A lesson from Nigeria to Trump?

Africa’s most populous country, suffering a long battle with jihadi groups, has successfully negotiated with a branch of Islamic State to release abducted children. Is that a lesson in how to talk to terrorists?

AP Photo
Recently freed Nigerian girls from Dapchi pose for a photograph after a meeting with Nigeria President Muhammadu Buhari in Abuja, Nigeria, March 23.

On Monday, the president of Nigeria, Muhammadu Buhari, will become the first African leader to meet President Trump at the White House. Much of the meeting will probably focus on what the United States can do for Nigeria. The continent’s largest economy has a median age of only 18, a sluggish economy, and endemic corruption.

Yet Mr. Buhari could have something to offer the US as well.

Nigeria may be one of the few countries willing to negotiate with a branch of Islamic State (ISIS), part of its decade-long struggle with jihadi groups such as Boko Haram. Most other nations, including the US, refuse to talk to ISIS or its affiliates.

On Feb. 19, militants from Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP) seized 112 schoolgirls and one boy from the town of Dapchi in northeast Nigeria. A month later, after negotiations with the government, the group accepted a temporary cease-fire and released most of the children. The government said it paid no ransom. It is possible that ISIS leaders in the Middle East ordered the release.

Whatever the motive, the negotiations may represent a critical shift in how to deal with terrorists other than a strictly military approach. Under Buhari, Nigeria has beefed up its armed forces to counter Boko Haram and ISWAP. But it has also started to tackle corruption and improve the economy, especially in the largely Muslim northeast where the militants have found support.

Nigeria’s soft power against jihadis included the election of Buhari as president in 2015. He was the nation’s first candidate to defeat an incumbent president and achieve a peaceful handover of power from one party to another. Such democratic success stands out in Africa, which still struggles to remove long-ruling leaders who suppress opponents and tinker with constitutions and elections to stay in power.

As a former general, Buhari has improved the military’s capabilities against the insurgents. But he also relies on other tactics, such as an offer of amnesty to militants who surrender. “We are ready to rehabilitate and integrate such repentant members into the larger society,” he said.

Nigeria, with a highly diverse population of more than 180 million people, has far to go in improving its democracy, economy, and military. Yet it has shown leadership within Africa on many fronts, such as helping restore democracy in nearby Gambia. Perhaps it might also be a pioneer in how to talk with militant groups. As Mr. Trump prepares to talk to North Korea, a country he has designated as a state sponsor of terrorism, perhaps Buhari can offer some advice.

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