dogged effort to complete the reconquest of Sirte, Libya. Both efforts, and the effort to defeat the Islamic State in general, are haunted by the question of what comes after reconquest, especially in terms of political settlements, humanitarian concerns, and economic reinvigoration. That question also haunts the effort against Boko Haram in Nigeria and its neighbors, where the sect has been pushed back but not completely defeated.

The details of the negotiations with Boko Haram for the Chibok girls are not known, but it is reported that the Swiss government and the ICRC acted as intermediaries between the sect and the government. Despite the Nigerian government’s denials, it is likely that the incentives offered to Boko Haram involved a ransom payment, prisoner releases, or both.

Of course, it is well known that negotiating with jihadists over hostages is possible, including in West Africa. European governments have paid millions of dollars in ransoms to al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and the Malian government of Amadou Toumani Toure (served 2002-2012) allowed exchanges of imprisoned jihadists for hostages. Reactions to these decisions, whether from the United States, from Western journalists, or from Mali’s neighbors, has been overwhelmingly negative.

There are also precedents for negotiating with Boko Haram over hostages. This is not even the first time that Boko Haram has (likely) received a ransom: it appeared likely in 2013 and 2014 that the Cameroonian government (and in the first instance, the French government as well) had paid Boko Haram to release prisoners. The release of the Chibok girls, then, followed a familiar script; it just had a higher profile than the previous instances.

If it’s well known that one can sometimes negotiate with jihadists, then why isn’t the possibility discussed more in policy circles? The most obvious answer is that many people oppose such negotiations. For example, in response to the Chibok girls’ release, Joshua Meservey of the Heritage Foundation reiterated his argument from 2014 that negotiations are inadvisable. At the time, Meservey wrote, “A payment or prisoner release will perpetuate the cycle by encouraging further kidnappings and enabling more of Boko Haram’s rampages when the government’s first priority should be to protect its citizens.” Meservey’s view aligns with current U.S. policy, which is not to pay ransoms when citizens are kidnapped. Many people, moreover, oppose negotiations on moral grounds, believing that to negotiate with jihadists implies some tacit legitimation of their demands.

Regarding the consequences of ransom payments and prisoner exchanges, I think that context matters a lot. The kind of cycle that Meservey describes is most likely to play out when jihadists do not face major military pressure. A good example of this might be the policies of the Malian government under Toure, when Malian prisoner exchanges with AQIM elicited disgust (and the withdrawal of ambassadors) from Mali’s neighbors Mauritania and Algeria. In addition, many experts believe that there was some collusion between Toure’s government and various bad actors in northern Mali.

Under those circumstances, the payment of ransoms (by European governments) and the exchange of prisoners (by Mali’s government) were bad policies. But they were bad policies because of the lack of military and political pressure on AQIM within Mali. With Boko Haram in Nigeria and its neighbors, the cycle Meservey describes was indeed playing out in 2013-2014. But now, with Boko Haram under tremendous military pressure, exchanges and payments will not necessarily empower the group over the long term. If a government pays ransoms in order to save lives, then that government should follow up the ransom payment will an increase in pressure on the kidnappers.

But there is more at stake than just whether to pay ransoms or not. The possibility of negotiating with jihadists is also seldom floated, I think, because it goes counter to many people’s assumption that the only serious way to fight jihadism is through war. There are, of course, “Countering Violent Extremism” programs that attempt to de-radicalize prisoners or to prevent people from becoming jihadists in the first place, but CVE programs are not political solutions per se. Most CVE programs do not primarily target active combatants, partly because those combatants are beyond the physical reach of program implementers. The combatants, then, are often treated as a purely military problem. Even when policymakers say that they do not intend to kill all of the combatants, their actions often suggest otherwise, whether in Iraq, Syria, or Nigeria. Pragmatically, I think such strategies are short-sighted and are likely to generate future conflicts.

I have long favored negotiations between the Nigerian government and Boko Haram, both because I believe limited negotiations can save lives (a stance that I think is vindicated in the case of the recent release) and because I believe it would be wrong, morally and pragmatically, to try to kill all the members of Boko Haram. And if the Nigerian government and its neighbors are not going to kill all of them, then perhaps there is much to talk about. Some leaders and members of the group might never surrender or abandon their goals. But if the door to negotiations is left open, perhaps there are possibilities even beyond prisoner exchanges – the possibility, for example, of offering an option where members could turn themselves in, stand trial, and serve finite prison terms, but where they would not be executed. For fighters starving in the countryside, such an option might eventually prove attractive. The more fighters who accepted it, the more lives might be saved. As I have said in the past, I believe that the Nigerian government should keep reaching out to Boko Haram, no matter how many times it is rebuffed or how many times attempted dialogue ends in failure.

