When neither opponent can achieve the upper hand in a game of chess, it’s only a matter of time before a stalemate is declared. In a protracted battle in which no-one enjoys the upper hand, the question is not if but when there will be an impasse. Chess is, of course, a world away from the painful deadlock between states and terror groups characterised by the loss of lives and social upheaval – but it’s a useful analogy.
In the real world countries in the Horn of Africa, the Lake Chad Basin and the Sahel have formed coalitions against groups like al-Shabaab, Boko Haram, the Islamic State West Africa Province and the Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin. Military campaigns against some of these groups have dragged on for more than a decade, sustained by shrinking budgets largely bankrolled from outside the continent.
However, as time passes, battles build into a war of attrition with little prospect of a total military victory. This is because opposing sides show no sign of capitulation.
This situation raises two questions. The first is whether the predominant approach by affected countries, anchored by the use of force, is capable of delivering a lasting solution? The answer is no. Militarised responses have helped but are unsustainable in the long term. This is because of the multi-dimensional nature of violent extremism or terrorism.
Another issue is that African countries and external actors have shifting financial priorities and capacities. At its peak, the African Union Mission in Somalia in the Horn of Africa deployed over 22,000 uniformed personnel at a cost of roughly US$1 billion a year. The Lake Chad Basin operation has been similarly expensive.
This leads to the second question: is it possible to begin to systematically explore an alternative strategy? As a researcher focused on transnational threats and international crime, this question is what led to my policy brief published by the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria.
Understanding the issues
The Global Terrorism Index lists al-Shabaab, Boko Haram and its breakaway faction, Islamic State West Africa Province, among the deadliest terror groups globally. All three demand a strict form of Islamic government or caliphate to replace existing state authorities they perceive as secular.
There have been calls to initiate some form of dialogue with some of these groups. But their rigid ideological stance and factional dynamics complicate efforts. It is difficult to identify specific individuals or factions to dialogue with.
Attempts at dialogue have also been short-lived due to other factors. Governments lacked political will and discretion. There was also a lack of consensus regarding objectives, process and expected outcomes.
This is particularly the case with the Lake Chad Basin. Nigeria witnessed mediatory talks with family members of the slain Boko Haram leader Mohammed Yusuf in 2011. Later in 2012, Boko Haram itself voluntarily chose the president of the Supreme Council of Sharia in Nigeria as a mediator with the government. In 2011, one of the key individuals on Boko Haram’s side was unexpectedly assassinated. In 2012 the mediator on behalf of Boko Haram withdrew from talks while blaming the government for leaks to the media.
What’s at stake when considering dialogue
The complex and sensitive option of dialogue should not be viewed as a one-off event. It should also not be understood as a one-size-fits-all strategy for ending terror in Africa. Rather, dialogue should be more deeply explored as a complementary approach that goes beyond the short-sighted use of military might. There is the unfolding case of dialogue between the United States and the Taliban in Afghanistan. It is still being tested but remains a process which offers hope.
Where do we start? First, countries must overcome the limits of the assumption that terror groups can be defeated with guns and bombs. If this was possible, there would be peace in terror-affected countries by now. In addition, the no-negotiation attitude by governments should be re-articulated and steered away from the prevalent perception that states are weak if they decide to talk to terror groups.
Second is the question of timing. It is often assumed that dialogue should only be initiated when terror groups are on the defensive. This is misleading: governments hardly ever choose to talk when terror groups are on the back foot. In fact, it is at this point that states feel a military triumph is in sight and therefore a final blow is all that is needed.
Based on evidence in reality and beyond textbook suggestions, there is really no “perfect” period for dialogue. Governments hardly ever initiate dialogue when terror groups are on the defensive. A good example is the case of Nigeria when the government announced in late 2015 that Boko Haram was “technically defeated”. Following this, nothing happened – and then there was a resurgence of violence that continues today.
Third, in terms of actors or entities to engage, governments should start with communities affected by terror attacks. Assessing how communities feel about dialogue is essential. Communities also have an in-depth understanding of how these terror groups work.
This would also help identify, among other things, potential third parties. Depending on the local context, a mix of individuals and groups to consult could include militants’ relatives, Islamic clerics, mediation experts, women’s groups, youth organisations, traditional institutions, clan representatives and civil society organisations. Coordination and engagement with local actors must be conducted in a way that doesn’t compromise their safety.
Governments should also address the ever-present socio-economic challenges facing communities; this will help to establish trust and sustain engagement. Truth and reconciliation platforms should also be created to facilitate healing in communities.
Fourth, a dedicated commission should be established in affected countries and tasked with developing a communication strategy. Such a commission should involve representatives from affected countries while maintaining a discreet strategy that is divided into phases of engagement.
Finally, the global community’s contribution must go beyond providing military aid to genuinely supporting the facilitation of talks, or at least endorsing consideration of the idea. Western-backed airstrikes are counter-productive. External actors can play a more constructive role, but one which will attain more impact if affected African states demonstrate political will and lead the way in establishing and owning the roadmap for this process.