Members of Boko Haram and the group’s leader, Abubakar Muhammad Shekau, in 2012. Image via AFP.

By Alex Thurston

Since 2010, Nigeria, especially its northern region, has faced steady attacks from the Muslim sect Boko Haram (meaning “Western Education/Culture is Religiously Forbidden” in Hausa). Hopes for a resolution to the conflict appeared during the week of July 8, when Nigerian authorities claimed to have brokered a ceasefire with Boko Haram. Yet the ceasefire rapidly proved ephemeral, as Boko Haram launched fresh attacks on schools and other targets. Boko Haram’s purported leader Abubakar Shekau quickly released a video denying the agreement and endorsing further violence.

Efforts to make peace will continue. But the ceasefire episode—and the reactions to it from various quarters of Nigerian society—says more about growing cynicism among both Muslims and Christians regarding the government’s ability to broker peace than it does about options for ending the violence.

The Nigerian government has long employed two tactics, sometimes simultaneously, for handling Boko Haram. First, the government has deployed security forces, notably the military’s Joint Task Force (JTF), to the northeastern part of the country in an attempt to re-establish governance. Soldiers have locked down northeastern localities, particularly the city of Maiduguri, Boko Haram’s epicenter, through checkpoints, tank deployments, and curfews. Security forces cracked down on Boko Haram during mass uprisings in 2003-2004 and 2009; security personnel fought Boko Haram in pitched battles and executed numerous sect members, including the group’s founder Muhammad Yusuf. These crackdowns seemed to break the group; after the latter episode, Boko Haram largely faded from view for over a year. Since the group re-emerged in 2010, however, crackdowns—now in the form of both battles and efforts to hunt Boko Haram and uncover its bases—have proven less effective at preventing further attacks. Boko Haram has adopted diverse and shifting tactics, ranging from prison breaks to drive-by shootings to suicide bombings to arson, and an equally diverse set of targets, from security personnel to Christians to mobile phone towers to the United Nations headquarters in Abuja. During 2013, the military, in the form of the Joint Task Force, has asserted renewed successes in killing and arresting militants. But violence continues, and abuses by soldiers may even drive new recruits into Boko Haram’s arms.

Second, the government has attempted to negotiate with Boko Haram. Amid the questionable results of military crackdowns, voices inside and outside the government have called for dialogue with Boko Haram. The administration of President Goodluck Jonathan has shown intermittent interest in this idea, especially of late: the Presidential Committee on Dialogue and Peaceful Resolution of Security Challenges in the North, inaugurated April 24, represents one of the administration’s most ambitious attempts to negotiate an end to the conflict. Yet the barriers to dialogue are formidable. To succeed, the government must find credible representatives of Boko Haram who are serious about negotiations, and then the two sides must identify areas of compromise—a difficult task when one of Boko Haram’s demands is that Nigeria implement Islamic law nationwide.

As Nigerians wait to see what results the Committee will yield, criticism of it, and the government, has grown. One Nigerian newspaper, editorializing about the ceasefire, writes that the Committee “has been bedevilled with a credibility crisis.” The newspaper speculates that the ceasefire announcement came not as a serious breakthrough, but as an attempt to justify the Committee’s existence. Whether this speculation has merit or not, the ceasefire’s collapse has generated national debate, anger, and cynicism.

Northern Muslim Reactions to the Ceasefire

Most Nigerians in the north, where much (though not all) of the country’s Muslim population is located, want peace. Boko Haram’s violence has devastated the economy in parts of the region, especially the sect’s epicenter, the northeastern city of Maiduguri. Thousands have fled the violence, either north, into neighboring Niger, or south, into other parts of Nigeria. Keenly aware of the tragedy the uprising has wrought, hereditary Muslim rulers in the north, such as the Sultan of Sokoto, have been at the forefront of calls for dialogue.

Prominent northern organizations did not, however, line up to unambiguously support the recent announcement. Spokesmen for groups like the Northern Elders Forum, the Arewa Youth Forum (Arewa means “north” in Hausa, which is widely spoken in northern Nigeria), and the Northern Christian Elders Forum, voiced caution and skepticism about the ceasefire. Previous, failed efforts at mediation have left them wary of new announcements. The ambiguity of knowing who speaks for Boko Haram, moreover, has left outsiders unsure of what the government had achieved with the latest attempted agreement. Some northern leaders did express support for the announcement, of course. But for many, cynicism has set in regarding the government’s ability to make peace.

Christian Reactions to the Ceasefire Announcement

Not just a northern, but a national, audience reacted to the ceasefire announcement. One notable and controversial reaction came from Pastor Ayo Oritsejafor, President of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN). Some leaders within CAN, an important national umbrella group for Christians, have used strong rhetoric concerning Boko Haram in the past, calling for armed Christian self-defense and rejecting the idea of amnesty for the sect. Oritsejafor’s response to the latest ceasefire announcement included a call for religious unity. But like others, he cast doubt on the viability of a ceasefire, citing reported schisms within Boko Haram. Oritsejafor’s skepticism on amnesty, combined with his praise for a court’s recent life sentencing of four Boko Haram bombers, suggests that he believes the solution to Boko Haram must include punitive action. In his words, “We need to establish equity and justice as peace will continue to elude us if we fail to uphold equity and justice in Nigeria.”

Oritsejafor’s remarks highlight the anger and sense of victimization that many Nigerian Christians feel regarding Boko Haram. In the face of Boko Haram’s attacks on Christians and on a government headed by a Christian president, some Nigerian Christians believe that Boko Haram is a specifically anti-Christian sect, one whose actions could plunge the country into a religious civil war. From this perspective, the government’s intermittent attempts to broker peace at the negotiating table can appear bewildering at best, and disastrous and craven at worst.

Other Christian leaders took a different line. Bishop Idowu Fearon of the Anglican Communion in the northern state of Kaduna accused Christian opponents of the ceasefire of “benefiting from this crisis situation.” Fearon urged Christians to place trust in the government and embrace peace. The contrasting reactions of Oritsejafor and Fearon highlight the diversity of views within Nigeria’s Christian community; some constituencies support the idea of dialogue.

The ceasefire announcement and its rapid unraveling showcase—and compound—the difficulties Nigeria’s government confronts in negotiating peace with Boko Haram. Widespread cynicism among Muslims and Christians saps popular support and patience for continued efforts at dialogue, and strengthens the hand of those who believe that only force can solve the problem. But the limitations of military approaches may soon lead Nigeria back to the hope of dialogue, and the difficult question of how to break the cycle of ineffective crackdowns and inconclusive negotiations.