Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan has said he will not negotiate with terrorist organization Boko Haram for the release of the kidnapped Chibok schoolgirls, but one wonders how long his resolve will hold. His government's reputation has been so sullied by the kidnappings and allegations that $20 billion in oil revenue has gone AWOL that it is reportedly going to spend up to $1 billion on a public relations firm.
Jonathan needs a win. Getting the girls back would be a big one, but there is no viable military solution for doing so. His public refusal to negotiate may be a feint to provide cover for a secret deal without admitting he made concessions — the government reportedly used such a ruse in May last year, and there are rumors it is doing it again.
Nigeria's dilemma comes at a time when the world is reaping the consequences of cutting deals with terrorists. Paying ransoms has only provided incentive for further kidnappings and led to an explosion in terrorists' use of the tactic, so alarming the United Nations Security Council that it passed a resolution earlier this year urging member states to stop doing it. Numbers on the increase are hard to find, but the fact that kidnapping for ransom is now the largest source of terrorist funding worldwide gives a clue to how prevalent it has become.
Ransoms do not only guarantee future kidnappings, but also enable the activities of the globe's most violent actors. Since 2011, an estimated $105 million in ransoms have swelled terrorist coffers, enabling them to buy weapons, pay fighters and fund operations. The emir of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) estimated that half of his group's activities in a year were funded by kidnapping for ransom, while as far back as 2003 al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb's predecessor organization used a ransom windfall to buy weapons and fund a spasm of attacks.
Boko Haram is part of this global trend. Its first claimed kidnapping was in February 2013, when it grabbed a French family for whom it received a $3 million payout. Now convinced of the merits of the trade, the group was likely responsible for the dozens of kidnappings in its Borno State stronghold that followed and that enriched it on ransoms ranging from $10,000 to $320,000. Two weeks ago, Boko Haram took 10 Chinese engineers in Cameroon with little reason to do so other than to dangle them for a ransom.
This history of receiving ransoms could even have motivated the Chibok kidnappings, with the videos the group released later a way to increase international outrage and drum up the price. We do not know if Abubakar Shekau is really that wily; he may have simply been looking for slaves and wives for his fighters. Whatever the case, he is now willing to barter.
Shekau's starting bid did not involve money, however. Instead, he demanded the release of jailed Boko Haram members, which is an equally unacceptable concession. Imprisoned fighters can become even more radicalized due to the mistreatment they often receive from their captors, and are sometimes held with fellow militants, creating opportunities for veterans to educate their less experienced colleagues in terrorist best practices.
The value terror groups place on imprisoned jihadists is evidenced by the effort they put into securing their release, and many escapees have later proven their worth to their organizations. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, considered by many to be the most serious terror threat to the United States, was revived in February 2006 when 23 jihadists, including its current leader, escaped from their Yemeni prison. Al Qaeda in Iraq's deadly resurgence has been fueled by a year-long campaign of jailbreaks that resulted in hundreds of veteran terrorists escaping, and Boko Haram has freed scores of its fighters in multiple prison attacks.
The decision to not negotiate for the girls would be wrenching and likely politically costly for Jonathan. It would also be the correct choice, as paying a ransom or releasing prisoners would only be trading the lives of Nigerians in the future for the girls' freedom today, and helping sustain one of the world's deadliest terrorist groups. The Nigerian government has failed to protect its people, and has even victimized many of them during its war with Boko Haram. It can start doing better by making the difficult, but necessary, choice to not negotiate for the schoolgirls of Chibok.
Meservey is assistant director of the Atlantic Council's Africa Center.