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Nigerian government broaches idea of dialogue with Islamist Boko Haram

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(Read caption) Shattered remnants are seen at the site of a bomb blast at a bar in the Nigerian northeastern city of Maiduguri on July 3, the latest apparent attack by radical Islamist sect Boko Haram.

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Since at least May, certain Northern Nigerian politicians have been considering the idea of an amnesty program for Boko Haram, the Muslim movement whose violence has terrorized the Northeast and spread fear throughout much of the country. Proponents of amnesty feel that the problem of Boko Haram will ultimately require a political, and not just a military, solution. President Goodluck Jonathan, for his part, has expressed openness to the idea of amnesty or at least some form of dialogue, and has spoken of a “carrots and sticks” approach to Boko Haram. The sect has so far rejected amnesty offers, responding either with huge demands or with further acts of violence.

On Saturday, the Federal Government announced it is taking concrete steps toward initiating dialogue with the movement:

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[A] panel will negotiate with the Boko Haram sect and report back to the government on or before August 16, the statement from the office of the secretary of the federal government said.

President Goodluck Jonathan has named the seven members of the panel, including the ministers of defence and labour as well as the minister of the Federal Capital Territory, which encompasses Abuja, the statement added.

Describing the panel’s duties, it said they would include acting “as a liaison between the federal government … and Boko Haram and to initiate negotiations with the sect.”

It would also work with the national security adviser to ensure the country’s security forces were acting with “professionalism,” the statement said.

I was unable to find the original copy of the statement, and so I cannot tell whether Boko Haram has agreed to talks.

This move is in my view both politically prudent and potentially helpful. Regarding the politics of the decision, the article quoted above notes that “Jonathan appointed the panel after meeting with leaders from the mainly Muslim north earlier this month.” Presumably these leaders urged pursuit of political solutions. This stance is in keeping with the calls for amnesty that I mentioned earlier. It is also in keeping with the Sultan of Sokoto‘s recent objections to perceived abuses by soldiers in the Northeast. Northern leaders, in short, have been asking Jonathan not to rely on violence alone. Southern leaders who have been pressuring Jonathan to take decisive action may not have had a dialogue program in mind, but this step could at least win broad backing from leaders in the region where the violence is centered. Jonathan, whose victory in April’s presidential election angered much of the North, and who is perceived in much of the region as the South’s man, needs support from Northern elites in order to deal effectively with Boko Haram.

Regarding the potential benefits of dialogue, the road ahead could be quite long, but I think the problem of Boko Haram cannot be solved through force alone. Since the Federal Government has already deployed soldiers to the Northeast, the carrot of dialogue can possibly complement the stick of force.

If the group will not come to the negotiating table then dialogue will never get going, of course. But to the extent that the architects of the dialogue can identify the unique political and economic problems of the North (and more specifically, the Northeast) and address them in innovative ways, dialogue stands a chance of reaching some elements within the movement. At the very least, the willingness of politicians to talk with Boko Haram could send a broader message to the North that government takes people’s problems and feelings of marginalization seriously. That could slow recruitment to Boko Haram or reduce sympathy for the group in the broader society.

We will see how, and whether, Boko Haram reacts to the government’s latest overtures.

Alex Thurston is a PhD student studying Islam in Africa at Northwestern University and blogs at Sahel Blog.