The Nigerian government has launched a fact-finding mission into the militant Islamist group Boko Haram, which has claimed responsibility for numerous deadly attacks in the northeast and in the capital, Abuja.
Know thy enemy. That appears to be the first order of business for the government committee officially inaugurated Tuesday. Its seven members have two weeks to assess the security challenges in Nigeria's northeastern Borno State.
The committee marks the first real step toward a non-military solution regarding Boko Haram, which launched a brief and violent uprising against the government in July 2009. The group has since been blamed for a string of bombings and shootings that have targeted churches, public gathering places, and authority figures such as police officers, clergy, and government officials.
The committee was originally tasked with opening negotiations with the militants. But the secretary to the Nigerian government, Anyim Pius Anyim, said Tuesday that would be getting ahead of themselves. "That should be the second leg of the assignment. You don't negotiate with who you don't know. We don't know these people. They are faceless. You don't negotiate with the air. We are providing a forum where whatever information you have, whatever opinion you have, whatever suggestion you have, relay it to this body," Anyim stated.
Indeed, much is unknown about Boko Haram, including its size, leadership and level of organization.
Boko Haram has rebuffed previous government overtures for dialogue, and building trust with the militants remains a formidable hurdle to negotiations. Recent attempts by security forces to crack down on them have backfired, and some say have even escalated the violence.
The committee chairman, ambassador Usman Gaji Galtimari, said the problem is difficult but not "insurmountable" and called on Boko Haram to embrace the dialogue process. "I assure them that all of their genuine grievances will be addressed by the committee and appropriate recommendations made," Galtimari said.
Galtimari urged the group's members to appreciate that "the government is not against them and that society is not at war with them."
The group's name in the Hausa language means "Western education is sin." It seeks to undermine state authority and calls for the stricter application of sharia, or Islamic law, in northern Nigeria.
Security analysts say Boko Haram is a symptom of larger issues in the north including poverty and a sense of alienation from the central government in Abuja.
Nigerian public affairs analyst, Kole Shittima, said the committee is a welcome step, but the government should not stop there. "This is a problem of human security. It has to do with education, health, employment, so I hope that this discussion is not just about OK, lay down your arms and we are going to maybe exchange your arms for something," Shittima explained.
The committee will try to learn all it can about Boko Haram's leadership, grievances, and goals before recommending a course of action.