Is Nigeria intending to negotiate the release of the 276 kidnapped schoolgirls or it preparing to attack Boko Haram? The answer to this question does not seem clear, even to the Nigerian government itself. Throughout much of the crisis the administration of president Goodluck Jonathan has dropped fat hints that it is engaging or attempting to engage in some kind of behind-the-scenes dialogue with the kidnappers.
The content of these negotiations, if they have taken place, is not known. But reports suggest that they have revolved round two issues a) a prisoner-hostage swap revolving round the 4,000 Boko Haram prisoners and b) longer-term negotiations regarding the causes of the insurgency with a view to finding a political solution to it.
This week, the government's position appears to have hardened. On the one hand it insists that negotiations are still taking place, while explicitly ruling out the possibility of any release of prisoners. At the same time it has also reported that a military operation is ongoing, with international support.
The UK minister for Africa Mark Simmons claimed that he had discussed negotiations with President Jonathan, who 'made it very clear that there will be no negotiation with Boko Haram that involves a swap of abducted schoolgirls for prisoners.'
Simmons also told journalists that the UK government had proposed 'a short and medium strategy to effectively tackle the menace of insurgents in the northern part of the country' that combined the promotion of education with more immediate military assistance.
These developments are not reassuring. The essential objective of the '#bringbackourgirls' campaign is spelt out in its title - to ensure that the kidnapped schoolgirls are returned alive and safe to their families, and even the most well-planned and coordinated operation in the bush is very unlikely to achieve this. The hostages are almost certainly being kept in different locations, which means that a rescue attempt in one place might produce a massacre in another.
At the moment Boko Haram hold most of the political cards in this grim and disgusting confrontation - the girls themselves. If the kidnappers are attacked they will almost certainly kill their captives in an attempt to ensure that they 'win' a game which has so far been played entirely at the Nigerian government's expense.
It is difficult to imagine what the Nigerian security forces could do to ensure that this did not happen, even with the Western hardware and military assistance now at their disposal. This is an outcome that ought to be avoided at all costs. But the Nigerian government's priorities may not be the same as the campaigners, and the same might also be said of the countries that are now providing Nigeria with military assistance.
Political hostage-taking always presents the government on the receiving end with a dilemma. Should it make concessions and therefore run the risk of granting 'victory' to the hostage-takers and even encouraging similar incidents in the future? Or should governments hold firm, regardless of the risk that hostages may be killed, prioritising reasons of state over the principle of saving life?
In general most states have adopted a position of 'non-negotiations with terrorists'. Usually presented as an absolute moral principle, this position seeks to call the kidnappers bluff and force them either to a) release their prisoners and therefore appear 'weak' and lacking in resolution or b) to kill them and appear ruthless, brutal and evil - an outcome that can then be used by the state to galvanise public support for military/police action and reinforce a position of intransigence towards the movement or organisation responsible.
History is filled with examples of the grim consequences of this logic, in which hostages have been transformed from human beings into political counters, from which both the state and its enemies attempt to extract political capital. Such confrontations have too often ended with dead hostages, and it would be an absolute tragedy if were allowed to happen to the schoolgirls that Boko Haram has so ruthlessly and disgracefully taken from their families and communities.
Because the truth is that states can - and do - 'negotiate with terrorists', and the principle that they should not do so is rarely as absolute as it is claimed to be. As far as the 'establishing precedents' arguments are concerned, the refusal to negotiate over one hostage-taking episode does not necessarily mean that such incidents will not be repeated - let alone that the political conflict that produces such episodes will end.
Of course, negotiation does not guarantee a positive outcome, but it should never be rejected out of hand, and the interests of the state should not dictate how society at large responds to these confrontations - particularly a state like Nigeria that has so abjectly failed so much of its population on so many levels, and which has proven itself spectacularly inept in this particular crisis, whether allowing the missing girls to 'take their exams' in a known high-risk area in the first place, failing to respond to warnings that they were about to be attacked, or leaving the town of Gamboru exposed to another murderous Boko Haram attack.
So far the Nigerian government's willingness to keep the possibility of negotiation open has been one of the few things it has done right throughout this ghastly mess. But the apparent hardening of its position coincides with military aid from the United States, Israel, Britain, France, and Canada - all of whom have consistently taken the 'no negotiations with terrorists' position over the years.
Has the Nigerian government been persuading to accept this position, perhaps in the belief that the international militarisation of the conflict will enable it to mount a successful military operation? Has the government now privately accepted the risk that the girls might die as a necessary price in order to ensure the prestige of the state and the long-term defeat of Boko Haram?
There is no way of knowing. But the latest signs do not bode well for a happy ending to this disaster. The world does not need another Beslan. Only negotiations offer the possibility that such a prospect can be avoided, and negotiations must involve real concessions even if that means in the short term, that Boko Haram 'wins' this particular confrontation.
President Jonathan and his administration will just have to swallow that, and find other ways to end it. In the meantime, the government should, and must 'negotiate with terrorists' to make sure that as many of these girls are brought back alive as possible, and the #bringbackourgirls campaign should do everything it can to see that the next exchange that takes place is one of people, not bullets.