A few days ago, an alleged spokesperson of the Boko Haram terrorist sect contacted journalists and announced the willingness of the sect to dialogue. He went further to lay down their demands for downing arms, listed their preferred negotiators and even picked a location for the negotiations. Even though the Presidency has welcomed the idea of a negotiation, I find myself struggling to be excited about it. Like I have explained in previous articles here and here, there is no certainty that the said spokesperson was truly speaking for Boko Haram. It will not be a surprise if another statement comes from the sect disowning the spokesperson.
However, even beyond that, it is important for us to look at what implications negotiating with a group that openly resorts to bloodshed and carnage in order to drive home their political agenda hold for the Nigerian democracy. Democracy by itself is not just the freedom to elect public officials to guide the nation and grow it; it is also the opportunity for people of different persuasions to meet, dialogue and find ways to create the type of governments and societies they want. Democracy also gives us a framework for having our grievances addressed via a justice system and legislative assemblies.
Even though our democracy is far from perfect – indeed, no democracy is – the Boko Haram sect has chosen to ignore the available channels of agitating for their aspirations. Rather, they have elected to try to force the hands of the government and the people of Nigeria into giving in to their demands via a campaign of terror against Nigerians. Boko Haram also is not the first group to have taken the path of violence as a form of agitation: there was the O’dua People’s Congress (OPC) in the South-West and Egbesu Boys in Bayelsa during the Obasanjo administration and then Niger-Delta militant groups during the Yar’adua Presidency until they got amnesty.
Internal crises such as these ones are one of the biggest problems for countries that emerge from long decades of dictatorship and repression, especially when they are a multi-ethnic, multi-religious nation as Nigeria is. This is because in such nations, people usually identify more with their ethnicities, regions and/or religious faiths, which makes national unity weak. This is made even worse by the fact that the free and open society needed to create an equal-opportunity environment had been sorely lacking.
Thus, when that strong force that has been holding that country together in subservience is removed, the emotions long suppressed are set free and they boil over. The result is chaos and crises as each of the groups that make up such plural nations struggle not just for identity, but also to assert themselves and make themselves to be dominant in the power play that emerges.
There are enough examples of other countries where this has happened, such as the sectarian crises between Sunnis and Shias in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq. In Syria, it is one of the reasons the anti-government revolution has gradually degenerated into a quite complex civil war; and unless care is taken, this power play and crises might also occur in Libya.
It is inevitable that the Nigerian government would have to concede to at least some of the demands of the Boko Haram sect. it is the very idea of negotiations that parties meet each other halfway and end up with a win-win situation. However, the government must ensure that this does not send the wrong signals to other groups within the country that have agitations and make them believe that they can go outside the judicial and political systems to have their demands met.
It is important that the government ensure that the institutions of democracy are made stronger in order to build the confidence of the Nigerian peoples in them. The justice system must be equitable and fast that the common man has unalloyed confidence in it; legislative assemblies must be made up of men and women who are truly representatives of their people and not their pockets. There must also be more efforts by governments and civil society organizations at encouraging participatory politics among Nigerians. There are numerous proper methods of agitation: media usage, pressure groups, private bills, legislative lobbying, etc., and all these are avenues Nigerians should be encouraged and shown how to use.
Even more so, the Nigerian government should strengthen the security and intelligence apparatuses of the country. It will be naïve of us to think that Boko Haram will be the last agitated group that will desire to take up arms against the government and other Nigerians. The Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB), a separatist group is one such group whose existence threatens the unity of this country, even though all their activities so far have been non-violent. However, this was also how the militant groups in the Niger Delta and the Boko Haram sect started. All hands must be on deck to make sure that a group such as MASSOB does not become armed, while at the same time encouraging them to have their agitations addressed within the accepted political and justice systems and through the proper channels.
Nigerians deserve to enjoy peace and prosperity in this democratic dispensation after decades of groaning under repressive military rule. We must make sure that this democracy works for everyone by affording them the opportunities to be involved in the determination of how they want governance and society to be.