There are no strangers at this negotiation table

In what has become its preferred means of communication with the outside world, Nigerian-based Islamist extremist group Boko Haram released another video on 12 May detailing for the time first dozens of schoolgirls which the sect had kidnapped from the town of Chibok on 15 April. In the 17-minute long video, in excess of 100 girls can be seen reciting verses out of the Holy Quran, all clad in full-bodied veils which have become symbolic of the modesty expected from women within the Islamic faith. The footage then cuts to Boko Haram’s shadowy leader, Abubakar Shekau, who proceeds to reaffirm the group’s responsibility for the mass kidnapping and, perhaps more importantly, sets the terms for the hostages’ release. Speaking in Hausa, the predominant dialect of northern Nigeria, the militant leader scornfully declared “We will never release them [the girls] until after you release our brethren”.

The Boko Haram communiqué came mere hours after presidential adviser, Reuben Abati, made explicit that the Nigerian government would not enter into any negotiations with the militant group. Speaking to Sky News Special Correspondent, Alex Crawford, Abati stated “the government of Nigeria has no intention to pay a ransom or to buy the girls”. He further added “the determination of the [Nigerian] government is to get the girls and to ensure that the impunity that has brought this about is checked and punished.” Abati’s rhetoric echoed that of President Goodluck Jonathan who had also denounced on several previous occasions that his government would enter into any negotiations with Boko Haram — a group which he dismissed as being nothing more than a temporary problem to his administration.

Undoubtedly, the Nigerian government’s stance on this issue conforms to the internationally-professed policy which dictates that sovereign states should under no circumstances negotiate with terrorists. However, in line with the indiscretion at which this policy is implemented, the Nigerian government is seemingly no stranger to meeting Boko Haram at the negotiation table, especially when it entails securing the release of kidnap victims. In one of the sect’s first documented abductions, Boko Haram kidnapped several women and children following an attacked it had launched on a police barracks in the town of Bama . In a video released just days after the Bama incursion, Shekau officially claimed responsibility for the abduction which he cited as a reprisal for the detention of Boko Haram wives and children by the Nigerian military. While the exact circumstances surrounding their release remain unclear, the Bama hostages were eventually freed from captivity on 24 May 2013 — a day after the Nigerian authorities declared that it was releasing a number of detained Boko Harm women and children.

A month prior to the Bama abductions, Boko Haram had also claimed responsibility for the kidnapping of a French family in Dabanga, a town located in proximity to Cameroon’s shared border with Nigeria’s insurgent-embattled Borno state. The sect had once again claimed that it had abducted the French nationals in retaliation for the Nigerian and Cameroonian government’s unlawful detention of Boko Haram women and children. The hostages were eventually released on 16 April amid speculation that a cash ransom, estimated to be around USD 3 million, was paid and incarcerated Boko Haram combatants freed in exchange for their release. In November 2013, Boko Haram would strike again in northern Cameroon when it seized French priest, Georges Vandenbeusch, from the border town of Koza. Vandenbeusch was eventually released unharmed a month after his capture amid claims that French authorities had again paid a cash ransom to the group. Both France and Boko Haram denied that a ransom was paid, however, with the Islamists claiming that the priest was freed by Shekau on compassionate grounds. But this account was in turn denied by a Cameroon military source who claimed Vandenbeusch was exchanged for a senior Boko Haram commander who had been detained by Cameroonian authorities.

Although they remain subject to confirmation, the aforementioned incidents highlights that the Nigerian government may have prior experience in negotiating with Boko Haram; experience which may prove to be invaluable in brokering any deal which may result in the safe release of the Chibok hostages. Moreover, these incidents may also delineate that Boko Haram is not only receptive to conciliatory initiatives, but has an established track record of holding its end of the bargain provided its demands are met. That said, both the domestic and international focus on the fate of the Chibok hostages may complicate any current or future negotiation process. Boko Haram’s demands will likely be excessive, knowing very well that the options available to a beleaguered Nigerian government in securing the safe release of the Chibok hostages are limited. The Jonathan administration on the other hand will resist the urge to be strong-armed into ceding to the group’s demands, knowing that doing so would sets extremely dangerous precedent and perhaps catalyse further such mass abductions in the near future. All things considered, any likely negotiation process is expected to be a protracted and highly intricate exercise and it may well be a while before the Nigerian government can indeed bring back its girls from the clutches of Boko Haram.

 

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