The Painful Dilemma of Dialogue with Boko Haram
Cardinal Onaiyekan, Archbishop of Abuja
[Letter 3 from Rome: May 19, 2014]
The world renowned Catholic prelate, His Eminence Francis Cardinal Arinze, once defined dialogue as “You talk I listen; I talk and you listen.” He certainly knew what he was talking about, because he was for many years the President of the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue, the agency of the Holy See for dialogue with people of other faiths. There has been much talk about dialogue not only in the past few weeks with the abduction of over 250 school girls by Boko Haram, but since more than three years ago. Unfortunately, there has been quite a lot of ambiguity and confusion in what we mean by dialogue, leading to inconsistency in the practical steps that have been taken. It is no wonder that little or no progress has been made in this line. It seems to me that the major short coming is that there is too much talking and not enough listening, on all sides of the discussion.
Dialogue means talking and listening across lines of differences, seeking common grounds on which to build some measure of agreement. It does not ignore nor deny differences, but rather seeks to honestly identify the point of difference and how to live with such differences in order to avoid conflict, especially violent conflict.
We have been following with grave concern the deep dilemma of government as regards whether and to what extent it can engage the Boko Haram in dialogue over the release of the abducted girls. But would like to say that what looks now to be confusion and contradiction is in the nature of dialogue. On the one hand, the government is right to reject the demand of Boko Haram to swap the girls for their imprisoned comrades. There is no parallel between innocent schoolgirls and terrorists detained for violent and heinous crimes. Besides, no government can ignore the unspeakable consequence of setting such a precedent.
But on the other hand, government cannot abandon our girls in the forest or wherever at the hands of their abductors. There must be a way of bringing them back home to their families, safe and as sound as possible. At this moment of writing, we have no news yet of their whereabouts. And even if and when we find where they are, rescuing them by force of arms would entail the kind of danger and risk that even the parents of the girls would be unlikely to sanction. The only option left therefore is some form of dialogue and hard bargain that would bring the girls back without setting a dangerous and unacceptable precedent.
It is here that we might evoke the wisdom of Cardinal Arinze’s definition of dialogue. Boko Haram has spoken and government has listened. The government has spoken. Let us hope that Boko Haram is listening. In this game of haggling, it is possible that the last word has not yet been said by either party. Are there no other less obnoxious demands that Boko Haram can make? They may well be ruthless and wicked, but they are certainly not foolish. Are there no other options which government can offer? The dialogue has started. I would like to hope that neither side has considered the dialogue closed.
Whatever the case, to make any progress calls for great wisdom and patience. There is also need for effective and mutually trusted intermediaries, people who can listen to both sides and talk to both sides. This is obviously not a matter for publicity, least of all for scoring political points. The scarce success of the famous “dialogue committee” formally inaugurated with pomp and pageantry some time ago should teach us that this is not the best way to go. Perhaps a small group of carefully chosen wise men and women, including religious figures, especially of the Muslim faith, working quietly in the background, with deep sense of patriotism and honesty, devoid of all sectional political agenda, might be in a better position to achieve some success.
Recently, the French President, Mr. Francois Hollande, called a summit of the heads of state of Nigeria and its neighbours. Also in attendance were high level representatives of the European Union, the USA and UK governments. The purpose we are told was to improve cooperation in dealing with the Boko Haram which has become a regional and even global menace. For as long as they continue killing, raping and abducting innocent people, destroying property and causing general insecurity, they should expect more intensive and coordinated military action against them by Nigeria, her neighbours, and the international community. But the loud noise of guns and bombs on and from both sides need not smolder the necessary quiet and salutary whispers of dialogue and background negotiation, which in the long run would be in the best interest of all concerned. Is there any head of state able and willing to call a summit that would provide an effective forum for serious dialogue that would include also elements of the Boko Haram? That line of action, no matter how unlikely, should not be rejected outright.
President Jonathan said in Paris that “the abduction of young innocent school girls in Chibok represents a watershed and a turning point”. The unknown plight of these girls and the anguish of their parents touch the heart of everyone. We pray for their safe return. The dialogue for their release would be only a starting point for the larger objective of convincing the terrorists, with both “stick and carrot”, in their own interest, to cease fire and embrace negotiation, for the peace and progress of our great nation. For this we should pray, even if it requires a miracle.
God bless Nigeria – and bring back our daughters.
Cardinal Onaiyekan, Archbishop of Abuja