Govt in talks with mediators on Boko Haram

THE GUARDIAN Newspaper- John Ogiji

THE Federal Government may have in the last one week held its first indirect peace talks with the Boko Haram sect, meeting mediators to discuss a possible ceasefire, the international news agency, Reuters, quoted sources as saying yesterday.

Two people close to Boko Haram have been carrying messages back and forth between the sect’s self-proclaimed leader, Abubakar Shekau, and government officials, the sources, who asked not to be named, said.

It was not clear whether any mediators met with President Goodluck Jonathan himself.

“BH (Boko Haram) has mentioned a conditional ceasefire but it wants all its members released from prison. The government sees this as unacceptable but is willing to release foot soldiers,” a traditional leader and civil rights activist involved in the talks also told Reuters.

“It is the first time a ceasefire has been mentioned, so it is a massive positive, but given the lack of trust a resolution is still a way off,” he added.

National Security Adviser, Gen. Owoye Andrew Azazi, had said in January that the Federal Government was considering making contact with moderate members of the shadowy Boko Haram.

A source at the Presidency confirmed that efforts are being made to reach out to the sect’s negotiators, but that direct talks had not yet begun. A well-respected Islamic cleric has been contacted to reach out to them, he said.

Shekau has appeared in two videotapes posted on YouTube in January, claiming leadership of the sect and making bellicose threats against security forces.

Since then, however, security agents have made some key arrests and some senior members of the sect have been killed, while the sophistication and scale of its attacks have fallen since a wave of deadly strikes from November to January.

Two security sources said one of the people involved in the negotiations was a close ally of Mohammed Yusuf, the founder of Boko Haram who died in police custody in 2009, triggering a widespread violent uprising by the sect. They were both members of a group called the Spring Council of Sharia.

In a related development, northern political leaders yesterday converged in Minna, the Niger State capital, in a bid to find solutions to current security challenges in the country, especially in the North as posed to the region by the Boko Haram sect.

The meeting was organised under the auspices of the Abdulsalami Abubakar Institute for Peace and Sustainable Development Studies (AAIPSDS).

A communiqué was expected from the parley last night. At the meeting were former Military President, Gen. Ibrahim Babangida, erstwhile Vice President, Atiku Abubakar and former Finance Minister, Adamu Chiroma, who chaired the meeting.

Also at the event were former Governor of old Kaduna, Lawal Kaita, erstwhile Chief Justice of the Federation, Justice Alfa Belgore, Alhaji Isah Funtua, former Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Yayale Ahmed, Shiek Ahmed Lemu, Catholic Archbishop of Abuja, Rev. John Onaiyekan, Niger State Governor, Babangida Aliyu, former Deputy Governor, Plateau State, Mrs. Pauline Tallen; one-time Internal Affair Minister, John Shagaya, Senator Jibril Aminu, former Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Aminu Sale, erstwhile FCT Minister, Mr. Solomon Awuga, Dr. Bello Fadile and Malam Shehu Malami.

In an opening address, convener of the meeting and former Head of State, Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar, said he was worried by the level of insecurity in the country today, hence the need for wide consultations in order to arrest the situation.

Abdulsalami stated that the cumulative effects of the escalating security challenges appeared to show that the political process was not functioning in a manner to make it curb such problems.

He observed that a deteriorating economy in the North had exposed the region to escalating crisis. .

Abdulsalami submitted that a lack of visionary and practical economic policy that should build on the potentials of the North and the tragic failure to develop its immense human capital - leaving 10 million almajiri roaming the street – had left the North with huge development problems. .

He expressed worries that “at a point when other parts of the nation are articulating positions which should improve their interests in the manner the nation should be structured, the North is being torn by conflicts, violence and deep mistrust among its communities.

“In Bauchi, Kaduna, Kano and Plateau states, just to mention a few places, we have killed and are still killing ourselves needlessly in thousands on grounds of ethnic and religious differences. We have become our worst and bitterest enemies”.

According to the former Head of State, “the historic role the North played, not only as a stabilising region but also as a constructive partner is challenging and trying times, is being lost in a nation which needs it, while the North is increasingly being distanced from Nigeria”. .

President Jonathan told Reuters in January that the government was open to dialogue but said sect members were hidden and therefore direct talks were unlikely. .

He noted that talks to resolve the conflict in the oil producing Niger Delta, that ended with an amnesty in 2009, were different in that officials knew who the militants’ leaders were and how to contact them.

President Jonathan had previously drawn fire for treating Boko Haram as a purely security matter, rather than as a problem requiring a political solution that would address northern grievances. .

The security agencies’ efforts to stem the sect’s insurgency have had mixed results in the past, with human rights groups saying heavy-handed tactics have worsened resentment of authorities. .

But more recently, there have been arrests of senior figures and some have died in clashes with security forces, security sources say. .

The security services paraded five suspected members of Boko Haram two days ago before the media, who they said were behind the kidnapping of a Briton and Italian in May, adding that the ringleader had died in custody. .

The group has not managed to launch a widescale, coordinated attack since one in Kano that killed 186 people in January, reverting to crude bomb attacks and drive by shootings.

“I wouldn’t say the back has been broken on Boko Haram but certainly these high profile arrests and deaths will have weakened its position,” a foreign security expert in Abuja said.

“The most telling sign is that we haven’t seen the more sophisticated, co-ordinated attacks for some time.”

The group’s factional nature means it will be difficult to negotiate any ceasefire deal with all elements.

“The difficulty is: who do they actually represent? Boko Haram is a big label for many different command groups. Are they all being represented at these talks or just some of them?” said Peter Sharwood-Smith of security consultants Drum Cussac.

“It’s just really hard to know who’s who ... and if these talks are going to achieve much.”

Shekau is believed to be in command of units carrying out the majority of attacks, most of which occur in the northeast.

“Even though dialogue is going on with just one faction of the group, it looks like the most high profile one,” a foreign diplomat specialising in security in northern Nigeria told Reuters.

“Even some sort of peace deal would ease the pressure and allow the military to mop up more of the breakaway groups.”


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