Africa

Nigeria's Boko Haram: Will dialogue end the insurgency?

  • 27 January 2012
  • From the section Africa
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Men look at the wreckage of a car following a bomb blast carried out by Boko Haram at St Theresa Catholic Church outside the Nigerian capital, Abuja, on 25 December 2011
Image caption Some believe opening the door to talks is the only way to stop the attacks

Nigeria's President Goodluck Jonathan has challenged the Islamist militant group Boko Haram to come forward and state their demands as a basis for dialogue.

His remarks came nearly a week after the group attacked police stations in the northern city of Kano, killing 185 people.

Nigeria's Civil Rights Congress Shehu Sani, a proponent of negotiations with Boko Haram, gives the BBC his reaction to the president's appeal for dialogue and its chances of success.

Shehu Sani:

It's better late than never, but the question the president needs to answer is - why has the government waited for so long?

Thousands of people have lost their lives over a path that was taken by the group and then a strategy that was taken by the government that has not been able to produce a result.

In the case of the Niger Delta militancy [where armed groups in the south were fighting for a greater share of the region's oil wealth], dialogue was used and the problem was addressed.

Boko Haram is said to have no clear agenda - that is not true.

Before 2009 Boko Haram was not a violent organisation - it was a sect just like all other sects in northern Nigeria, dreaming of a country that is under Sharia law and also under the rule of Islam.

Its philosophy, ideas and views are rooted in the beliefs of Sheikh al-Islam Ibn Taymiyah from Turkey who died in 1328. His views and ideas are about an Islamic society, about the Sunni viewpoint, the Hanbali school of Islamic jurisprudence - to know more about Boko Haram you need to read about Taymiyah.

There's nothing wrong if you campaign or preach peacefully as long as you don't cross the line and take up arms.

Whatever agenda you have, whatever is your philosophy or ideas you have no right to pick up arms to kill innocent people and also bomb targets.

But Boko Haram picked up arms when violence was used against them in 2009 and their leaders were killed in cold blood by security agencies.

It was seen by the members as a turning point and they picked up arms at that very time that government of [former President] Umar Musa Yar'Adua made a terrible mistake, thinking that the group could be crushed with the use of violence.

When [President] Goodluck Jonathan took up power it wasn't his problem - all he had to do was to simply say: "Here am I, a new person, and I have a different agenda and I am calling you to come and sit down and let's discuss this issue."

But he went along with the wrong approach of the use of force against the group.

When you start a local group with local grudges and then you attract the attention of "investors" from outside [Somalia's al-Shabab and al-Qaeda] - it is very clear that the group is pursuing its own agenda in conformity with the agenda of its own allies that are perhaps outside the country.

[So] a domestic organisation with an agenda of avenging the killings of its own members now became a national problem.

Sign of weakness?

From the group's own viewpoint - they [also] have a short-term agenda: They want all their members who are in detention to be set free.

Before what happened in Kano, the leader of the group issued two threats to the federal government: If you don't release our men who are in detention we are certainly going to act.

A responsible government would either protect the people or it should concede to the demands of those who are issuing the threats - but the Nigerian government didn't do any of the two and this is what has come out of it, so the violence wasn't unexpected.

No country is immune to such kind of violence by a group that is determined to carry it out and sitting down and talking with groups that have taken up arms is not a sign of weakness - it has happened in Britain, where the government has sat down with the IRA and today the problem is solved, in Nigeria the government sat down with the militants of the Niger Delta and the problem is solved.

Boko Haram members are also Nigerians and sitting down to talk with them is not an admission that the government has failed or the Boko Haram has succeeded.

[But] if President Jonathan or his government thinks that because an offer is made, the next day the Boko Haram members will get into a bus and come to Abuja and say: "Here we are, we'll sit down in a hotel and talk" - I think they're in for a long wait.

After many years of mistrust and suspicion and violence, there must be an intercessor that will guarantee both sides that what ever is agreed is going to be executed.

Who should mediate?

As a group Boko Haram has a spiritual leader, Sheikh Imam Abubakar Shekau, a parliament they call the Shura, they also have cells spread across Nigeria and Niger and other places.

Members of the group do not take action without being given directions to do that.

The command is usually given by their council and their spiritual head and for such an organisation that is structured that way, I believe that it is possible to also to sit down with them - and once they agree to a ceasefire you will find it very difficult to see it being broken because they have a leadership structure.

Image caption Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau says most of the Kano deaths were caused by the security forces

What I know is possible is that there should be an intercession by a third country perhaps like Turkey or Qatar or Saudi Arabia should offer to mediate between the government and Boko Haram.

If that option is not taken then the next option is that certain individuals in the north who have the respect of the Boko Haram should be brought in.

The late leader of Boko Haram was a member of the Spring Council of Sharia in Nigeria - now since all this violence has started no-one from the side of the federal government has approached that body and asked them, could you mediate between us and the Boko Haram group?

All their interests has been is that they want the Sultan [of Sokoto, Nigeria's main Muslim cleric] to intervene - and the Boko Haram have no respect for the sultan.

Shehu Sani was speaking to the BBC's Network Africa programme.

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