Imaginary Scenario: Mediating the Boko Haram-Nigerian Govt Conflict

Can the conflict between Boko Haram and the Nigerian Government be solved through mediation and conflict resolution?
Cristina Caravaggio Giancchini tries to answer that question by presenting an imaginary scenario where the two parties meet to negotiate a solution to their conflict. You will read about interesting concepts such as BATNA and Mediation Strategies.

Boko Haram (BH), a Nigerian-based group, started its operations in 2009. According to the Global Terrorism Database (GTD), from its inception until 2013 the group has authored 818 terrorist attacks. Since 2009, the organisation has reportedly killed over 6,000 people and last April Boko Haram kidnapped over 200 girls.
Boko Haram's main objective is to rid Nigeria of a secular government and establish an Islamic state based on Sharia Law, although it started off by having what is now called secondary demands: the "eradication of poverty, justice, equity, inclusion and reduction of corruption in the country"(in Boko Haram, the Government and Peace Negotiation; by Prof. James Kantiok).
The Nigerian government's main goal is to stabilise the country by countering the group's activities (having President Jonathan noted that Boko Haram "has infiltrated both the government and the military").

Although several scholars are against governments negotiating with terrorist groups (as "Negotiations give legitimacy to terrorists and their methods and thus undermine actors who pursue political change through peaceful means"[idem]); we think that in the Nigerian case it would be interesting to engage in negotiations because, as James Kantiok said, they "may eliminate the very reasons why the insurgents may have engaged in violence in the first place".

Both Sides' BATNA
Boko Haram's BATNA (Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement) is the autonomy of Nigerian's Northern states from central government, so that an Islamic Caliphate is re-established (since the establishment of an Islamic state in the whole of Nigeria is highly improbable).
The Nigerian government's BATNA is to give amnesty to Boko Haram elements and integrate them in the military and police forces.
BH, however, rejects the government's amnesty offer because "What wrong have we done? On the contrary, it is we that should grant you [a] pardon,"[here]. The government accuses the militant group of stalling the negotiations since the offer made heads towards tackling one of their demands (i.e. unemployment), in a show of good faith.
The mediator points out to Boko Haram that the government made a valid point and that it would be advisable to return the gesture as well.

After much deliberation, the militant group decides that their bargaining space is the Northern of Nigeria to have an Islamic education programme and have the government addressing their secondary demands.
The mediator turns to the government representation and asks if they agree. The government says its bargaining space is to address its counterpart's secondary demands (i.e. tackling poverty, justice, equity, inclusion and reduction of corruption), rejecting thus the Islamic education programme which - against the government's interests - would preclude Northern Nigeria's competitiveness.

"To be effective, mediation strategies and behavior must be congruent with the nature of a conflict, and the objectives and interests of the adversaries and the mediator." -- Jacob Bercovitch in Introduction: Putting Mediation in Context

Suggested Mediation Strategies
To mediate the Boko Haram-Nigerian Government conflict, the following strategies could be employed:
- Facilitation: helping the parties to communicate more easily; facilitate their mutual cooperation (e.g. lead Boko Haram to realise that they need to reciprocate the government's sign of good faith; and make the government commit to addressing the grievances that led Boko Haram to act in the first place).
- Integration: looking for common grounds (e.g. make them realise that they both want to tackle corruption, unemployment, equity, poverty etc and see how they can work together to better achieve that goal).
- Persuasion: offering creative solutions that could reduce commitment problems (e.g. explain Boko Haram that relaxing its demands on an Islamic Education Programme in Northern Nigerian States will guarantee increased employment rates since those states will be able to compete with Southern Nigeria, that their education programmes must find space for non-Muslim students and that doing so would promote social and economic development in Northern Nigeria; explain the Nigerian government that a compromise can be reached: Education Programmes in the Northern regions can be adjusted to accommodate the Islamic communities, while ensuring the rights of non-Muslim students)
- Directive: promoting specific outcomes (e.g. suggest both parties to focus, for now, on solving basic issues like corruption, unemployment and poverty; explain Boko Haram how its continued violence campaign will eventually lead the group to lose popular support and legitimacy; explain the government the advantages of addressing the militant group's secondary demands [i.e. to render the group's ability to recruit more difficult] and suggest a regional autonomy for the Northern States, similar to the suggestion made by the Yoruba Groups, in order to achieve the much desired peace and stability for Nigeria).

