Engaging Boko Haram: Militarization, Mediation, or Both?

Boko Haram has persistently defied all attempts by the Nigerian government to stop the violent spread of its activities from the northern part of the country, and sectarian violence and attacks have assumed new and dangerous dimensions in Africa’s most populous state. Nigerians are currently experiencing an era characterized by intensive military operations similar to those previously launched against Niger Delta militants, and an uncertain mood is prevailing which some have compared to the state of affairs during the Nigerian civil war.

Military regiments of the Joint Task Force (JTF) have been deployed across areas considered to be the country’s “geographies of terror,” from the cities of Maiduguri to Jos, and from Kano to Damaturu, the extent of which is reflected in unprecedented security expenditure figures rising to nearly a quarter of the national budget for 2012. In spite of these efforts, the first half of 2012 has seen a rise in the incidence of Boko Haram attacks. While armed action cannot be totally discounted, its utility as a single tactic has proved futile and has underscored the need for the Nigerian government to unify under a common goal and intensify its efforts at dialogue and mediation.

Key Conclusions:

The excessive militarization of some states in northern Nigeria has resulted in a tense martial atmosphere and a concomitant increase in cases of armed brutalization, civilian intimidation, and human rights violations by members of the Joint Task Force. This situation has inadvertently amplified the level of state-directed grievance among affected citizens, as well as an unfortunate provocation of local sympathies for Boko Haram’s cause. The predominant use of force by the Nigerian government is inherently problematic, and would only work successfully if there is a simultaneous application of other approaches such as mediation, particularly because of the dangerous permutation of ideological, political, and economic issues involved.

The degree to which mediation can be a useful tool in the Nigerian situation depends upon a number of complex factors suggested by analysts such as Jacob Bercovitch. These include: the nature of the issue, the mediators involved, the context, and the parties to the conflict.

Mediation may not rank among the top most preferred contrivances that can be used to engage local non-state actors who seek to violently overhaul the Nigerian secular state system. Nevertheless, in light of the impasse between the Nigerian government and Boko Haram, mediation techniques can certainly offer a potentially useful opportunity in aspects where the unidirectional approach of military force has fallen short. This therefore calls for a strategically imaginative role to be played by the Goodluck Jonathan-led government in Nigeria.


Fatality rates have soared in the last three years (2009-2012) in comparison with the first seven years (2002-2008) of Boko Haram’s existence. Since the sect’s major uprising of July 2009, over 1,000 individuals have been killed. In light of the present circumstances, it is clear that the government’s conventional military approach does not match the hit-and-run guerrilla tactics of Boko Haram. Furthermore, within the last year, the scope of targets attacked by Boko Haram has widened to include not just state security institutions and Christian organizations and churches, but also the media and higher education. The violent momentum of Boko Haram’s activities have also increased from attacks on a few states to a wider range of other states in northern Nigeria, and this has been accompanied by threats to extend aggression to the southern part of the country.

Despite the reported splintering of Boko Haram, the core group itself has since been expressing a level of interest in reaching out to the Nigerian government as reflected in a series of mediation attempts. The first mediation attempt between the government of Nigeria and Boko Haram took place in September 2011 when a meeting was facilitated between former Nigerian President, Olusegun Obasanjo and Babakura Fugu, the brother-in-law of the late Boko Haram leader, Mohammed Yusuf in Maiduguri, Borno state. This peaceful development was in fact supported by an ethnic northerner, a renowned human rights activist and national president of the Civil Rights Congress (CRC), Mallam Shehu Sani, who is also known for his consistent expression of optimism about successful talks between the Nigerian government and Boko Haram.

However, what was supposed to be the first step in a series of peaceful meetings was unfortunately cut short by the mysterious assassination of one of the parties, Babakura Fugu. His murder, which occurred a few days after initial talks, is highly indicative of sinister interests that seek to stop any efforts aimed at achieving a resolution to the crisis through mediatory means. It has been reported that Babakura Fugu was killed by a Boko Haram member. However, this conflicts with the declaration of the leader of Boko Haram, Abubakar Shekau, who actually condemned the killing of Fugu. In fact, following Fugu’s death last year, Boko Haram denied responsibility for his death. And according to the sect’s antecedents and style, Boko Haram usually (and unreservedly) claims responsibility for any attack they launch.

