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No Easy Choices – Boko Haram: Which Way Forward for President Goodluck Jonathan


Henry Mgbemena

In light of recent developments in America and President Jonathan’s statements indicating military actions against Boko Haram may be looming, I just couldn’t resist writing this sequel to my last blog #Bring Back Our Girls: Eyes on the ball Mr. Chief of Defense Staff!. On May 31, 2014, President Obama released five top Taliban commanders held in Guantanamo prison in exchange of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, an American soldier kidnapped in Afghanistan since 2009. The prisoners swap has generated a lot of debates, with opponents querying the rationale behind the deal and likely impact on US war on terror. This incident got me thinking about the dilemma President Jonathan finds himself over the Chibok girls’ abduction. I maintain my earlier submission in support of whatever decision he takes in resolving the impasse and hope he makes the right call which only posterity shall tell. As an experienced hostage negotiator, I know that in every hostage incident management, all options remain on the table until the hostages are safely released. Though each situation is unique, approaches defer based on personalities involved, value placed on the hostages and assessed likelihood of a successful military tactical release. My intention here is simply to highlight how other countries have dealt with similar situations in the past and to analyze the likely effect each approach will have on Nigeria.

Israel is a country that highly values her citizens and will go to any extent to secure their freedom with proper strategic appreciation of each situation. In July 1976, Israel refused to concede to hijackers’ demands to trade 53 Palestinian militants detainees for 95 Jewish passengers and French crew taken hostage on Air France flight 139 diverted to Uganda. Israeli military commandos launched Operation Thunderbolt, struck with precision and rescued 102 hostages. All the hijackers, three hostages and 45 Ugandan soldiers were killed. In October 2011 however, Israel changed tactics and agreed to exchange a soldier captured by Hamas in 2006 for a whopping 1027 Palestinian prisoners held in Israel, not minding that the released prisoners were responsible for the deaths of 569 Israeli civilians. 

On the other hand, Algeria is a country known for their hardline approach to terrorism as a result of bitter experiences from fighting terrorists and rebellions since the 1990s. In January 2013, militants loyal to Mokhtar Belmokhtar opposed to French military involvement in Mali took several hostages in an Algerian refinery in Ain Amenas. Algerian government’s response to the crisis was typical of its history in confronting terrorists; favoring military action over negotiation. Algerian Special Forces used helicopter gunships to bomb the location regardless of the hostages that were used as human shield by the terrorists. The attack left at least 23 hostages dead and all 32 militants killed—I leave it to your judgment as to whether or not the government’s determination to stamp out terrorism is worth the supreme sacrifice the innocent hostages had to pay. 

The ball is in now in President Jonathan’s court and  this is surely a test case as whatever step he takes will define his counter terrorism strategy. Hopefully his decision will not be based on emotions, devoid of political undertones, well thought-through and communicated. And above all, the security of the entire citizenry should be paramount. Perhaps he should take this opportunity to ponder over other Nigerian hostages all over the country and those incarcerated without trials in countries like China, Thailand, UAE, Saudi Arabia…the list is endless. Can this situation define the value the government places on Nigerians?

We all sympathize with the families of the Chibok girls who would prefer President Jonathan to strike a deal to secure their freedom. But if he deals and frees the girls, will that win the war against Boko Haram? Since Israel traded one soldier for over a thousand Palestinian, they still maintain an upper hand in the conflict and may have arrested more than the number of militants released from 2011 till date. Even though President Obama has been criticized for his decision to trade the Taliban prisoners, I believe he must have critically examined it and certain the benefit outweighs likely negative impact on America’s overall counterterrorism strategy. He must have surely placed a value on the life of the soldier who has been with the Taliban for five years—a possible source of vital intelligence? My take is if President Jonathan decides to deal, it should be followed by a very robust game plan to strike a bigger blow on Boko Haram.

What if President Jonathan decides not to deal? I know it is a difficult call to make knowing that the lives of innocent children are involved. But is that not what it takes to be the Commander-in-Chief of a country of over 150million people at war? Two key issues that should be considered is do we have the military capabilities to carry out a precision attack like the Israelis or Navy Seal Team Six that snuffed out life from Osama bin laden or are we adopting the Algerian formula? Is it a correct assumption that we don’t have that precision capability based on the statement by the military that they know where the girls are but not ready to use force for fear of casualties? How then does this tie up with comments by Senator David Mark that Nigeria will not negotiate and that of President Jonathan that all is set to deal Boko Haram a deadly blow? Is this a pointer that he is deploying foreign boots on the ground? 

The President’s comment is indeed a very welcome development but hastily communicated knowing that surprise is a key principle of war. I saw the documentary on the killing of Osama bin Laden and was struck by the top secret nature of the entire operations. Only a handful of people in the Obama cabinet knew about the operation, to the extent that the deputy National Security Adviser was not told until the last minute. The Navy Seal Team Six that carried out the attack only knew their target just before boarding the aircrafts, and President Obama only announced the mission after the body of Bin Laden was subjected to a DNA test and confirmed a match. I think President Jonathan spoke too soon but hopefully, the Generals may still find a way to carry out the tactical but we should all continue to pray for the soldiers that will be involved in “Operation Deadly Blow”.

Can President Jonathan do it the Algerian way? How will Nigerians and the international community react to such an outcome especially since the hostages are children? I still remember the September 2004 Beslan school hostage crisis and how Russia was criticized for the rescue mission that left over 380 people dead. How will the Government handle the fallout from such a situation considering the poor public relations record in the overall Boko Haram saga? I believe a dynamic government-media partnership is what we need rather than total media blackout. Nigerians need to be kept informed and prepared for whatever it takes to defeat these fanatics because that is the only way to garner their support. Terrorism is a cancer that requires a long battle, especially when it has metastasized like Boko Haram. No single deadly blow can do the magic as demobilization, de-radicalization, reconciliation and reintegration strategies still need to be worked out.