Nigeria starts mediated talks with Boko Haram
ABUJA- Nigeria’s government has in the last week held its first indirect peace talks with Islamist sect Boko Haram, meeting mediators to discuss a possible ceasefire, political and diplomatic sources told Reuters on Thursday.
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. A presidency spokesman said he could not immediately comment.
Boko Haram has said it wants to impose sharia, or Islamic, law across a country split equally between Christians and Muslims. The group has killed hundreds this year in bomb and gun attacks, mostly in the majority Muslim north of Africa’s top oil producer.
“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 told Reuters, asking not to be named.
“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.
Jonathan’s national security adviser, General Owoye Andrew Azazi, told Reuters in January that Nigeria was considering making contact with moderate members of the shadowy Boko Haram via “back channels”.
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 video tapes posted on YouTube in January claiming leadership of the sect and making bellicose threats against security forces.
Since then, however, Nigeria’s military has made some key arrests and 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.
Shekau has not said the group was interested in dialogue in his videos and neither has the group’s spokesman, Abu Qaqa, who holds sporadic telephone interviews with local media in the sect’s heartland of Maiduguri.
But they have not ruled them out completely either.