This position – the idea that it is worth trying to open some channel of communication with jihadists – puts me in a minority among analysts, but I am not completely alone. Reuters (h/t Eleanor Beevor) recently reported that the ICRC is attempting to contact the Islamic State in Mosul in order to discuss “the basic rules of war.” Here is the ICRC’s Robert Mardini:

We need to keep hope, and maybe the situation in Mosul is a point in time when also all parties to the conflict, including the Islamic State group, will see the benefits of having the basic rules of war and the basic rules of dignity prevailing in the battle because it gives guarantees for humane treatment of all.

Do I think that the Islamic State will be keen to answer the ICRC’s phone calls? No. But I do think that the effort of reaching out is worthwhile. Let me offer a last reason: you never know who is watching, and how such outreach might overturn their assumptions about the West, about the inevitability and desirability of violence, and about the prospects for peace.

Thoughts on Secretary Kerry’s Trip to Nigeria

On August 23-24, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry traveled to Nigeria. He visited the capital, Abuja, as well as Sokoto (map), a major city in far northwestern Nigeria. Sokoto has special significance as the seat of one of the largest Muslim polities in pre-colonial Africa, an empire whose territories extended throughout much of present-day northern Nigeria and into parts of Burkina Faso, Niger, and Cameroon. Sokoto has continuing relevance in post-colonial Nigeria, where the Sultan of Sokoto (a direct descendant of the pre-colonial ruling family) is the country’s highest-ranking Muslim hereditary ruler.

Trying to shape Nigerian efforts to counter “extremism” – read, Boko Haram – was clearly the thrust of Kerry’s agenda in Nigeria. But I think the trip was executed in a way that muddled its message, in three domains:

  1. Security Trumps Human Rights: U.S. policymakers have long stressed, in public remarks, that Nigerian politicians and military leaders should work harder to ensure that the anti-Boko Haram fight is not marred by systemic human rights violations. But Washington’s actions toward the Nigerian government have only sometimes indicated that human rights are the U.S. government’s major concern. The same was true on this trip – in Sokoto, Kerry said, “To effectively counter violent extremism, we have to ensure that military action is coupled with a reinforced commitment to the values this region and all of Nigeria has a long legacy of supporting – values like integrity, good governance, education, compassion, security, and respect for human rights.” But that line was buried in the middle of his speech. Meanwhile, one of the big “deliverables” of his trip to Nigeria was a near-promise to increase U.S. military aid to Nigeria. Given that actions speak louder than words, I think Nigerian elites will hear the message that the military’s well-documented abuses against prisoners, militants, and civilians will not, in the long run, be a barrier to receiving more aid from the U.S. If Kerry had intended to send a serious message about human rights, he should not have promised new aid, or he should have made it explicitly conditional upon human rights reforms.
  2. A Top-Down, Risk-Averse View of Religious Engagement: In a sense, it is fitting for the top-ranking U.S. diplomat to meet with Nigeria’s top-ranking hereditary Muslim ruler. But in another sense, Kerry’s trip to Sokoto represented the most clichéd form of religious engagement that the U.S. might attempt in northern Nigeria. Since 1903, when British forces killed Sultan Muhammadu Attahiru I at the Battle of Burmi, Sultans of Sokoto have been largely deferential to Nigeria’s political authorities. The Sultan wields little influence, in my view, over the type of people who join or sympathize with Boko Haram; such people already have real doubts about the integrity of hereditary Muslim rulers. Who, then, was the intended audience for Kerry’s trip to Sokoto? If it is Muslim youth, or fence-sitters thinking about joining Boko Haram, are they meant to be impressed by Kerry praising the Sultan as a model of inter-faith tolerance? In my view, it was fine for Kerry to go to Sokoto, but he should have also met with a spectrum of Muslim leaders in Abuja, including mainstream Salafis.
  3. A Misreading of Boko Haram: Should the U.S. government decide who is a Muslim and who is not? In Sokoto, Kerry argued that Boko Haram has nothing to do with Islam – “Boko Haram boasts no agenda other than to murder teachers, burn books, kidnap students, rape women and girls, and slaughter innocent people, most of whom are Muslims. It has a complete and total disrespect for life, the opposite of every religion. It has a complete nihilistic view of the world. It fears knowledge. It fears education. It fears tolerance.” The idea that Boko Haram is nihilistic is empirically false, unless you are willing to dismiss virtually every statement that Boko Haram has ever made. I’m not saying that Boko Haram is “Islamic,” but I am saying that they consider themselves to be such. And if you discount that, then I don’t think you can really counter their ideology. I believe Kerry should either have avoid trying to imply that he has the authority to give a normative definition of Islam (this is the better option, I think), or he should have acknowledged and addressed some of Boko Haram’s core ideas.

