While the federal government is sizing up the Boko Haram for the latter’s peace dialogue offer, the sect continues to kill and maim innocent people, raising doubts about its sincerity in calling for truce
Not many people expected the notorious Boko Haram insurgents to call for dialogue with the federal government as a precondition for peace. So when they did on Thursday, November 1, 2012 only a few, if any, believed them. This is because the sect’s call for truce and dialogue was quite strange. For a sect that had dared the government and spurned peace moves in the three years it has unleashed terror on the country, killing, maiming and destroying property with impunity in a bid to Islamise some northern states in a secular Nigeria, many suspected the group might not be sincere and wondered what might have informed its apparent change of mind.
But unknown to many Nigerians, the group might be responding to certain promptings from its operational base in Maiduguri, the Borno State capital. Reports had it that about two weeks before its purported change of mind, a meeting of some prominent individuals under the aegis of the Borno Elders’ Forum was held in the palace of the Shehu of Borno, Abubakar Ibn Garbai Elkanemi, where issues of insecurity affecting the state in particular and the North in general were discussed. The meeting was said to be at the instance of the paramount ruler who only recently escaped assassination attempt by the sect.
At the meeting, discussions were said to be very frank and as reports later indicated, some far-reaching decisions were taken. Bulama Mali Gubio, the forum’s scribe and former head of service in the state, was quoted as saying that the decisions taken at the meeting would begin to manifest after two weeks. Whether by coincidence or not two weeks later, the sect in a telephone conference, made its unusual offer of a ceasefire. It called for dialogue with the government in Saudi Arabia to be mediated by prominent Nigerians like Muhammadu Buhari, former military head of state and presidential candidate of the Congress for Progressive Change, CPC; Bukar Abba Ibrahim, former Yobe State governor, now senator; Shettima Ali Monguno, former minister and octogenarian; Ambassador Gaji Gatimari and his wife. At the proposed talks, Boko Haram would be represented by Abu Mohammed Ibn Abdulaziz, who made the announcement on behalf of the sect; Sheik Ibrahim Yusuf; Sheik Sani Kontagora; Abu Abbass; and Mamman Nur.
As an icing on the truce offer cake, the group demanded the arrest and prosecution of Ali Modu Sheriff, former Borno State governor, compensation for the sect members killed and property destroyed, release of members of the sect under arrest and the re-building of the sect’s mosques destroyed by security men during several reprisal attacks on the insurgents. Although it did not disclose the offence allegedly committed by Sheriff, the former governor has been repeatedly mentioned as Boko Haram sponsor, an allegation he has denied on many occasions.
However, it does not appear that the sect did its homework well in the choice of those to mediate its talks with government. As at last week, the impression was that the group consulted none of the prominent Nigerians it chose. Buhari, in particular, claimed that nobody contacted him for any proposed talks. Addressing journalists last Wednesday, Buhari not only rejected the offer to mediate, he denounced the sect and its violent activities. “I do not know any member of the Boko Haram sect. I do not believe and I do not know of any religion that will go and kill people, burn schools.”
Although embarrassed by the sect’s choice of him as a mediator, the fiery general identified three Boko Haram groups – the one led by former soldier, Mohammed Yusuf, killed in custody under suspicious circumstances in 2009; “the criminal attacking banks and market places, stealing money”; and “the biggest Boko Haram is the federal government itself, because it has all the powers to stop anarchy in the country.” Shorn of its political content, Buhari’s reaction and his body language gave the impression that he might have had some sympathy for the Yusuf group. It was clear the general was battling to remove the suspicion by his political detractors that he might have even endorsed the sect as a means of correcting many of the nation’s socio-economic and political ills.
Monguno, another choice of mediator by the sect, some believe, seemed to harbour some sympathy for the group at the initial stage. But Monguno’s plea with the sect for a cessation of hostilities was arrogantly ignored in June this year and many wondered whether the old man would allow himself to be snubbed again by the insurgents. Besides, it is not clear, as at the time of going to press, if the Saudi government, the host of the proposed talks, had agreed to so do. The Saudi embassy in Nigeria has kept mum so far apparently in line with diplomatic etiquette. A lady who identified herself as an undersecretary in the Abuja office of the embassy simply told the magazine on phone that, “we have no comment on such issues.” Asked to explain why, the lady intoned, “No reaction, no reaction, please.”
