Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari recently revealed that he is prepared to negotiate the release of the abducted Chibok schoolgirls.
Speaking to newsmen last week in Nairobi, Kenya, at the sixth Tokyo International Conference on African Development, Buhari said his government is willing to negotiate a prisoner exchange that would see the return of the Chibok girls in exchange for the release of a number of Boko Haram kingpins held in government prisons.
President Buhari, who issued the statement to the press through the presidential spokesman Garba Shehu, however, made it clear that the Nigerian authorities were not ready to invest time and resources engaging with “doubtful sources” pretending to represent Boko Haram’s leadership.
In April 2014, more than 200 mostly teenage girls were abducted from their school dormitories as they prepared to write their senior school certificate exams in Chibok, a village in Nigeria’s troubled northeast region.
Boko Haram, an extremist jihadi group intent on carving out an Islamic caliphate, claimed responsibility for the abductions and has since continued to leverage local and international media attention for its violent acts.
The Chibok girls have now been held in captivity for close to 1,000 days.
Last month, Boko Haram released a video purportedly showing the girls: In the 10-minute video, an armed representative of the terror group made the chilling remark that “some of them have died as a result of aerial bombardment,” apparently referring to the recently intensified military campaign targeting the group.
He also mentioned, “There is a number of the girls, about 40 of them, that have been married.” He finished off by saying the schoolgirls will “never” be returned if the government does not release as many Boko Haram fighters that have been held “in detention for ages.”
Counterterrorism experts, though, say they believe the Boko Haram group now appears to have been beaten back in to a difficult position. Rumors of division within their ranks was recently confirmed with the emergence of a splinter group that is supported by the Islamic State of Syria.
Security experts say they believe the group is clearly weakened and vulnerable now and the group’s recent call for a prisoner exchange in return for the abducted girls is believed to be further proof of that vulnerability.
Before now, all previous attempts by Nigerian authorities at negotiating a prisoner exchange in return for the girls have crumbled for various reasons. In what appears to be a Godsend, though, the terror group, which has hitherto rebuffed all pleas to enter in to discussions with Nigerian authorities, seems to be holding out a white flag.
The Nigerian authorities must now seize the moment and harness all resources and persons at their disposal to ensure the release of the girls.
The recent absurd arrest by the Nigerian military of three Nigerians known to have direct contact to the terror group but not allied with them in any way is regrettable as it narrows down the number of viable channels of negotiation with the group while discouraging other credible persons who can arrange talks with the group from getting involved.
Negotiating or conceding to the demands of terror groups is never a sign of weakness on the part of a government. Even though the United States famously touts the refrain, “We don’t negotiate with terrorists,” and encourages their allies to adopt a similar approach, its policy is limited to the refusal to pay ransom to terror groups.
In fact, the United States has been involved in a number of high-profile prisoner exchanges in the past of the sort Nigeria would be negotiating with Boko Haram.
The renewed effort from Nigerian troops may have pushed Boko Haram in to a corner, but the authorities should not count on a definite release of the girls through military action. If nothing else, Boko Haram has repeatedly proven by its actions that, at its core, it is nihilist.
This is a group that clearly has no regard for human lives, and it would be foolhardy to push for absolute military action or grandstand on the issue of the girls.
Bringing back the Chibok girls should be the absolute priority and all other policy considerations must take a back seat.