Northern Nigeria Conference at JHU SAIS (Washington, DC), April 7-8

For interested readers: Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, located in Washington, DC, will host a conference entitled “Strategies for Economic Reconstruction in the Northern States of Nigeria” on April 7-8 (tomorrow and Friday). Notable speakers include Prof. Attahiru Jega, former Chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission, as well as numerous other Nigerian and American scholars and practitioners. The conveners ask that anyone interested in attending RSVP to saisafrica@jhu.edu. I’ve attached the conference program here.

On Doctrine, Politics, and Boko Haram

I’ve published a paper with the Brookings Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, entitled “‘The Disease Is Unbelief’: Boko Haram’s Religious and Political Worldview.” It deals with the Boko Haram crisis, which has caused untold damage in northeastern Nigeria and surrounding regions over the past six years and more. The paper’s title derives from a video where Boko Haram’s (deceased?) leader, Abubakar Shekau, responded to former Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan’s denunciation of Boko Haram as a “cancer.”

The paper is the length of a journal article, so I won’t say too much to summarize it here. I do want to emphasize that it’s an attempt to take Boko Haram’s religious discourses seriously: not to excuse those messages or the violence, of course, but to try to understand them and even to give the group’s ideology *some* analytical weight in the quest for an explanation of the violence.

That latter proposition has proven controversial for some audiences and colleagues I’ve encountered. For some, the idea that armed groups might actually believe what they say they believe is anathema. Many analysts view jihadist leaders as either psychopaths or opportunists, and their followers as either dupes or victims. Certainly there is reason to feel that way, especially when there is evidence that leaders are hypocritical, power-hungry, etc, or that followers have been coerced. But people are not simple and it is possible that even if a leader is a hypocrite or an opportunist, it’s still worth paying attention to what he says, because it might give hints as to why a group behaves the way it does. Moreover, if jihadists were all mere opportunists or psychopaths, why would they develop such systematic and detailed ideologies?

So the paper tries to get at some of those questions. I doubt that it will convince those who believe material forces are the sole determinants of the violence. But if you’re interested, I go through various official statements from Boko Haram and discuss the remarkable consistency in their messages from circa 2008 (and probably before) to the present, and show that a core combination of religious exclusivism and perceived victimhood has underlain many of their other ideas, including their rejection of Western-style education.

If you do read the paper, I welcome your thoughts, suggestions, and criticisms here. I will be continuing to work on this topic, and your feedback will help me refine my thinking and research.

Buhari and the Perm Secs

BBC, August 29:

It is now three months since Muhammadu Buhari was sworn in as president of Nigeria and five months since he won historic elections, the first time an opposition candidate had won…But it took nearly two months for him to replace his security chiefs and so far he has only made appointments in about a dozen government offices.

[…]

While it is clear that President Buhari has shown that Nigeria can run without a cabinet, there may be an unacknowledged cost.

On the bright side, with the briefings he is getting from civil servants, the ministers, when they are eventually appointed, will find that their boss knows more about their departments than they do – and that should keep them on their toes.

Vanguard, November 10:

President Muhammadu Buhari on Tuesday, approved the appointment of new Permanent Secretaries in the Federal Civil Service.

This came some hours after the President sacked about 17 permanent secretaries.

Permanent Secretaries are, in theory, civil servants who are not political appointees. This does mean they are immune from political controversies, however.

As the BBC said, the months without a cabinet may have allowed Buhari to interact more directly with senior civil servants than presidents usually do. Apparently the president did not always like what he saw.

Talk by Dr. Usman Bugaje at Johns Hopkins SAIS This Wednesday

If you happen to be in Washington, DC this Wednesday, November 4, consider attending a talk by Dr. Usman Bugaje, a prominent northern Nigerian scholar and politician who has served in the House of Representatives and as adviser to former Vice President Atiku Abubakar. Bugaje is currently Convener of the Arewa Research and Development Project.

Bugaje will speak on “Democracy and the Challenge of Political Change in Nigeria” at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies from 12:30-1:45pm on Wednesday. The talk will be in Room 736, Bernstein-Offit Building, 1717 Massachusetts Avenue, NW.