By Olawale Olaleye
It was one of my unusual days yesterday, when I had to struggle with mood to get in the right work mindset. This seldom happens to me and whenever it does, I just have to come up with an idea that would help knock me in the ideal work mode.
It could be drinking (I love Hennessy), walking around the house, taking a nap, running through some of my choice television stations or reading.
Yesterday, reading was what the Irumoles demanded and as I looked through my bookshelf, my eyes went straight to this book by Jonathan Powell, “Talking to Terrorists: How to End Armed Conflicts”. Very timely, I said to myself, given the increasing armed conflicts around the world and especially, in Nigeria, where a ‘technically defeated’ terrorist group has continued to wax stronger, thus encouraging other anti-social groups to rise.
After a thorough digestion of the introduction by the author himself, I almost sent a public apology to the Katsina State Governor, Aminu Bello Masari, for taking him to the cleaners after the picture of him and some bandits had dotted the social media as part of his moves to creating a peaceful and safe Katsina.
However, even though I share the views of the author on the importance of talking to armed groups as a viable solution to many of the armed conflicts around the world, I figured that the Masari approach, which pictured the governor and the bandits in a pose, and released to the world, was not strategic and clearly primitive in its thought-process.
To that extent, I withheld my apology. But his decision to engage the bandits, I have come to the conclusion, was smart, instructive and imperative. And as I have come to learn from my further reading of the book, NEGOTIATION might be the future of resolution of armed conflicts the world over.
A few hints from the book would suffice. But first, it is important to note that, Powell, author of many books and owner of Inter Mediate, a London-based charity for negotiation and mediation, which focuses on the most difficult, complex and dangerous conflicts, had treaded in the most dreaded turfs with armed gangs and his experience comes to a huge play.
Having established that counter-insurgency is an old discipline, which can no longer engage with indeterminate forces, as terrorists are otherwise known, military approach might turn out a waste of human and material resources at the end of the day.
This is why, despite the western creed of “we don’t negotiate with terrorists”, many global leaders usually end up at a table with terrorists, often sharing drinks and clinking glasses.
“When I left Downing Street in 2007, I proposed publicly that we should talk to Taliban, to Hamas and even to al-Qaeda. A foreign office spokesman said: ‘It is inconceivable that Her Majesty’s Government would ever seek to reach a mutually acceptable accommodation with a terrorist organisation like al-Qaeda’.
“Only a few years later, NATO countries are now talking to the Taliban, and the US and Israel have talked to Hamas, at least, indirectly. And in her excellent 2011 Reith Lectures, Eliza Manningham-Buller, the former head of MI5, called on government to talk to al-Qaeda.”
Whilst Powell is not really bothered about the hypocrisies of governments on the option of talking to terrorists, he was concerned more about their penchant for not learning from previous mistakes, at least, from the few times they had grudgingly spoken to terrorists, despite the devastating consequences.
“Each time we meet a new terrorist group, we start again from the scratch, partly because governments change so regularly while the leaders of the terrorist groups tend to stay in place far longer…As a result, when governments do engage with terrorists, they almost always leave it far too late.
“My experiences have, however, changed my mind and convinced me that talking is the right thing to do,” Powell said, citing some of the grippingly dangerous personal encounters he had while negotiating with some of the terrorist groups.
He therefore counseled against turning down the idea of negotiation, perhaps, because some had failed, saying “…it would equally be nonsense to suggest that none of the lessons we learned in the negotiations in Northern Ireland, from our successes and our failures, could be applied elsewhere. If people are going to make mistakes negotiating with terrorists, they should at least make their own, new mistakes rather than repeating those already made by others.”
From his suggestions on the attitudinal dispositions of the negotiators to differentiating between insurgents, guerrillas and terrorists, Powell’s work makes lucid the imperative of talking to these armed groups as most compelling contrary to crushing them.
“Crushing of a populace in arms and the stamping out of widespread disaffection by military methods, is a harassing form of warfare even in a civilised country with settled social system,” adding also that, “crushing armed groups in this way is no longer acceptable within our norms of democracy and human rights.”
Richardson, one of his interviewees, though reckoned that, “Successful counter-terrorism almost invariably requires a combination of coercive and conciliatory policies. It is imperative for success to ensure that these policies do not undermine one another by being used against the wrong audiences. Coercive policies should be restricted to the few actual perpetrators of the violence, while conciliatory policies ought to be focused on their potential recruits”.
That’s still not sufficient, Powell reasoned. Then, he adds: “While this is a useful advance, it is not enough. In my view, there needs to be a third strand to COIN in addition to the security response and ‘the hearts and minds’ campaign and that is talking to the armed groups.”
The concluding paragraph of his introduction is even the more stellar and indeed, my favourite.
Here: “Talking to terrorists will always be practically difficult and morally hazardous, but I firmly believe it is the right thing to do. President Franklin Roosevelt justified allied relations with Stalin during the Second World War by reference to his favourite Balkan proverb: ‘It is permitted you in times of grave danger to walk with the devil until you have crossed the bridge.’ The same is true of talking to terrorists.”
With the continuous killings of some of our fine military officers at the battlefield, I think the earlier the federal government embraces this option, the better for us as a nation, because clearly, apart from the fact that counter-terrorism has proven to be ineffective over the years, we do not seem to even have the firepower to effectively engage these armed groups, so, talking to them might just be the inch in time.
I saw a disturbing video of how these guys killed a female officer some days ago, excitedly severing her head from her body and I came to the conclusion that we do not stand a chance, even in counterterrorism, as such, talking to them might be the option.
This does not necessarily mean surrendering the sovereignty of the nation to them, but sacrificing so much to save the lives of our people. After all, what is the primary function of government if not to protect lives and property?
Thus, if talking to Boko Haram, bandits, militants and the likes is all that is required to finally achieve the much talked about ‘technical defeat or victory’ in these seemingly overwhelming armed conflicts, let government not delay a day more. I humbly submit!