Note: This is the second part of the series. In this part we look at other reasons why Shekau is not negotiating with the Nigerian State, and also at why Harakatul-Muhajiriin wal-Mujahidiin is not interested in negotiations and is not talking to the Nigerian government.
The Nigerian government is certainly talking to someone, this much I can confirm, but it is not who they are trying to pass off to the world as the one they are negotiating with. None of the active groups or the core ideologues of the insurgency is talking to the Nigerian government right now. Nearly all of them are not interested in talking with the Nigerian government, and the only one that is willing to sit at the table and talk i.e Muhammad Daud is not willing to disarm and take an amnesty offer, nor is he currently talking to the Nigerian government. So who is talking to the Nigerian government? and why is the Nigerian government trying to pass this off as a negotiation with a monolithic Boko Haram?
The answer lies in the President Buhari’s three month pledge to end Boko Haram, and the Army’s string of victories on the conventional battle space. Since the current administration took office, there has been a dedicated effort to chronicle the drive to take back all territories conquered by the insurgents, and to quickly get to the point where the President can say “Mission Accomplished” a la George W. Bush. Hence the media focus on how many villages are towns have been liberated, how many IEDs were found unexploded on the roads, how many places the Cheif of Army Staff, Lt General Tukur Buratai has visited and raised the flag etc. What follows next is for the government to round up some bodies in prison who have no strategic relevance in the plans of the insurgency and declare them deradicalized, and when some forced draftee into the insurgency’s forces probably seeking a soft landing approaches the government through some local prominent people from his village to see if he can get that soft landing, the government touts it as an evidence that the insurgents are so weak that all that remains is for them to be offered an amnesty and re-absorbed into polite society.
This focus on bodies killed, towns captured, some people wishing to surrender, is a symptom of the same myopia the US military exhibited in Vietnam and recently in Afghanistan and Iraq. But it is worse here because while the insurgency in Iraq and Vietnam needed the cooperation of a part of the local society to succeed, the insurgency here does not take local society into cognizance, so no North East Surge or Borno Awakening can almost eliminate it like it happened in Iraq.
A major overlooked factor, is ideological commitment to the cause. Within all groups banded by the public into the generic term Boko Haram, there is the common factor of extreme belief in the cause they are each fighting for. From the lowliest fighter to the highest commander. Their belief can be said to be ten times more firmer than the belief of many Arab and Somali Jihadis. The only people that may come close to this insane firmness of belief are probably the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban.
The fact that they have lost almost all territory does not deter the Islamic State’s West Africa Province, nor does it deter Harakatul-Muhajiriin. Rather it is seen as what was destined to happen. Anyone who has lived in a traditional Northern Nigeria Izala/Salafi/Yusufi community will understand this belief system on what has been destined and its inevitability. They win they loose, this is not the measure of their success. They would rather die than to throw down their arms and embrace an amnesty offer. Conscripted fighters of course will for a significant part jump at the chance to escape the insurgency via an amnesty, but they are insignifcant in the whole game. They are just bodies to be thrown to do the dying in conventional combat. They are not what makes any of these groups what they are. To put it simply, they are absolutely expendable.
In the case of Islamic State West Africa, you have a group that is becoming ,more and more a real presence of the Islamic State in Nigeria, that is made up of people committed to dying in the cause, and in whic Shekau is becoming more and more irrelevant each day to the strategic direction of the group. What we are seeing is a decentralization of the Islamic State West Africa, where operational authority is being transferred to the field amirs, who will be reporting directly to their regional section commanders in Libya until they can have a secure and firm way of engaging in constant communication with Ar-Raqqah, while Shekau is becoming just a general supervisor with no control over policy direction. Significant is that he masterminded this switch to the Islamic State, despite his well known dictatorial tendencies and his love of the spot light, and despite him knowing fully well that he would become mostly irrelevant in the grand scheme of things if he merged his group into the Islamic State. At the end, the cause took precedence over his own self and he did what had to be done.
So even if in the future, Shekau says that he is willing to negotiate and accept and amnesty offer, take it with a pinch of salt, unless Islamic State Headquarters in Ar-Raqqah okays it. For now, Shekau is not negotiating, nor is he willing to negotiate, and neither is it of any strategic benefit to his masters in Ar-Raqqah to negotiate for one IED expert in return for girls they do not have.
Khalid Al-Barnawi and Harakatul-Muhajiriin are a different kettle of fish. Firstly, they are not talking with the Nigerian government, they have no means of contacting the Nigerian government, nor has the Nigerian government talked to the only person that they will trust to broker any negotiations with them.
Secondly, they are not interested in talking with the Nigerian government. Right now talks with Abuja, will bring them no benefit of any kind, and this is something that the decision makers in that group recognize. And if they will negotiate with the Nigerian government, which is highly improbable, it would not be to accept and amnesty or to accept a payment, or to secure the release of an IED expert, of which they have many. If ever they had any valuable asset in the custody of the Nigerian State, they would break into the prison and bring him out. They have a department for doing just that. When they were still an affiliate of Ansarul-Muslimiin, this department was directly overseen by Khalid Al-Barnawi and was responsible for many fantastic prison-break operations including the break into the highly secure detainment facility SARS (an outfit within the Nigerian Police Force) ran just outside Abuja. Now that department is run by an equally gifted operator nicknamed ‘Bin Ladin’. Breaking into Nigeria’s detention facilities is an easy matter for them, and they have not broken into any Nigerian prisons again because Nigeria does not hold any valuable asset of theirs.
So who is Nigeria talking to? Best guess some insurgent draftees seeking to flee the war they were forced into. Worst case scenario another Ali Modu Sheriff-style long con.