Dialogue and negotiation: alternative solutions to Boko Haram conflict?

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Military operations are needed, but haven’t stopped Boko Haram attacks. Complementary non-kinetic efforts must be considered.

Fifteen years since it started, the Boko Haram conflict in the Lake Chad Basin has defied solutions, notably the largely military and security force-driven measures. Both factions of the group, Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’Awati Wal-Jihad (JAS) and Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), have shown their resilience to these operations.

This resilience and the massive impact of violent extremism on civilians – over 11 million people in the region need humanitarian aid – show that alternate solutions are needed.

Globally, military operations succeeded in defeating only 7% of all terrorist groups operating from 1968-2006. In that period, 43% of terror campaigns were ended through negotiations.

A recent study by the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) and United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research’s Managing Exits from Armed Conflict (MEAC) project shows that community members support dialogue between governments and Boko Haram. Communities are also willing to accept former Boko Haram associates as part of reintegration processes.

Countries across the region have used non-kinetic strategies to resolve the conflict, such as incentivising and managing exits from both factions to weaken their fighting forces, and reconstructing victims’ livelihoods. These non-military efforts, which also seek to address the conflict’s socio-economic drivers, are part of the Lake Chad Basin’s strategy to stabilise the region.

The ISS-MEAC project examined whether states could complement such strategies with dialogue and negotiations. The research – conducted in Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria – was completed against the backdrop of JAS leader Abubakar Shekau’s death in 2021. His demise triggered the exit of 160 000 people associated with the group or living in areas under its control.

These departures presented a real opportunity for ending the conflict. Given the sensitivity of speaking with designated terror groups like Boko Haram, researchers gauged the receptiveness of crucial stakeholders in the region towards the topic. They conducted 295 interviews and 35 focused group discussions with government officials, armed forces, former Boko Haram associates, community leaders and members, non-governmental organisations and community security actors.

The study sought to understand perceptions about both Boko Haram factions and how these may affect dialogue. It then asked various stakeholder groups about key factors in any negotiation, such as who had the authority within each group to engage in talks, and what the potential agenda would be.

The research aimed to give officials a more nuanced understanding of the diverse conflict resolution tools available so as to better anticipate people’s reactions to their use. It provided insight into the viability of dialogue with Boko Haram.

Previous ISS and MEAC research shows that communities have accepted former Boko Haram associates in the past. In this study, dialogue was viewed as important in addressing harms and facilitating the reintegration of former members. Other respondents highlighted the need for a comprehensive approach to negotiations to address the broader conflict. They urged talks with state and militia forces to redress their violence against community members.

Respondents generally believed that negotiating with JAS would be easier than with ISWAP. Shekau’s death and the resulting mass exits, combined with a loss of territory, factional fighting and continued pressure from the military, make JAS more likely to negotiate.

The main question is who among the faction has the authority to negotiate on its behalf. JAS’ current leader, Bakura Doro, was cited most often. However, in light of the group’s vague structure, respondents also said that certain influential sub-commanders could play a crucial role in negotiations. Their followers were likely to listen, even if this meant standing down their units.

Negotiations with ISWAP were generally viewed as less plausible given its international connection with Islamic State, well-structured leadership system, and financial and military strength.

A notable lack of trust was evident between the factions and the government based on past experiences with negotiations, and highlights the need for a credible intermediary. Most respondents favoured including traditional and religious leaders who already act as mediators and peacebuilders in their communities. Their involvement would mobilise community buy-in.

A point of disagreement was involving military and community security actors in negotiations. Respondents in Nigeria, Cameroon and Chad were mostly in favour of the military’s involvement, while those in Niger were not. They even viewed the military as potential spoilers in negotiations.

When looking at community security actors such as the Civilian Joint Task Force in Nigeria or the Comités de Vigilance in Chad, Cameroon and Niger, participants overwhelmingly felt their involvement would aid negotiations. Many had already facilitated the return home of former associates, and respondents thought they could inspire confidence in the process.

Countries shouldn’t view dialogue as a sign of weakness. Instead, negotiations are one of a series of tools that can complement other efforts in ending the Boko Haram crisis. They can be used alongside kinetic efforts to weaken the violent extremist group and force it to the negotiation table.

Identifying entry points for dialogue through influential Boko Haram commanders, rather than relying on its leaders, is important considering the decentralised nature of the factions, especially JAS. Should the group’s leadership prove elusive, multiple entry points give states more options.

Written by Francesca Batault, Associate Researcher, United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research, and Malik Samuel, Researcher, ISS Regional Office for West Africa, the Sahel and the Lake Chad Basin.

Republished with permission from ISS Africa. The original article can be found here.