Amidst the terror rampage across Northern Nigeria, the ensuing debate over the legitimacy and morality of government-terrorist deals for prisoner-swap or the release of abductees and the subsequent cessation of terror constitutes a striking discourse.
For the past 11 years, non-state armed groups — Boko Haram in the Northeast and other groups in the Northwest and Northcentral regions — have unleashed terror on various communities, with far-reaching consequences on the larger economy.
At different degrees, successive governments had to negotiate with the terrorists — less for the cessation of aggression, for which the military has been combating the terrorists, and more for some degree of prisoner swap or the abductees’ release. They have, however, repeatedly denied paying ransoms in reaching such deals, especially in the case of abducted school children and humanitarian workers.
Some international non-governmental organisations and local actors have played roles in midwiving such negotiations between the government and terrorists in the Northeast.
Negotiations, mooted or conducted, have always been vehemently opposed by a section of the Nigerian public who argue that striking deals with the terrorists confer legitimacy on their criminal activities.
Opposition to government-terrorist deals is often built on the belief that the government possesses, or should possess, the required military strength to crush subversive armed groups, thus living up to its responsibility of securing the lives and properties.
The protraction of terror in its various forms in Nigeria has further compounded the belief by a section of the public that the delay in taking proactive measures is due to a lack of capacity on the government’s part to combat terror.
Some believe that the government, and possibly some forces behind it, wish that terror lasts for as long as they want it to, for whatever reasons, and are ready to torpedo every effort at reaching a consensus.
Perhaps advised by such global practices as the US-Taliban deals on the Afghan crisis, the federal government and the terror-tormented states’ governments seem to have become more open to striking deals with armed groups.
Apart from the federal government, Governor Bello Matawalle of Zamfara State, the acclaimed epicentre of terror-banditry, seems, famously or infamously, the foremost advocate and practitioner of the dialogue option in dealing with the terrorists. He believes this method has helped the state squeeze out some security measures to guarantee some development and economic activity.
Matawalle is convinced that a non-violent approach is the most reasonable means of tackling agitations and insecurity, sourcing justification from former President Umaru Musa Yar’adua’s adoption of dialogue to resolve the restiveness in the Niger-Delta region.
“I have always been saying the best solution and option to tackle banditry is to seek for dialogue with the bandits,” he said in February.
“If really we want to end this banditry activity, we have to sit at a roundtable and negotiate because through dialogue and reconciliation. We were able to secure the release of many people who were under the captivity of kidnappers.”
The Zamfara helmsman seems to have acquired ‘impressive’ competence and reliability in this regard that he was, allegedly, ‘beseeched’ by the federal authorities to intercede for the release of the 344 schoolboys abducted in Kankara, Katsina State, last December.
Not every governor in the Northwest was, however, impressed. Governor Nasir El-Rufai of Kaduna State, for example, is in stiff opposition to deal-striking with terrorists.
El-Rufai believes the Northwest governors, with the support of the federal government, have forged a formidable military strategy to exterminate terror in the geopolitical zone, in the fashion of using a sledgehammer to crush an ant.
This implies that any governor in the zone negotiating with the terrorists could be seen as ‘complicit’ in the wave of crimes.
“We identified the Kamuku-Kuyambana forest range, running from Niger State through Birnin-Gwari in Kaduna State and across most NorthWest states, as the major bandit enclave. We initiated discussions with our neighbours, and the governors developed a shared appreciation of the problem and decided to try and solve it,” El-Rufai recalled at an event in Lagos on Feb. 19.
“With remarkable unanimity, the governors of the Northwest states and Niger State jointly provided the funding of a military operation for which the Federal Government committed its military assets. The military operations in the Birnin Gwari axis decimated the bandits and heralded a massive reduction in cattle rustling,” he said.
Following the recent abduction of passengers on a Niger State Transport Authority bus and the Kagara schoolboys, both in Niger State, the Niger State government, subscribing to the deal striking option, subsequently appealed to terrorists across the state to lay down their arms and embrace dialogue for peace to prevail.
Secretary to the State Government (SSG) Ahmed Ibrahim Matane expressed the plea in Dutsen Magaji, Mariga Local Government Area of the state while addressing the terrorists and their commanders.
Accompanied by the renowned Kaduna Muslim cleric, Sheikh Ahmed Abubakar Gumi, Matane reportedly stressed the need for a peace dialogue to end the security challenges bedevilling the state.
Sheikh Gumi has been foraying into the bushes of the Northwest, holding dialogue and striking deals with the terrorists and, reportedly, securing the repentance of hundreds of terrorists who want the government to grant them amnesty.
“It is a complex issue that Nigerians need to understand,” he told Channels Television on Monday. “The solution is very simple, but it’s not military hardware. The solution is dialogue and teaching.”
However, a former Catholic Archbishop of Abuja Diocese, Archbishop John Cardinal, is opposed to striking deals with militants.
He was reported to have said to reporters in Minna recently that it was wrong for the government to dialogue with the terrorists. He reprimanded the government for pretending that it was in charge while non-state actors have taken over the country.
“And government agencies are talking about reaching out to them. It is not the right thing to do,” he was quoted saying.
The debate rages on as the country gets increasingly entangled in the complex web of terror. The impropriety or otherwise of negotiating with terrorists remains a question that there is no unanimous answer.