When the militant group Boko Haram abducted more than 200 schoolgirls in Nigeria last month, a few parents went into the jungle in hopes of negotiating their release. They fled the area after locals warned them away. But ever since, the idea of negotiating with the terrorists has been floated in Nigeria.
Last Sunday, President Goodluck Jonathan soundly rejected the idea without Boko Haram first releasing the girls. Yet on Tuesday, he welcomed American assistance that includes the United States sending experts on hostage negotiations. The option to talk with the terrorists may still be open, even if doing so carries the risk of encouraging the tactics of fear used by Boko Haram and similar groups.
The parents who went into the jungle that night might have recalled a previous mass capture of girls in Africa by another religion-based rebel group. In 1996, the Lord’s Resistance Army took 139 girls from a Roman Catholic school in Uganda. In an act of bravery, the school’s Italian headmistress, Sister Rachele Fassera, pursued the rebels and talked them into releasing 109 of them.
Such cases of negotiating with terrorists are rare. But they signal a hope that terrorists might decide not to live up to the label put on them and make concessions – or even drop their radical militancy.
Israel has negotiated with Hamas over a cease-fire but refuses further talks on a peace deal. Pakistan has talked with the Taliban while similar talks have been tried by the US with the Taliban in Afghanistan. The Philippines recently concluded a deal with Muslim terrorists.
Among African rebel groups fighting between 1989 and 2010, a third made explicit demands for negotiations after using terror tactics, according to a study by Jakana Thomas of Michigan State University. The more terror they used, the more likely they were to enter talks with the government.
The most common response to terror has been the iron fist. For the US, the current weapon of choice is the drone. President Obama came into office in 2009 with some hope of using negotiations to end threats against the US from various Al Qaeda-linked groups. After all, under President George W. Bush, the US had successfully negotiated with Sunni terrorists in Iraq to end their support of Al Qaeda fighters in the country.
At the least, opening negotiations with the leaders of a terrorist group might have the effect of splitting off moderates or dissuading potential converts. But that move must be balanced by assessing the chance of giving legitimacy to the rebels.
In March, the national security adviser to Nigeria’s president, Col. Sambo Dasuki, released a strategic document on countering terrorism. As a Muslim, he pushed a hearts-and-mind approach that tries to win over local Muslims while keeping an open door for members of Boko Haram to be rehabilitated.
Now this “soft” approach is being put to the test by the mass kidnapping of the girls. Will the government negotiate? And if so, under what conditions? One can only imagine the pressures to rescue the girls and, on the other side, the desire to wipe out Boko Haram.
At best, US assistance can help Nigerians make the tough decisions on these issues. Many countries have collected a wealth of experience on whether and how to negotiate with terrorists. With care, planning, and wisdom, Nigerian leaders can make the right choice.