‘Secret Diplomacy’. Should we engage with Boko Haram?

By Ifesinachi Okafor-Yarwood:

Boko Haram footage shot


“All wars represent a failure of diplomacy”

According to Tony Penn, wars occur as a result of lack of diplomacy or the failure/unwillingness of both state and in the case of terrorist’s, non-state actors, to engage in lengthy negotiation – be it the traditional way i.e. secret diplomacy or the new way i.e. open diplomacy/negotiations as the case may be. This article explores the potency of “secret diplomacy” in averting conflicts and or wars, and recommends that it be taken seriously in tackling insurgency and terrorism in West Africa. This recommendation is in reaction to the often-too-cited mantra of ‘we do not negotiate with terrorist’ adopted by western countries, and which has also become a common dictum in Nigerian political discourses.  Following a brief definition of what constitutes secret diplomacy in the next section; case studies from past international events will highlight the need to employ secret diplomacy as a means to ameliorate the threat of Boko Haram insurgency in Northern Nigeria.

According to Berridge (2012) secret diplomacy entails keeping secret all or any of the following “the contents of a negotiation, knowledge that negotiations are going on at all, the content of any agreement issuing from negotiations, or the fact that agreement has been reached” (2012: 336). This means of resolving disputes is proven to be effective as it has and continues to be utilized by states in resolving difficult international political problems.

Secret diplomacy has been identified as a potent instrument in dealing with many domestic and international crises in the past. For instance, it is no secret that secret negotiations between the government of the United States and former Soviet Union, was instrumental in averting the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 (Stern 2003:33). Similarly, the “Good Friday Agreement” of April 1998, that saw an end to the crisis in Northern Ireland (BBC 2004, online), did not happen because the British government were so strong or kept to their words of not negotiating with terrorists (as the Irish Republican Army (IRA) at the time were seen as a terrorist organization). Rather, secret negotiations between the British government and members of IRA were instrumental to an agreement being reached (Fisher et al 2003, 57). What is more, despite the United States stance in negotiating with terrorists, there is evidence to suggest that they had and continue to have secret negotiations with the Taliban and Hezbollah on possible solutions to ending the crisis in Afghanistan and Syria respectively (Chandran 2011:60-61; RT 2014). These negotiations have almost always occurred hand in hand with a conventional (open) diplomacy, with the latter acting as the front for the real negotiations, while the back channel negotiations are on going (Roberts 2009:516).

Since the new wave of destruction fomented by radical Islamists group Boko Haram is threatening the very existence of nationhood in Nigeria, this author suggests that one possible way of addressing this menace is to have meaningful (secret) dialogue with their leaders. Notably, Islamic radicalism is not a new phenomenon especially in Nigeria, however the recent terror campaigns including the kidnap of over 250 girls by “Jamã’atu Ahlis Sunnah Ladda’awatih wal-jihad – meaning people committed to the propagation of the prophet’s teaching and jihad” otherwise known as “Boko Haram” –has brought Nigeria to the focus of international community. Although the history of this organization remains shrouded in controversy (Alao 2013:73-73), there is no denying that they have some influence in Northern Nigeria, and that influence is fast spreading beyond the borders of Niger and Cameroon.

Understandably, the incessant terror attacks by Boko Haram have led to public outcry for the government to do more. Some of the recent attacks including the kidnap of over 200 schoolgirls come with demands from the terrorist group – such demand includes the release of their imprisoned members in exchange for the release of the kidnapped girls (Abubakar & Jon 2014). In addition, since the Nigerian government, like United Kingdom and United States government, insists that they do not negotiate with terrorists, the prospects for ending the fatalities inflicted by Boko Haram looks dim.  If precedence is anything to go by, then the best way of curtailing the activities of these dangerous terrorists is to engage with them and make some compromises.

Based on the evidence presented above, it is obvious that if the Nigerian government is willing to put an end to the problems of Islamist insurgency in their country, then they must be open to the option of secret negotiations. This is important because although Boko Haram has been identified as a terrorist organization, regrettably, like the Taliban in Afghanistan, and Al-Shabab in Somalia (Tarzi 2009:306-308; Hansen 2013:2), Boko Haram have significant influence among residents in communities where they operate – as demonstrated by the facts that people are willing to provide shelter for them in their undercover operations.

Although it remains impossible to meet the core demand of Boko Haram, which is the Islamisation of Nigeria (Adenrele 2012: 21), the Nigerian government can engage in secret negotiations with them to figure out ways of ameliorating the unending murders and destructions to properties. While some people might argue that it is unethical to engage in any sort of negotiation with terrorist organizations, it is important to recognize that without engaging with Boko Haram, their influence would continue to grow. In addition, contrary to the belief that any engagement with terrorists undermines a state’s integrity, adopting secret diplomacy could boost a government’s ability to protect its citizens, especially when it matters most. Disengaging with terrorists’ in this case, Boko Haram increases their resolve to seek attention. Engaging with them militarily also put the state at a disadvantage, since terrorists have no rules of engagement. The surest hope of addressing the threat posed by Boko Haram is to have meaningful engagement with them and this author believes that this can be achieve through secret diplomacy.



Ifesinachi Okafor-Yarwood holds an MA in Conflict, Security and Development and is an Alumni scholar with the African Leadership Centre, Kings College London and University of Nairobi.  Her Primary research interests include diplomacy, African security and development, The Gulf of Guinea, maritime and human security.



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1 thought on “‘Secret Diplomacy’. Should we engage with Boko Haram?”

  1. Boko Haram – which approximately translates as ‘Western schooling is a sin’ – is a
    Nigerian Islamist terrorist group, founded by Mohammed
    Yusuf in 2002 in the northern city of Maiduguri.
    Formally, it needs to create an Islamic state in Nigeria and the
    introduction of Sharia law. But it isn’t that simple.
    The belief injustice and poverty, along with that the
    West is a corrupting influence are root causes of the desire to
    implement Sharia and Boko Haram’s pursuit of an Islamic state.

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