By Colin Freeman
The Nigerian president, Goodluck Jonathan, insisted last week he would not negotiate Photo: EPA
Analysis: Nigerian president, Goodluck Jonathan, has rejected negotiating prisoner releases with Boko Haram, but it could be the most viable option to get the schoolgirls out alive.
The Nigerian president, Goodluck Jonathan, insisted last week he would not negotiate, and he has good reason to want people to take that statement entirely at face value.
Boko Haram, after all, is one of the most ruthless terrorist organisations currently in operation on the planet, and it would damage the reputation of any government to be seen doing deals with such an odious group.
The question, though, is whether Mr. Jonathan has any other real option if he wishes to get the missing schoolgirls back alive.
For all that Britain, America and France have rushed in with offers of spy planes and intelligence assets, the search operation is far from guaranteed to find the girls, who are now most likely split up into smallish groups and scattered over a vast area.
Besides, even if any of those groups can be located, only those who have read too many Andy McNab novels will think that they can be safely sprung by a special forces rescue.
Boko Haram’s bushfighters may not have the skills of the SAS, but what they do not lack is ruthlessness.
Diplomats believe that at the first sign of an armed rescue attempt, the group will slaughter its captives straightaway – just as they did in the joint British-Nigerian effort to free Chris McManus, the British hostage shot dead during a rescue attempt in March 2012.
Likewise, if the girls are split up into separate groups – possibly eight or more – a successful operation to recapture one could lead immediately to reprisals against the others.
Somali pirates have already pioneered this technique, and it has been successful in keeping special forces attacks on their hostages to a minimum.
No foreign government, of course, is anxious to spell out these difficulties too publicly. But only last week, US officials privately conceded that a rescue operation was not an option.
That, in other words, leaves two other options, neither admittedly attractive.
Option one is to simply sit it out, and gamble that Boko Haram might eventually just hand the girls back. Even jihadist groups have an image to think about, and it might just calculate that killing the girls or selling them into slavery might actually discredit them in the eyes of fellow radicals, making it harder to get outside help when they need it.
But that would also amount to doing nothing, and given that Mr Jonathan has already been accused of doing just that for the past month, it would not be politically attractive.
Option two, then is to do a trade, which seems to be what Boko Haram is pushing for. Already, the group is making public gestures at compromise – last week, it said it wanted the release of all its prisoners, including senior militants, but on Sunday, sources close to the group told The Telegraph that it had reduced that demand to just low-level fighters and the wives and children of sect members, many of whom have been detained purely to put pressure on the sect members themselves.
Human rights groups say the Nigerian government should never have detained wives and children in the first place, and that many of the low-level prisoners are either ignorant, brainwashed foot soldiers or mere innocents caught up in Nigerian army sweeps. The Nigerian government, of course, denies that.
Right now, though, it might want to think again. For it might just give a fig-leaf of credibility to what in any event will feel like a very dirty deal.
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