On 13 October Nigeria and the world received news that 21 GSS Chibok abductees had been released.
Whilst this news is welcome, it will be pertinent to consider how it affects the campaign in general, firstly by considering several factors.
Boko Haram Domestic Issues
The al Barnawi/ Shekau split is relevant to this situation as the GSS Chibok abductees are thought to be in the hands of the Shekau faction of Boko Haram and it is unknown if any were taken by the al Barnawi faction during the split.
The #BringBackOurGirls campaign gave Shekaus prime time TV coverage and his best bargaining chip as evinced by the plethora of videos released featuring them even during the public element of the leadership tussle with al Barnawi, which was based an interpretation of Salafist jihadi ideology and had little to do with them.
Shekau’s faction is the weaker to the two, severely attrited and protected from destruction mainly by the terrain of Sambisa Forest, whilst al Barnawi has used the ungoverned, multi jurisdictional nature of the northern border area, better mobility and alleged operational assistance from Daesh to enjoy more successes from Geidam to Diffa to Malam Fatori. From a purely operational point of view releasing 21 of these hostages frees up man power from guarding them and resources for feeding them but more importantly puts Shekau back in the spotlight despite his relatively poor military standing.
Boko Haram International Issues
The announcement of al Barnawi as the Wali of ISWAP and Boko Haram-Barnawi’s control of the Lake Chad region not only dealt a blow to the credibility of Shekau but cut him off from lucrative trade and smuggling routes. Isolated in the Sambisa Forest with perilous external links via Cameroun and derided as a ‘eccentric’, erratic psychotic, this action has once more elevated Shekaus international profile giving him another one up like the video over al Barnawi. This negotiation allegedly overseen by a respected NGO opens a channel of communication of Shekau and allows himself to try and recovers some of the credibility lost by al Barnawi and Nurs criticism of his excesses.
Despite al Barnawi’s recognition by a global jihadi brand such as Daesh, it is Shekau who has got the Nigerian and Swiss governments to the negotiating table.
Nigeria Domestic Issues
The Nigerian government faces its normal perfect storm of crises. The country is in recession (or more to the point can no longer deny it’s in recession), high level corruption cases appear to have stalled, persecution against the Shia is on the rise, a small vocal and irritating secessionist movement persists in the South East, a plethora of critical reports from human rights organisations are regularly published, the worst manmade humanitarian crisis after Syria is ongoing in the Northeast, currency devaluation has hit the cost of living, insurgency and pipeline attacks in the Niger Delta, fuel marketers are still raking in billions, foreign companies are divesting and local ones folding, local politician still live their expensive lifestyle, low oil prices, lethargic government, middle belt crisis and so on.
There are precious few good news stories emanating from the country thus it can be said that this incident has provided a much needed positive news story to the cycle unfortunately dampened by President Buhari’s ‘kitchen and other room’ gaffe in Germany
Nigeria International Issues
Nigeria is broke, many of the proceeds from corruption lie frozen beyond our shores, the currency has collapsed and governance is still poor. Chaotic and schizophrenic messaging in the security field of a Boko Haram to be defeated by Christmas whilst the second worst man made famine in the world grips the North East does not help Nigeria’s already battered image. The good will generated by the successful transfer of Presidential power and President Buharis reputation for honesty was extremely finite and is running out.
A successful exchange gives Nigeria’s international partners who are so invested in President Buharis’ success a bit of relief, in that they can say can highlight their contributions and spin on how they convinced Nigeria to explore negotiations and not just kill its way to victory, that a path to negotiation has been opened and the ability of both sides to agree and deliver has been demonstrated. Some victims have been released, therefore the hashtag worked. Each foreign partner from the US, UK, France, Canada etc can highlight how they played a vital part in supporting the Nigerian government and everybody gets a round of applause.
The manner of the release closely mirrors the path suggested by President Buhari in Nairobi earlier this year, that Boko Haram ‘should pick a respected NGO as mediator’. It could be that, that statement was meant to signal to Boko Haram that this current round of negotiations had Presidential approval, as a public assurance would be harder to take back or renege on and established the bona fides of the negotiators as having the ear of the President.
