Time to Negotiate the release of Chibok girls

By Ejeviome Eloho Otobo

(Originally published in THISDAY, Thursday 26 June 2014, page 14)

The Presidential Fact Finding Committee on the Abduction of Chibok School Girls has submitted its report to the president. The report has laid to rest the confusion concerning the number of Chibok secondary school girls still held hostage: it confirms that there are 219 girls still in captivity out of the 276 originally abducted.

But the report cannot and has not laid to rest the sense of parental anguish, national outrage and deep international concern about the callous and brutal act of BOKO HARAM in continuing to hold the Chibok girls in captivity. The anxiety surrounding the fate of the Chibok girls grows every day that they are away from home and school, which is where they belong. The depth of despair has been underlined by two recent incidents: the reported death of two grieving mothers who are believed to have suffered heart failure and the emotional outbursts of some of the parents to the comments credited to former President Obasanjo that some of the girls may never return and others may already be pregnant.

At present, there is eerie silence in official circles concerning their current line of actions on the Chibok girls. This is as it should be in very sensitive matters of this nature. The silence could be a prelude to dramatic action: a negotiated break through or a military rescue operation. But the recent public comments by three persons (Ex-President Obasanjo; Civil Society activist, Shehu Sani; and the Journalist, Ahmad Salkida) who were working on the negotiations track seem to suggest that there is not much official encouragement or support to pursue that track. Yet, it is entirely possible, indeed probable, that the government has opened another channel to Boko Haram. ln which this article will serve as a reinforcement of that policy stance. Other wise, it is time to have another look at the option of negotiations. The more one reflects on the options available to bring the Chibok girls, the more attractive the negotiated approach becomes, involving a people to people swap rather than a cash for girls exchange.

Advocating negotiations is borne not out of weakness or capitulation but in the spirit of pragmatism. The case for not negotiating with terrorists is well rehearsed: it strengthens their belief in their heinous actions; it offers them legitimacy that they should be denied; it bolsters their resolve to continue on their criminal path; it sends a wrong signal of capitulation or indecisiveness; and it offers perverse incentives for misguided conduct.

To advocate the release of our Chibok girls through negotiations does not deprive the military the opportunity to display its might in combating the terrorism of Boko Haram. Quite the contrary, it removes a major impediment to a possible forceful action. There is little doubt that, among military planners and field commanders, the question of what impact any military offensive against Boko Haram would have on the welfare and safety of the Chibok girls features prominently in their strategy. Thus, the continuing captivity of the Chibok schoolgirls has become a constraining factor rather than a compelling reason for military action. Removing that constraint through negotiations will have a liberating effect on military strategy.

Moreover, negotiating the release of the girls does not inexorably put the government on an automatic path towards amnesty. Each of these issues, namely the release of Chibok girls, amnesty, and the larger reconstruction efforts will have to be pursued discretely. The government has already grasped the need for discrete actions by launching the emergency relief programme for the Northeast region while the insurgency is far from over. The relief programme consists of three parts: emergency relief window; reconstruction/rehabilitation window; and the safe school window.

In the current context of the Chibok girls, here is the case for negotiations. We begin by examining the phrase beloved of many military planners and strategists: “all options are on the table”–which is a coded language for using military force, if necessary, to accomplish a set of national security objectives. But can a military option be mounted at this stage to rescue the Chibok girls. The path to a successful rescue is strewn with many obstacles: much time has elapsed, since the girls were kidnapped; the element of surprise may have been lost; the girls are reportedly divided into several groups making any rescue difficult; and the risk of killing the girls during such rescue are very high.

Some analysts might point to the precedents where rescue operations have been mounted to free hostages, even if it meant the loss of a few souls. No parent can bear the thought that her promising teenage daughter might be one of the few souls to be lost because we do not want to negotiate with terrorists. Negotiation is the only option that will satisfy the three criteria that the families, friends, compatriots and international community seek. These are that all the girls return; no physical harm is inflicted on them in the course of return; and they suffer no further emotional harm. The window of a military rescue that meets these criteria is not closed but has narrowed considerably.

The thought that our girls from Chibok.will.be freed in exchange with terrorists will alarm many people. But Nigeria will not be doing anything unusual: the USA did it recently, releasing a few terrorists in Guantanamo in exchange for one of its soldiers that had been held captive by Al-Qaeda. Israel, a nation that has suffered heinous terrorists attacks, does it occasionally, exchanging imprisoned Palestinians accused of terrorist attacks for Israeli soldiers. There is a reason that these countries, which have some of the best armed forces in the world, engage in those swaps: the military option cannot deliver the persons that the governments of those countries want freed. This shows that in matters of freeing highly priced hostages, all options may be on the table; but military option is not one of them. Delicate negotiations may be what is now required. It is time to bring back our girls through negotiations.


Ejeviome Eloho Otobo was Director and Deputy Head of the UN Peacebuilding Support Office at UN Headquarters, New York. (This article was originally published in THISDAY ON 26 JUNE 2014)


About africapeacesupport

Former Representative of the United Nations SecretaryGeneral in Guinea-Bissau and Head of UNOGBIS.
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