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Nigeria buzzes over possible negotiations with Boko Haram

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(Read caption) Women sing slogans during a demonstration calling on the government to rescue the kidnapped girls of the government secondary school in Chibok, in Abuja, Nigeria, Wednesday, May 28, 2014.

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A version of this post appeared on Africa in Transition. The views expressed are the author's own. 

Nigeria is abuzz with speculation about government negotiations with Boko Haram over the release of the kidnapped Chibok schoolgirls.

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According to the Nigerian media, former president Obasanjo has been speaking with personalities “close to” Boko Haram. Names of other possible official negotiators circulate.

Speculation is that the parameters of a possible deal would be Boko Haram freeing some or all of the girls in return for the government releasing Boko Haram operatives and/or their wives and children who are currently extra-judicially detained without charge. 

Remarks by the chief of defense staff, Air Marshal Alex Badeh, have all but ruled out freeing the girls by force. This has contributed to speculation about government negotiations.

Air Marshal Badeh’s claim that the military knows the location of the girls has been confirmed by none of the Western countries assisting with the search. 

The New York Times reports an astonishing statement by the president’s press spokesman, Reuben Abati, that, in effect, questions the air marshal’s claim to know where the girls are: “We should look at the context in which the chief of defense staff made the statement. The military has been under a lot of bashing the last few days. That statement restores confidence in the ability of the military. It gives hope.”

That short supply of “hope” otherwise fuels the current preoccupation with negotiations.

The government has long called for negotiations with Boko Haram, and Obasanjo was involved in a 2011 abortive negotiations effort.

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However, Boko Haram warlord Abubakar Shekau has previously rejected negotiations on any terms. Perhaps a more fundamental difficulty is determining who on the Boko Haram side would be empowered to negotiate.

Because of Mr. Shekau’s inflammatory videos, it is easy to conclude that he is supreme within Boko Haram. Yet Boko Haram is a diffuse movement, and it i includes the splinter group Ansaru that may or may not have re-integrated itself into Shekau’s followers.

Western expert Jacob Zenn has said that while Shekau may be the “first among equals,” there are signs that he must participate in a political process with other Boko Haram warlords. It was weeks after the school girl kidnapping that Shekau released his notorious video claiming responsibility.

That might be an indication that the kidnapping was carried out by another splinter group not under Shekau’s direct control and that there was an internal Boko Haram debate about what to do with the school girls.

A negotiated swap makes so much sense.

But Boko Haram has the government on the run at the moment.

The Nigerian media reports that Obasanjo himself objects to the Jonathan administration inviting in Westerners to help find the girls as damaging Nigeria’s international status.

He’s right.

Whatever the internal political dynamics of Boko Haram might be, it does not seem to be in a hurry. But the Jonathan administration is under considerable domestic and international pressure to “do something,” and quickly.

There is also the overhanging prospect of the national elections in 2015 and the need to show positive results.