(Not) Negotiating with Ghosts

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By Okey Ndibe

I was reading a report in last Sunday’s edition of the Punch titled “FG Rules out Direct Talks with Boko Haram” when a statement by presidential spokesman, Reuben Abati, jumped out at me. According to the paper, Mr. Abati confirmed that the Goodluck Jonathan administration was not in direct talks with Boko Haram, the militant Islamist sect that has often taken (dis)credit for numerous acts of gruesome violence in Nigeria. Then the president’s spokesman reportedly added: “There are different types of adversaries. This one is anonymous, faceless and ghost-like. Government cannot discuss with ghosts.”

It was – for reasons one will get to in a moment – a startling, curious and disturbing phrase from the president’s mouthpiece. Mr. Abati also made three other points that would bear examination. One, that the “position of government is clear and the president has made it clear on many occasions that this administration is willing to attend to the grievances of the group if they come out and put their demands on the table.” Two: that the president believes “that it is a collective responsibility to tackle the resurgence [of violence]” hence Mr. Jonathan’s “charge to traditional and community leaders [to] assist the government in tackling the violence.” Then the third point: that the federal government “set up a committee on the violence in the North East. The report has been submitted and has been deliberated at the Federal Executive Council meeting and a White Paper will soon be issued.”

Over the last two weeks, there has been much speculation about negotiations between the government and proxies for Boko Haram. Boko Haram, which uses the grammar of violence to make its point(s), had at various times accused the government of bad faith, and sworn off continued participation in any negotiations. Last week, the Arewa Consultative Forum urged both sides to stick to negotiations.

As things stand, nobody knows whether there’s any measure of seriousness on either side – the government or Boko Haram’s – to engage in meaningful talks. But there’s a larger, more potent question. It is this: Boko Haram is driven, ideologically, by a fundamental rejection of the neo-western tenets that inform the Nigerian state. The group’s commitment is to supplant Nigeria’s aspirations (or pretenses) to western-style liberal democratic norms and forms with a system founded on Islamic precepts and practices.

By contrast, the political institutions of the Nigerian state – with President Jonathan as the most visible emblem – are beholden to the preservation of the status quo. It has become fashionable to view the violent activities of Boko Haram as part of a carefully calibrated strategy by northern politicians to begrudge Mr. Jonathan his presidential mandate.

If Boko Haram has morphed into an anti-Jonathan organism, it would be a telling transformation. Still, it is just as likely that new outfits of violence have been empowered – and deployed to operate in the large shadow cast by Boko Haram. For let us not forget in a hurry that the Boko Haram group both preceded Jonathan’s presidency and, at first, sought to mobilize the north’s dispossessed masses to rise against thieving northern politicians. When the late Umaru Yar’Adua unleashed the military on Boko Haram in Maiduguri, it was not because the sect preached a heretical form of Islam. At issue was Mr. Yar’Adua’s realization that the group, with its irrefutable itemization of the wanton and corrupt practices of most northern politicians, posed a real threat to the northern political elite who, like their counterparts from other parts of Nigeria, are versed in the art of sacrificing the larger good to their selfish, gluttonous interests.

It’s doubtful that any moral or ethical difference exists between the Jonathan and Yar’Adua administrations. Under both men, Nigeria remains a floundering, storm-tossed ship bereft of direction or destination. Nigeria has for long been a day-to-day miracle of bare survival, a day-by-day journey to nowhere. To right the ship demands collective acknowledgement that Nigeria – as our two best writers, Achebe and Soyinka, have reminded us – is not yet founded.

Therein, one suggests, lies the reason for rethinking the current rhetoric of negotiating with Boko Haram. As articulated by Mr. Abati, the Jonathan administration’s policy on the sect is confused, contradictory and effete. For the government to categorize Boko Haram as “anonymous, faceless and ghost-like” is to expose its own laziness, and even the utter incompetence of the state. With its vast network of law enforcement, security and intelligence agencies, it beggars belief that the government has no clue who the leaders of Boko Haram are. If the police, SSS and a mushroom of other agencies have not divined the spirits behind the sect, then the Nigerian state is even more hopeless than anybody ever conjectured.

Boko Haram frequently issues statements, some of them posted as videos on the Internet. Nigeria’s security agents have arrested some of the sect’s members. Is there then no way of using interrogatory means to unmask other members? And how about infiltrating the group? My point is that a group that maintains the presence of Boko Haram cannot reasonably be described as “anonymous, faceless and ghost-like.” Even if the Musas, Ifeanyis and Seguns of the Nigerian streets are baffled by the identity of Boko Haram’s top operatives, the government should not labour under the same cluelessness.

In his statement to Punch, the president’s spokesman suggested that the Jonathan administration would “attend to the grievances of the group if they come out and put their demands on the table.” It’s a disingenuous, if not outright deceptive, pledge. For one, the government knows what Boko Haram wants; the group has made no secret of its vision. At its core, the sect seeks the repudiation of western values and Nigeria’s adoption of Islamic standards and traditions of justice. Jonathan or his representatives need not meet physically with members of Boko Haram to divine what the group wants. In fact, if he so chooses, Mr. Jonathan could unilaterally push for the passage or effectuation of the sect’s demands.

Imagine, for a moment, a negotiation session between the government and Boko Haram. It’s not inconceivable that the group would demand that politicians who steal public funds submit their limbs for amputation. Is Mr. Jonathan willing to accede to that? And, if the group demands that those engaged in sex with mistresses be stoned or publicly flogged, is Mr. Jonathan ready to comply?

It is amazing that the president (through Mr. Abati) would, in one breath, declare Boko Haram faceless and anonymous and, in another, invite “traditional and community leaders” to assist the government in tackling the violence.” By what mechanics are these traditional and community leaders to intervene? How are unarmed, unsophisticated traditional and community leaders to tackle violence spewed by faceless, anonymous ghosts? Do these leaders possess some extra-sensory equipment for detecting the ghosts of Boko Haram? Do they have antenna for picking up the identity of “ghosts” that are unknown to the government?

If the government’s response to the scourge of Boko Haram is illogical – and it is – then we must ask why this is so. The answer is complicated, but can be reduced to a simple form: Nigeria as an idea is essentially up in the air, a vexed, unsettled proposition.

The reason there’s such hullabaloo about negotiating with Boko Haram has to do with the militant sect’s massive deployment of violence. Violence gets attention. That explains all the scurrying about to engage Boko Haram – or even to present a front of doing so. After all, Jonathan has done nothing to address the grievances of Nigerians who desire greater transparency and accountability in governance. He has shown nothing but disdain for those asking that he declare his assets, an altogether ordinary demand. He has disregarded calls by recognizable Nigerians – not shadows or ghosts – for a real, institutional fight against corruption, or the enthronement of democratic practices. If Mr. Jonathan won’t negotiate in good faith with men and women with faces and fixed addresses, why should Boko Haram take him seriously when he pledges to address their grouses – on condition that they remove their masks, don babarigas and show up at a table?

In the end, the incoherence of the government’s current policy bespeaks a larger problem. The whole question of Nigeria is what needs to be negotiated – in a wide conversation that must involve all interests within the Nigerian space. Any piecemeal negotiation, say with Boko Haram, is ultimately useless. Tomorrow, any group is liable to arise, with its own tablet of grudges, with its own army of “faceless, anonymous and ghost-like” flame throwers. And then a space that ducks the fundamental task of negotiating the terms of its existence as a nation will find itself trapped in yet another vicious, sisyphean battle with familiar foes. And we’ll be caught in the contradiction of looking at ourselves in the mirror and seeing ghosts.

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