Skip to main content

Opinion: Negotiation, not force, way to #BringBackOurGirls

By Shehu Sani, Special to CNN
updated 8:48 AM EDT, Wed May 14, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Global media paid Boko Haram little attention until 200 girls were abducted, says Shehu Sani
  • Boko Haram became more violent after its founder was killed in 2009, he says
  • At talks in 2011, the group blamed government action for their militancy, Sani says
  • He says the use of force to free hostages can be deadly and negotiations must be held

Editor's note: Shehu Sani is a Nigerian civil rights activist, playwright and author. He is president of the Civil Rights Congress of Nigeria and has negotiated with Boko Haram in the past. Follow @shehusani on Twitter. The views expressed in this commentary are solely the author's.

(CNN) -- Until the abduction of more than 200 girls at the Government Girls Secondary School in rural Chibok, Nigeria's Boko Haram insurgency received scant attention in the global media, which gave it brief airtime when the insurgents exploded their bombs or torched a school.

However, the mass abduction has brought the world's attention to the callous and unceasing violence that has become routine in northern Nigeria over the last three years.

Shehu Sani
Shehu Sani

The area has suffered more than three decades of religious violence between Muslims and Christians.

But since Boko Haram founder Mohammed Yusuf was killed in a 2009 security crackdown -- along with hundreds of his followers -- the militant Islamist group has stepped up its attacks.

Boko Haram militants have killed clerics, bombed churches and mosques and assassinated politicians and government officials.

When the militants attack churches, their aim is to start a sectarian war that will engulf the country; when they attack mosques, their aim is to exterminate Muslims they consider collaborators.

Experience has shown that attempts in the past to free hostages from the insurgents through the use of force has deadly consequences.
Shehu Sani

In the last three years, the Nigerian Government has opted for the use of force to exterminate the insurgents, rather than diminish the activities of the group -- and it has become more daring and audacious in its attacks.

Despite the allocation of 25% of the annual budget to defense and security, the government has been unable to crush and contain the insurgency. The group has taken on and demoralized the rank and file of the Nigerian army and police.

Boko Haram has launched deadly raids on military garrisons and police and secret intelligence offices to free their detained members. The use of force against the group has only led to allegations of a chain of rights abuses with the justification that it is a war on terror.

Nigeria's Human Rights Commission last year accused the military of arbitrary killings, torture and rape in its campaign, while the military has described reports of civilian casualties as "grossly exaggerated."

Our constitutional freedom has been formally suppressed by the authorities on the grounds of national emergency. The strategy of collective punishment, arbitrary arrests, prolonged detention and killing raids by the security forces has alienated the civil populace and turned them into victims. In the war against Boko Haram, civilians have become victims of both the military and the militants.

Meeting with Boko Haram

I mooted the idea of dialogue with the insurgents as a new option towards ending the insurgency and restoring peace to my bewildered and beleaguered nation. In September 2011, I facilitated talks with the insurgents and the former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo -- then chairman of Nigeria's ruling party.

READ MORE: Swap prisoners for kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls, ex-negotiator says

Nigeria: A stolen education
Should Nigeria negotiate girls' release?
U.S. sends spy planes to help Nigeria
Weeks after the April 14 kidnapping of more than 200 Nigerian girls, worried families and supporters blamed the government for not doing enough to find them. Their cries spread worldwide on social media under the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls. From regular people to celebrities, here are some of the people participating in the movement. Weeks after the April 14 kidnapping of more than 200 Nigerian girls, worried families and supporters blamed the government for not doing enough to find them. Their cries spread worldwide on social media under the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls. From regular people to celebrities, here are some of the people participating in the movement.
'Bring Back Our Girls!'
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
>
>>
Bring Back Our Girls Bring Back Our Girls

The first surprise in the encounter was that the representatives of the terror group spoke fluent English. The bigger surprise was when some of the insurgents revealed that they had university degrees. It is a prerequisite for new Boko Haram members to burn their university certificates or any paper identification that links them secular schools.

In the meeting, they justified their violence on the grounds that it was the Nigerian Government that had forced them to take up arms. They said that before they trod the path of violence, they first tried to take the path of peace.

They even showed us copies of a petition they wrote to the government complaining about the harassment and intimidation of their sect members by security forces before they picked up arms.

They showed us photographs of followers and relatives they said had been killed by the police in cold blood, even before the insurgency began and threatened more attacks until they "avenge the injustices done to them."

They expressed anger at the way people criticized and condemned them when they launched attacks but kept mute when Boko Haram members were killed, their homes demolished and their wives and children arrested by the security forces.

We took their grievances to the government and advised the government to follow through, but hawks within the corridors of power discouraged the president from taking our advice.

The second effort at dialogue involved a northern Islamic cleric and head of the Nigeria sharia council. The talks were facilitated by a freelance journalist who was later threatened by those opposed to dialogue.

This second round of dialogue took place in the last quarter of 2012.

Boko Haram accused the government of leaking the details of the talks to the media for political reasons. One of the group's conditions for talks had been that only their outcome be made public.

We were close to achieving a ceasefire but again hawks, security and defense contractors in the corridors of power sabotaged our efforts.

I have never met the Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau but I declined to meet him on two occasions when I got his invitation to interview him. I declined because I realized that the government was not interested in my approach.

'Preventable and avoidable'

The abduction of the girls in Chibok is one of many abductions over the last three years.

If the Nigerian authorities took lessons from earlier attacks on schools by the insurgents, the Chibok abductions couldn't have happened. The Chibok abduction was a preventable and avoidable tragedy.