This confusing situation no doubt informs the federal government’s apparent tepid attitude to the offer. Apart from the initial reaction of government, which endorsed the peace move, it is yet to appoint members of its team for the proposed talks. Government’s lukewarm attitude in this regard is said to be anchored on several grounds, including the following: It (government) is still suspicious of the group that is making the offer; it believes the conditions laid down by the group are unacceptable; it does not want to be lured into losing the grounds already gained by the joint task forces tackling the insurgents and that the sect, by its recent attacks, has refused to cease fire and pave way for talks.
Last week, the magazine learnt that security agencies were advising government to treat the request for dialogue with caution and suspicion. To the security agencies, the request could be genuine or false. Their argument is that there are about three variants of the sect – extremists, moderates and the tired. The extremists are said to be led by (Abubakar) Shekau, described as the violent successor of the founder, Yusuf. Shekau has been declared a terrorist by the United States, US, which means the safest haven for him now to operate could be Nigeria, as the US has issued a licence for him to be arrested or killed anywhere in the world. This makes it unlikely that Shekau will accept amnesty.
By what is known of Shekau, sources said that only death could stop him from continuing with the Boko Haram operations, because he is believed to harbour agenda to Islamise Nigeria, or change the government, by any means necessary, or die in the process. It is believed in security circles that an amnesty for him may be inconsistent with his agenda to destabilise Nigeria more so that he allegedly uses brute force to silence voices of dissent.
For some time now the other two groups, said to include those who were hoodwinked into Boko Haram but now detest what they are doing and want to opt out, have been looking for exit routes. However, they are afraid of the consequences from the Shekau group. The openings government gets are usually from this group but they quickly retreat into their shells in the face of reprisal attacks by the Shekau group, which means that any dialogue without the Shekau group could be a nullity ab initio.
Following security reports, government is said to be very much wary of any dialogue without Shekau’s group, which it fears may disown whatever agreement arrived at. There is also the fear that it could be a grand deception to make money from the government by dubious politicians. Besides, government is convinced that the Joint Task Force has considerably weakened Boko Haram’s lethality, and that it is only a matter of time before the sect is totally routed.
As earlier reported exclusively by this magazine, due to the successes achieved by counter-terrorism measures recently deployed by government, a number of strategic Boko Haram operatives have been either killed or arrested. This has weakened the organisation and demystified their assumed invincibility. Government, it is said, prefers to maintain this tempo. It is also not ruling out the possibility that Shekau may be truly ready for dialogue, either to buy time to rebuild his compromised command, or to redefine his campaign seeing he cannot win the war through violence. This strategy is possible, says Don Idada Ikponnwen, a retired brigadier-general and former provost-marshall of the Nigerian Army. According to him, “In war, you can also do things that will keep your enemies at bay to enable you regain momentum and to launch fresh attack.”
It is also argued in security quarters that Shekau may want to be seen to be very strong before government can dialogue with him. It is suspected that this may have accounted for the recent spate of bombings in the North after the call for truce. These may have been targeted to make sure government accepts dialogue. While government, for reasons mentioned above, appears to be buying time, although anxious to put an end to the insurgency, the issue of whether it should accept the sect’s dialogue offer, as it is, is still generating controversy. Some Nigerians, who appreciate government’s dilemma over which of the Boko Haram variants it should dialogue with, advise it to be cautious. Essentially, the argument is more about the sincerity of the group.
Shehu Sani, leader of the Northern Civil Societies Coalition, said the dialogue call might have come from a wrong source. According to him, “From my own study of the group, their way of operation and their own strategy and tactics, and their own predisposition to dialogue or talks, I doubt the authenticity of the statement ascribed to Boko Haram.” He stressed that “a genuine dialogue and peace process can only be done through the government and the genuine leadership of that group. You cannot end violence or achieve peace if you are dealing or talking with the wrong people… Nigerians should disregard this offer until and unless the leader of the group, Mallam Imam Abubakar Shekau, makes a categorical statement through the YouTube or an email to Nigerians, it is then we would take this issue very serious. I do not think the group would choose General Muhammadu Buhari to negotiate on their behalf. I also do not think that person (Abdulaziz) who is claiming to be speaking on behalf of the group is genuine. And I do not also think that the offer made is genuine and credible.”