In March 2012, another crucial opportunity for mediation emerged when Boko Haram voluntarily chose the president of the Supreme Council for Sharia in Nigeria, Sheik Ahmed Datti, as their mediator with the Nigerian government. A renowned medical doctor from northern Nigeria, Sheik Ahmed Datti unfortunately later withdrew from further talks, citing claims that the government handled the process with inadequate discretion expressed through premature release of information to the press. If the breakdown of dialogue was a consequence of discussions receiving untimely media attention is anything to learn from, subsequent mediation attempts should transpire within a framework that is devoid of undue media interference, and with a view to public disclosure only when talks have reached a mature stage of progress.

Later in June, there was the case of Boko Haram’s disapproval of Sheikh Dahiru Usman Bauchi, a prominent Islamic scholar who declared before the press that he was facilitating talks between the sect and the Nigerian government. While this mediatory attempt crashed before even taking off properly, it should not be viewed as an expression of the sect’s absolute rejection of dialogue. Rather it is once again indicative of the group’s preference for certain individuals.

More recently, in August 2012, secret talks were once again reported to have taken place between Boko Haram’s deputy leader Abu Mohammed and Nigeria’s Vice President Namadi Sambo, along with other key government officials in Saudi Arabia. While tangible results of this round of talks are yet to be confirmed, the current state of national insecurity evidently underscores the imperative for the Nigerian government to intensify efforts towards mediation.

However, what remains significant is the fact that these attempts at mediation have not been achieved any substantial success.  This is because there is a dearth of sincere political will and lack of cohesion with regard to actors in the Nigerian government. This problem was clearly reflected in the telling statements of President Jonathan himself on January 9, 2012 when he underscored that Boko Haram had sympathizers and members within the executive, legislative and judicial arms of his government. Mediation has thus failed on previous occasions because this lack of accord and absence of a unified coalition of entities on the side of the government has created room for fifth columnists to exploit official cracks, which have sabotaged mediation efforts.

There are always challenges to contend with in any mediation process, and indeed there are difficulties in identifying the appropriate Boko Haram representatives to negotiate with. Nevertheless, in the current circumstances and in spite of reported splinters, Boko Haram leadership is also known to have a history of being willing to talk with the government through certain individuals.

If genuine dialogue is to occur, parties to the discussions, and in particular the Nigerian government, must act based on a common vision of the problem and towards an integrated goal conceived to be achievable. However, this factor has been missing. Mediation with Boko Haram is certainly possible, as long as the intervening third party enjoys the full support of a single-minded and proactive Nigerian government, as well as the trust of Boko Haram leadership. While efforts are intensified towards seeking out mutually credible interlocutors, governors of the 19 northern states under the auspices of the Northern States Governors’ Forum (NSGF) must also feed into this process by tapping into their knowledge of local actors and conditions within their troubled spheres.

There is the risk that mediation could set a precedent where local sectarian actors can in the future exploit the margin to wage violence against the state and its citizens. The ethno-religious nature of Nigeria predisposes the state to such tendencies. Nonetheless, what is paramount is the adoption of appropriate measures that can manage and address these types of crises effectively. Also, the mediatory approach does not advocate for a political compromise of Section 10 of the Nigerian Constitution, which forbids the creation of a state religion in the country. While the government’s Joint Task Force continues to battle with Boko Haram’s foot soldiers, many innocent lives are being taken, valuable resources are being exhausted, and innumerable suicide-ready conscripts are incessantly being swayed into the ranks of Boko Haram.

Akinola Ejodame Olojo is a Peace, Security and Development Scholar with the African Leadership Centre (ALC), Nairobi, Kenya. E-mail: akinolojo@gmail.com