It is also interesting that despite military logistic support this was a DSS operation. The military on the other hand has launched air attacks throughout what one would consider to be the negotiation period including Op Forest Storm; a series of day and night air attacks by fixed and rotary wing platforms in Sambisa Forest and Op Gama Aiki in the north. A fairly curious course of action in the run up to an agreed prisoner exchange as air strikes could very well have killed some of the hostages’, their captors or the enemies negotiating team or created such damage and ill will that the negotiations were called off. Was Op Forest Storm an attempt to bomb the enemy to the negotiating table, a unilateral operation by the NAF who were unaware of the negotiations, a deliberate attempt to sabotage the negotiations or simply a continuation of operations as normal? Around the same time as the Nairobi announcement the NAF again launched a series of airstrikes which they publicly announced as deliberate decapitation strikes, which ‘fatally wounded’ Shekau in the shoulder, (although both his shoulders and life seemed intact subsequently….). Again these attacks that coincide with high level windows of negotiation could be coincidental, a part of the negotiating strategy or an expression of military displeasure with a negotiated solution.
On the other hand it is also interesting to note that in the last 2 weeks there have been attempted PBIED attacks in Bama, Gwoza and Maiduguri and a successful VBIED attack on the outskirts of Maiduguri which indicate that the enemy has managed to reconstitute their IED networks and recovered sufficiently to begin deploying their IEDs offensively as well as defensively. A series of small arms attacks in the vicinity of the Sambisa Forest to the south of Maiduguri in Chibok, Biu and Askira Uba LGA as well as increased clashes with enemy groups armed not with dane guns but rifles and machine guns are indicative of a revived enemy military capability by the Shekau faction, despite constant air attack and observation as well as a cordon around Sambisa Forest and the presence of several Brigades in and around the Forest.
So this process was marked by both sides increasing their military efforts but still successfully concluding a swap, indicating there was a sufficient confluence of interest between the Government/ security forces (or a particular faction) and Boko Haram-Shekau to conclude this effort, possibly because Shekau needed to show he was still the original and main player in the game and Nigeria needed to a positive outcome to compensate for the bad economic news and the increasingly strained official reality being portrayed in the North East.
Whether this confluence of interest continues depends on many external and internal factors such as whether factions or factions within factions on both sides seek to sabotage any future deals, the current military reality for each side and so on.
Whilst Boko Haram has shown they can negotiate with the government for a limited objective there is no indication that they are inclined to negotiate the larger objective of ending the conflict. The limited objective of releasing a few hundred (out of several thousand) high profile abductees in return for prisoners or other incentives is eminently achievable. Abandoning their dream of a Caliphate and compromising with a ‘boko’, ‘corrupt’, democratic system is completely different.
This leads on to the conclusion that the most important development in this is that Boko Haram has been normalised as an armed combatant that is able to negotiate on equal terms with a democratically elected sovereign government mediated by a respected foreign government and NGO and achieve concessions whilst in no way renouncing their aims or methods or even giving up anything they weren’t willing to give up tin the first place, are privileges that have not been extended to any adversary in Nigerian military history.
Whilst conventional wisdom states that negotiations and prisoner releases are positive due to the channels opened I would suggest this does not pertain in this case as the negotiations did not moderate their behaviour in anyway fact during this period they increased military activity, intensifying attempts to cause mass civilian casualties.
Boko Haram from the beginning insisted they would release the girls in return for ‘their brethren’ and that is what has happened.
In other words, Boko Haram has not given up anything they were not willing to give up in the beginning and have not in any way moderated their behaviour, the channels of negotiation used have been open from the very beginning as evidence by Shehu Sani, Ahmed Salkida, Aisha Wakil, Amb. Bolori and others indicates thus it cannot even be argued that at least there is now a method to engage with the Boko Haram leadership.
One can therefore say that whilst this negotiation has resulted in a joyous relief for 21 young Nigerians and their families and a positive news cycle for the Nigerian government it is a strategic defeat for the Nigerian government and military as it has given an illegitimate and brutal adversary equal standing with a sovereign, democratic state by allowing it to dictate and achieve its own terms.
There is no disincentive for future abductions nor is there any indication that there will either be a release of other non Chibok abductees or an undertaking to end abductions.
Tellingly Boko Haram has made no specific announcement about this deal, nor did Shekau feature in the last public ‘proof of life video’ leaving the possibility open that Shekau could still denounce the deal, further tarnishing the only tangible advantage the Federal Government derived from the effort of positive PR.
It would be a brutal person who denied the remaining families the joy of seeing their children again at whatever cost but one must genuinely ask, in time of war with an implacable enemy, whether further concessions might not be a pyrrhic victory.