from Africa in Transition

Nigeria’s Boko Haram Ready for Dialogue?

February 21, 2013

Blog Post

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Sub-Saharan Africa


Terrorism and Counterterrorism

Wars and Conflict

Middle East and North Africa

This is a guest post by Jim Sanders, a career, now retired, West Africa watcher for various federal agencies. The views expressed below are his personal views and do not reflect those of his former employers.

Reportedly, a faction within Boko Haram, the extremist sect that has spread violence from the country’s northeast clear across most of the north, has opted for dialogue with the Nigerian government, while the government has said that it is willing to negotiate if “a credible leadership shows itself” and the sect renounces violence. Recently, too, the Sultan of Sokoto, eminent leader of Nigeria’s Muslims, stated in an address to the Nigeria Inter-religious Council, that “dialogue was the best option for any conflict situation.” Presumably, he was thinking mainly of Boko Haram. But past attempts at dialogue with the group have not borne fruit and future efforts look to hold little promise.

Lacking centralization, it remains unclear who, if anyone, speaks for the insurgent group as a whole, or even if what is referred to as Boko Haram constitutes a single group. Moreover, a religious millenarian mindset assures the zealots of the group that dialogue is unnecessary. With a new social order just around the corner, who needs negotiation?

There is also now a trend toward Islamic activism extending from North Africa through the Sahel to northern Nigeria. Manifestations vary in each region, but activist and militant behavior is a common denominator, not talking. For the Nigerian government’s part, despite its stated willingness to dialogue, seemingly successful French action in Mali, may incline the Nigerian government to adhere to a military solution in its north, rather than pursue dialogue.

As well, the mortmain of past conflict resolution efforts clouds prospects for negotiations. Writing in the December 2012 issue of the Scientific American, MIT researcher Rebecca Saxe points out that conflict resolution efforts are all about seeing the validity of the other side, and so “for the dominant group, the strongest benefits of dialogue come from perspective taking, from listening to the other side.” Yet there is a tendency for a more powerful group to dominate the proceedings. Reviving dialogue with groups such as Boko Haram, therefore, may require a reappraisal of the way in which such efforts have been structured in the past. For example, past “dialogue” in Nigeria’s bloody Middle Belt region, plagued with communal unrest, does not, for the “disempowered,” appear to have been an “experience of being heard.” Violence continues there.

Further complicating a negotiated solution to Boko Haram’s insurgency is the fact of our times that people listen less to authority figures than to their peers, according to the 2012 Edelman Trust Barometer. The influence of elites is declining, reducing the chances that rank and file will follow their lead.