This latest agreement could be a harbinger for broader dialogue with the ISIS affiliate, or an indication that it is softening its hardline position. 

This week, Boko Haram released 82 Chibok girls after negotiations with the Nigerian government. The deal, struck after intense negotiations, was facilitated by the Swiss government and the Red Cross. It was the second such deal since October 2016, when 21 were freed. Is this latest agreement a harbinger for a broader dialogue with the ISIS affiliate? Does it point to the hardline group softening its position?

The Kidnapping

When some 276 final year high-school girls were abducted by the ISIS affiliate from the town of Chibok in April 2014, the incident sparked an outcry, catapulting the jihadi group to global attention. Over a couple of months, more than 50 of the girls escaped. Another two reportedly escaped in May 2016.

A few months after the incident, a group called Bring Back Our Girls was formed in Abuja. It kept the plight of the girls in the media and maintained pressure on the government. The issue became one of the key campaign promises of the incumbent president during the 2015 elections. Candidate, and now president, Muhammadu Buhari promised to find and return the girls to their parents if elected, a pledge he has repeated often since he took office.

Boko Haram’s disputed leader, Abubakar Shekau, released a video of the girls a few days after their abduction. He claimed responsibility and showed the girls, who were predominantly Christian, wearing hijab and being taught to recite the Quran, an indication that they had been forcefully converted to Islam.

In subsequent videos, Shekau threatened to sell the girls saying, “I will sell your girls in the market, by Allah. There is a market for selling women. Allah says I should sell. He commands me to sell.” Later, Boko Haram militants married these girls by force. When the jihadi group started using girls in suicide operations, it was rumoured that it was Chibok abductees being manipulated to carry out the operations.

The Deals

The first agreement for the release of 21 Chibok girls was also facilitated by the Swiss government and the Red Cross. No details were given at the time, but it was insinuated they were exchanged for top Boko Haram commanders in detention. Others speculated that they were exchanged for money - reports denied by the government.

Like that first agreement, this latest deal was also reportedly struck between the Nigerian government and the insurgents with Swiss and Red Cross help. Sahara Reporters, the popular website that first broke the news, reported that agreement was reached after intense negotiations. The hostages were reportedly exchanged for two top Boko Haram commanders, as well as a large sum of money in foreign currency. A senior special assistant to the Nigerian president, Garba Shehu, confirmed this on BBC Hausa, but did not give numbers of the commanders released. Other sources put the number of the group’s commanders released at between five and 40.

The fact that Boko Haram has agreed to hold negotiations with a government and leaders it has constantly vilified as disbelievers who must be brought to their knees could be seen as an indication that the group has softened its position. However, this may not be so. The ISIS affiliate might have bowed to pressure in the face of military defeat against it. It might have justified the agreement based on its own Islamist ideology, citing examples in early Islam of treaties entered into with non-believers. In this way, the group can make deals like this even though they believe the other actors are non-believers.

Boko Haram might have just agreed to go to the negotiation table to get some cash and commanders so it can battle on. In a video released just two days before the announcement of the deal, Shekau reiterated Boko Haram’s determination to fight to the very end. “I will be happy to die in the cause of Allah. Shekau is alive. I have not started killing in the name of religion yet. I will start in the future,” he said. This shows the group remains committed to its cause.  

No details were released on which faction of the group was involved in the agreement, but signs point to the Shekau faction. The girls are known to be in its custody. Furthermore, the rival Barnawi faction, which is more prone to dialogue, is weak and in hiding.

Remains of the school in Chibok.

A Sign of Dialogue?

Dialogue with Boko Haram has been on the table of the Nigerian government for about half a decade now. In 2014, former President Goodluck Jonathan had invited the group to talk a number of times, setting up an amnesty committee chaired by his minister for special duties to negotiate. Those dialogues never held or bore fruit, however.

In December 2015, Buhari who assumed office that year, said he was prepared to talk with the insurgents if the group’s credible leadership could be identified, even though a fortnight earlier he had announced that the group had been “technically defeated.” In 2016, discreet negotiations began which led to the release in October of 21 of the girls. Abuja promised to continue making efforts to secure the release of more than 150 girls who remained hostages. The release of the more than 80 girls last week indicates that these negotiations indeed continued.

These recent developments could be an icebreaker for a broader dialogue with the group, whose more than eight-year insurgency has led to the death of thousands, as well as forcing millions from their homes. It has helped build trust and make broader dialogue more feasible. If the contacts established and the trust built are well managed and exploited, we may even see holistic dialogue.

Possible Terms

If and when parties get to the negotiating table, what could be their terms? The hardliner group has always given as key reasons for its insurgency the persecution and massacre of its members by security agencies and denial of their freedom to worship and propagate their version of Islam. These issues form the fulcrum of the group’s open letter in 2009 to former President Umaru Musa Yar'Adua, which later became a declaration of war against the government. Thus, freedom of worship and propagation could be among their terms.

After its first open confrontation with security agencies, Boko Haram’s founder and first leader, Muhammad Yusuf, was extra-judicially killed following his arrested along with dozens of the group’s members, and Boko Haram’s headquarters and members’ dwellings were demolished. Boko Haram may ask for compensation. It may also demand that members be allowed to return to their home communities and be granted immunity from prosecution. It is too early to predict whether the Nigerian government would agree to any or all of these terms. 

Boko Haram may, for its part, be required to lay down arms, recognise the authority of the Nigerian government, and obey its laws. They must also allow other Muslim scholars and religions to propagate their faith. The above issues could be complex. But there is something even more complicated: Boko Haram has always insisted on establishing a caliphate governed by their interpretation of Islamic law. They have always reiterated that it is not possible for Muslims and non-Muslims to coexist. With dialogue, would Boko Haram abandon these views?

No meaningful dialogue can avoid these issues. It may be difficult for Boko Haram to abandon principles that form the crux of its ideology. However, with its eight-year experience on the battlefield, and the imminence of its military defeat, the group may be forced to compromise.

In 2015, a multinational joint task force (MNJTF) consisting mainly of military units from Nigeria and its neighbouring Benin, Cameroon, Chad, and Niger Republics was rejuvenated and mandated to fight Boko Haram. Since then, the group has suffered successive defeats in the hands of the MNJTF. Its supply routes were blocked by the governments of the countries and was dislodged from its camps in Sambisa Forest. These and the tussle of leadership in the group has weakened Boko Haram.

A rescued Chibok girl with her 10-month-old baby in 2016.

The Other Side of the Coin

This deal could still strengthen Boko Haram in its war against a plural, diverse society, however. With more top commanders on the ground and cash at hand, it might be empowered to recover from its recent losses and unleash renewed violence on innocent people.

For instance, a video of the group released earlier this year by Voice of America shows militants training with and testing small commercial drones the likes of which were used by ISIS to deliver explosives in Iraq. Boko Haram could use the proceeds of this deal to innovate when it comes to attacks.

Just days before the deal was sealed, army commanders on the field announced a strike on Boko Haram worshippers in which they said Shekau was wounded and one of his deputies killed. Almost immediately, Shekau released a video disputing the claim. This announcement could have affected the release agreement. Clearly there is a communication gap between military commanders fighting Boko Haram on ground and those in charge of negotiations. A little more synergy might help.