The conflict between Boko Haram and the government of Nigeria (for now at least) has little chances of being solved through mediation and conflict resolution due to the following reasons:
a) The militant group does not have an organisational structure to guarantee a track to negotiations; meaning that the government has no way of engaging in dialogue (i.e. efforts of facilitation would not apply)
b) The militant group does not have a specific leader to speak on behalf of Boko Haram as a whole, given its cell-like organisational structure. Therefore, whom is the negotiator supposed to negotiate with exactly?
c) Boko Haram's links to transnational Jihadist groups (such as Al-Qaeda and Al-Shabaab) may have diluted the organisation's secondary demands into the Global Jihad's broader goals; rendering any possible negotiation with the government even more difficult. (i.e. any efforts of integration and persuasion would be in vain)
d) The Nigerian government's margin of manoeuvre is narrow for political reasons: due to its relationship with Western nations, negotiating with terrorists would be viewed as a legitimisation of terrorism in general (especially when the US and EU, important trade partners, are still waging a war against terror).
Despite the limitations described above, the advantage of mediation, in this case, would be (through the use of the persuasion and directive strategies) to lead the militant group to expose its real intentions - inasmuch as Boko Haram's objectives seem deliberately convoluted; that is, they want to Islamise Nigeria but when convenient they evoke their secondary demands, making it thus easier to recruit.

Image: BH Logo (Source: Google Images)

[The views expressed in this publication are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Dissecting Society]


  1. Sorry to say this but the only solution to the Boko Haram problem for the Nigerian establishment is to go after them militarily and destroy them like other governments are doing to such terrorist irrational movements. If necessary, they should ask for help military and otherwise from Western nations including Israel to achieve this objective.

  2. Rummuser, no need to apologise at all: this is simply an imaginary scenario not a decree :-)
    Personally speaking, I agree with you - the only way to end BH's activities will be through military action, possibly an international coalition, because the Nigerian government will not be able to do it alone for several reasons. But so far, there has been a reluctance to do this, to form such a coalition (perhaps due to some of the demands on the part of the Nigerian military) and yes, you are absolutely right: Israel would be in a good position to assist Nigeria. Let's hope that after the elections, next year, the Nigerian president makes a final decision about countering Boko Haram for good.
    Thank you for your much appreciated comment.

  3. Cristina, you produced a very important document as terrorism is a true problem in Africa right now! Kenya is having problems, Congo, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Somalia, Mali, Nigeria etc. I don't agree with negotiating with terrorists so Nigeria really needs to go after Boko Haram through force, that's the only way, and the UN should just stuff it with their human rights talks! I mean, why take lessons from a body that accepts terrorists in human rights council?

  4. Congratulations for a job well done, Cristina!
    You know my opinion on this, which is basically what Rummuser said. I will try to return later on...I'm super busy but wanted to congratulate you: I wish we'd read more of your work here!

  5. We can't negotiate with terrorists. We have negotiated with Arafat and legitimized the Arab cause against Israel, wasn't it enough? What's next, negotiate with ISIS, Al-Nusra? Why not offer them a seat at the UN while we're at it...WTF

  6. Cristina, a job well done: auguri! And thanks for having filled in for me.
    I don't think we can negotiate with Boko Haram, not only for the reasons you introduced, but mainly because they are a terrorist group and we should never negotiate with terrorists. The moment we do it, we legitimise the act as we have so many times in history - and where did it take us?



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