When the militants abduct boys, they use them as conscripts and girls as cooks and hostages. I cannot confirm if they used abducted girls as sex slaves -- the leadership of the group denied such reports when we asked them, but abducted women who were later freed give credence to such claims.

Each day the Chibok girls spend in captivity keeps the moral flag of my country at half mast.

The #BringBackOurGirls protest and the interest shown by President Obama and other world leaders and celebrities like Alicia Keys and Angelina Jolie has kept the spirits of Chibok mothers high and the Nigerian Government on its toes.

When we were children, we used to forecast that one day the Sambisa forest in Borno state would become a game reserve which would attract foreign tourists and foreign currencies. Today it is attracting foreign interest for negative reasons.

The Chibok girls must be freed but not by the use of force except when other options fail. The schoolgirls are now innocent hostages in the hands of soulless gunmen.

We don't want the body of the girls to be brought back home, we want them back home alive.

Political future

The use of force could turn out to be tragic. Experience has shown that attempts in the past to free hostages from the insurgents through the use of force has deadly consequences.

French hostages were freed in Nigeria through negotiations but a British and Italian hostage were killed in Sokoto when UK forces went to free them.

We can get the Chibok girls back home and we must.

I was delighted to learn that the special team sent by the U.S. and UK also included experts in hostage negotiation. I strongly believe that Islamic clerics in northern Nigeria and some of the top ranking insurgents currently in detention can be used to open a channel of communication with the leadership of the sect in order to secure the release of the Chibok girls.

There are those who say that the option of negotiating to free the hostages will embolden the terrorists, I have never been a hostage but I have been a political prisoner who spent many years in prison during our struggle against military dictatorship in Nigeria in the 1990s.

Those who experience captivity appreciate freedom the most.

The situation we find ourselves in is a tough moment in our history, but I believe we shall overcome it.

Many Nigerians believe that the way the Chibok issue is resolved will determine the political future of Nigeria.

Opinion: Nigerians right to be wary of U.S. intentions

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Shehu Sani.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Thu October 9, 2014
Arwa Damon meets two young orphans, now in Niger, whose mother died years ago -- and whose father was killed in a Boko Haram attack in Nigeria.
updated 6:41 AM EDT, Tue June 10, 2014
A small river marks the border between Niger and Nigeria -- a shallow divide between security and the horrors of Boko Haram.
updated 5:59 AM EDT, Tue June 10, 2014
CNN's Arwa Damon reports that U.S. sources now believe Boko Haram insurgents may be hiding on the islands of Lake Chad.
updated 3:15 PM EDT, Thu June 5, 2014
Isha Sesay talks to journalist Aminu Abubakar who says approximately 500 people have been killed in northeastern Nigeria.
updated 6:07 AM EDT, Wed June 4, 2014
A policeman stand beside children holding as members of Lagos based civil society groups hold rally calling for the release of missing Chibok school girls at the state government house, in Lagos, Nigeria, on May 5, 2014. Boko Haram on Monday claimed the abduction of hundreds of schoolgirls in northern Nigeria that has triggered international outrage, threatening to sell them as
Police in Nigeria's capital Tuesday made a U-turn, saying a ban on protests in support of the more than 200 girls kidnapped in April does not exist.
updated 2:36 AM EDT, Tue May 27, 2014
A top Nigerian official claims to know where the missing schoolgirls are located, as Arwa Damon reports.
updated 5:00 PM EDT, Mon May 26, 2014
Arwa Damon reports on Nigerian schools sitting empty as residents live in fear of Boko Haram.
updated 7:11 PM EDT, Wed May 21, 2014
A large part of northern and central Nigeria is now at the mercy of intensified attacks by Boko Haram, and the group seems to be embarking on a new phase of its campaign.
updated 10:02 AM EDT, Wed May 21, 2014
Half of a yellow sun poster
It's one of the most important Nigerian stories to hit the big screen -- yet the director says Nigeria's bureaucracy is purposely preventing its release.
updated 7:51 AM EDT, Mon May 19, 2014
Opinion: The media turns Boko Haram into 'superstar monsters' -- which is exactly what they want.
updated 8:24 AM EDT, Tue May 13, 2014
CNN's Nima Elbagir speaks with the mothers of two missing Nigerian schoolgirls.
updated 9:18 AM EDT, Mon May 12, 2014
With fear in her eyes, a young woman tells CNN's Nima Elbagir, the first journalist to visit Chibok, how she fled gun-toting Islamic extremists.
updated 6:39 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Over the last 20 years, the narrative on the African continent has shifted from Afro-pessimism to Afro-optimism.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Thu May 8, 2014
Women in repressive countries are fighting back against injustice, writes Frida Ghitis.
updated 8:46 AM EST, Tue March 4, 2014
Biyi Bandele, who recently directed Oscar nominated Chiwetel Ejiofor in "Half of a Yellow Sun," discusses his remarkable journey.
updated 6:24 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
From regular people to celebrities, here are some of the people participating in the movement.
updated 5:33 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Nigeria woke up to a brand new economy, apparently. But the country are suffering and its people responded with a hiss.
updated 5:00 AM EDT, Mon April 7, 2014
At 23, many people around the world are still at university -- at that age, Gossy Ukanwoke had already started one.
updated 12:23 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Oprah, if you're reading this, for goodness sake return this woman's calls.
Are you in Nigeria? Share your thoughts on the schoolgirls' kidnapping, but please stay safe.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT