30 June 2014: Kirthi Jayakumar argues that empathy and dialogue, not force, are the keys to ending the Boko Haram's campaign of violence and terror.

Image credit: World Bank Image credit: World Bank

A large part of building peace and living in a world of peace comes from cultivating and living in a state of empathy. As Mother Teresa said, "if we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other." This state of belonging to each other stems from the fact that we are not only individuals, but also a part of the whole that constitutes the universe. The font of all efforts in peacebuilding stems from the understanding of the significance of empathy: for it is only when we understand where the other comes from, that we are in a place to act accordingly in response to their actions.

Looking at the Boko Haram through this lens, I’m ashamed to admit that I did not know anything about them, apart from what the mainstream media kept repeating: that they were a militant outfit poised against western education, that they were perpetrators of violence in pursuit of keeping patriarchy alive, and that they were of Islamic faith. What I, and many people, don’t know and understand is the actual story behind them: who are they? What made them come into existence? What drives them? Why do they turn to violence? What do they want, as an end goal?

Starting at the top: what do we already know about the Boko Haram? We know that they are a militant group, titled Boko Haram in Hausa, figuratively translating to mean "Western Education is Sin". We know that they have operated out of Northern Nigeria, and they work towards establishing a pure Islamic state ruled by Sharia Law, seeking to end "Western culture".

What have we been able to achieve with this limited knowledge? One hash tag, and diddlysquat. Andrew Walker, in a thoroughly well-researched brief for the US Institute of Peace, explains everything we need to know about the Boko Haram. I’ve summarised his core findings below for cogency:


The outfit is an Islamic sect labouring under the notion that northern Nigeria has been seized by a group of corrupt and false Muslims, and wants to wage war against them to create a pure Islamic state ruled by Sharia Law.


The group has bombed public places, churches and burned down public schools in Northern Nigeria. The Boko Haram is not in the same fold as the al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or the al-Shabab in Somalia. The Boko Haram is not bent on attacking Western Interests.


The Boko Haram does not have a unified body. There is what Andrew Walker describes, as a “cell-like structure” that is “open for factions and splits”, culminating in the reality that there is no guarantee that a person speaking for the group is speaking for all the members of the group. This can pose problems in attempting a dialogue with them.

Policy addressing them

So far, in response to the Boko Haram the government has been brutal in its crackdown – a factor that has been counterproductive. Using extrajudicial executions has only proved to fuel the Boko Haram, and to sustain its antagonism.

A cursory perusal of these pointers will show anyone that the Boko Haram cannot be contained by force that is used on the foundation of false notions about the outfit. Until these misconceived notions are tackled, negotiation of any kind cannot start. Once there is a shift in mindsets, it is important to identify the stakeholders in the Boko Haram – although cell-like in its structure – there must be some identifiable factions that pivot around identifiable leaders.

It is important to invite every stakeholder in the outfit to the negotiation table. Once at the negotiation table, it is extremely important to function from a standpoint of empathy and understanding of the Boko Haram and its beginnings and sustenance. As free-spirited as it may sound, there is really no solution for peace as long as violence is a tactic on any side.

It boils down simply to using empathy to leverage efforts to pivot a community of fighters towards peace.
That one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter lies at the core of my argument. This is not to mean that I am sympathising with terrorists or condone their choice of action or words – but rather that I want to make the effort to understand where they come from, to address their actions, and to keep peace alive.

Taking a leaf out of the book of Vishaka Dharmadasa, I’d like to tell you that this is both possible, and actually a more sensible way to address terror. With a son missing in action in the Sri Lankan War, Vishaka approached the members of the LTTE with other mothers like her, and spoke to them as mothers – not as officials, not as superiors, and not as authorities in any capacity. They spoke to the LTTE to make them understand that these members had mothers too, and that their mothers would be worried sick – and that they should avoid fighting. Vishaka’s efforts constituted what most call Track II diplomacy, and ultimately succeeded in achieving a ceasefire.

Call it what you might: but it boils down simply to using empathy to leverage efforts to pivot a community of fighters towards peace. And that should be our approach here, too.


Sahro Ahmed-Koshin on June 30, 2014, 10:31 a.m.

<p>Thank you for this article. I guess we could say the same about Al-Shabaab in Somalia where i am based. I remember the famous words' hate does not drive out hate, only love does that. You are so right about so many things and that is why i have always said We should have a Ministry of Peace, Compassion and Dialogue in the government!!</p>

Debraj Deb on June 30, 2014, 10:45 a.m.

<p>Would like some more insights on this.</p>

Jonathan Rudy on June 30, 2014, 11:53 a.m.

<p>Kirthi thanks for this article. It is refreshing to hear your call for empathy as a means of addressing phenomenon such as Boko Haram. You remind me why I am a member of PCDN...we are a collection of people who offer solutions other than violence as the change mechanism.</p>

Kirthi on June 30, 2014, 5:05 p.m.

Thank you all for your kind comments!

Libby and Len Traubman on July 1, 2014, 2:15 a.m.

<p>Kirthi, thank you for helping us remember that everyone has a story, and the larger story of deep understanding does not come from the images, print, or lips of most traditional, commercial news reporters.</p> <p>Our repeated experiences of helping adversaries to engage is that "an enemy is one whose story we have not heard."  With an eye on humanizing and understanding one another -- beyond more war-like reactions -- perhaps this page of recommendations will be somehow useful -- <a href="http://traubman.igc.org/bokoharam.pdf">http://traubman.igc.org/bokoharam.pdf</a></p>

Seupasi Istifanus Habila on July 1, 2014, 8:28 p.m.

Thank you so much for sharing this thought provoking article on Boko Haram in North-Eastern Nigeria. I happens to come from Adamawa State (which is part of the places affected by the Boko Haram menace) as my birth place even-though I work in Jos. To add to your contribution, I think the main problem as I can see is that the Nigerian government has not done enough intelligence work. Boko Haram is not yet too sophisticated to scare Nigeria as it is doing now. Once enough intelligence work is done, and the government is able to show proof that it has enough information about them, Boko Haram will just stop. I believe there is just one or two information that once it is released to them, the sponsors themselves will withdraw their sponsorship and they will run out of money and weapons. Two, Nigeria doesn't have the courage and the strength to try the suspects, they are "too powerful" By the time Nigeria tried one or two key persons and they get closer to convicting the persons, Boko Haram will stop by itself.

Seupasi Istifanus Habila on July 1, 2014, 8:40 p.m.

On Boko Haram again, first, military force may not work or yield appreciable result at this moment, second, one of the best secrets to wind such a fight is to surprise the opponent, how do you do that, let the opponent be convinced that you have almost 100% information about them. Third, it is difficult to engage Boko Haram in a dialogue know: because of two things: One they are still proud because they believe Nigerian government knows very little about them, they are excited about that and won't see the value of dialogue now. Two, Their demand is such that you cannot easily risk sacrificing the entire country for such group for the damage they have done already. How do you dialogue with a group that says it wants to established Islamic rule and wipe out Christians in the Northern part of the Country, if they did not say the entire country? Unless you demonstrate that you have good knowledge of them and show that you are really very powerful they will not listen and will continue to harass and embarrass the country.

Rajiv on Aug. 14, 2014, 5:58 p.m.

Good article Kirti, Enjoyed reading it. I am Mediator, based in England, UK. I can connect specially because I feel an honest open exchange/ dialogue can remove the need to pick up arms, go to courts in most situations. Good work. Best wishes Rajiv

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