Anthony Sani, spokesman of Arewa Consultative Forum, ACF, argued in the same vein: “We don’t even know the man who spoke on behalf of Boko Haram; we have never heard of him before now. And the people he claimed would represent them have said nobody has contacted them. So, what kind of dialogue are we talking about?” Ayo Oritsejafor, president, Christian Association of Nigeria, CAN, holds a similar view. To him, the conditions the sect gave and the fact that its men are still killing people indicated that it was not serious about dialogue.
For Boko Haram, the issue of alleged insincerity on the part of the government has also been a recurring decimal. Past efforts made by the federal government to dialogue with it has met with failure, as the group was quick to accuse government of insincerity. In March this year, the sect said it would no longer accept overtures for dialogue with government, saying government’s efforts, through Ibrahim Datti Ahmad, president, Supreme Council for Sharia in Nigeria, failed due to lack of sincerity on government’s part. Abul Qaqa, the sect’s former spokesperson, had disclosed that Ahmad had approached them for talks through a freelance journalist, Ahmad Salkida.
He said then that the sect was sceptical of the overtures because of previous disappointments. “The truth is that we have been doubtful [of] the seriousness and purposeful commitment of the government. It was the Datti group that thought the federal government could be trusted. They approached us and said we should give them a chance and we did, unfortunately, they have been disappointed,” Qaqa said, warning that, “henceforth, we would never respect any proposal for dialogue. In fact, we have closed all possible doors of negotiation. We would never listen to any call to lay down our arms.”
Until two weeks ago, the sect stuck to its guns on its refusal to dialogue with the government. All along, it had developed the habit of summarily executing those it believed had been holding clandestine talks with government or its officials. For instance, in September last year, Babakura Fugu, an in-law to Yusuf, was shot dead in Maiduguri shortly after receiving former President Olusegun Obasanjo who had embarked on a mediatory mission to pacify the sect and broker truce. Since then, according to security agencies, government has been trying to engage the sect in a dialogue through back channels but this has not yielded any reliable breakthrough. Previous openings ended in summary executions of those amenable to dialogue with the government. There had been two openings that appeared almost sure to lead to genuine dialogue but the sect countered the moves.
And in spite of its recent call for talks, the sect has not relented. Last week, it killed two Chinese expatriates in Maiduguri, two soldiers in Kano and felled masts belonging to GSM telecoms providers in Borno and Gombe states. Although it denied killing Muhammed Shuwa, retired army general, and 40 others early this month in Maiduguri, many still believe it masterminded the killings. Azubuike Ihejirika, chief of army staff and a lieutenant general, said the sect had killed about 3,000 people since it began its insurgency in 2009.
Now that the fresh dialogue option is being threatened by perceived insincerity on both sides, what then is the way out? From his military background, Ikponmwen believes that “dialogue is an inevitable option for gaining peace in a situation of war of any kind. Terrorism is as good as war, so, even as the battle goes on, you never ever close the avenue for dialogue. That is why you have diplomacy; diplomats are also warriors. They do their own war on the table; soldiers fight their own war on the battleground, exchanging bullets and fire.”
But the retired military chief stresses the need for all the parties involved in any dialogue to be sincere, honest and well meaning. “The moment that there is sincerity and genuineness of purpose, the whole world becomes the arbiter. All the umpires would be in a position to mediate properly and to check the excesses of each party,” he observed.
But the question remains: Who will bell the cat, the federal government or Boko Haram? And which of the three variants of Boko Haram should the government dialogue with? Nigerians are waiting with bated breath as the cat and mouse game continues at huge human and material costs to the nation.
Additional reports by Adekunbi Ero,
Anayochukwu Agbo and Tajudeen Suleiman.