Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan is talking tough, but attacks could result in hostages being killed.
The Nigerian government is actively trying to open channels of negotiation with Boko Haram, the Guardian has learned. The militants abducted 200 schoolgirls seven weeks ago. Officials are aiming to gather a special task force whose goal will be to cut a deal, or wear down the commanders of certain factions, according to insiders with access to Boko Haram’s senior hierarchy.
Often portrayed as a shadowy sect that operates from the margins of society, Boko Haram is in fact deeply embedded in the impoverished northeastern rural settlements from which it sprang.
The government is looking for people to act as couriers, according to an intelligence official directly involved in the talks. That has meant trying to strengthen a network of informants and go-betweens in a situation where so much bad blood exists that direct talks have been ruled out.
Some officials fear the recent explosion of international attention could stoke the insurgency by fuelling a “kidnap economy”. Although the Chibok girls have become a global symbol, they are only the latest kidnap victims in a slow-burning battle, now in its fifth year.
Recently, protesters gathered in the office of Nigeria’s top counterterrorism officials to demand action in the hunt for the schoolgirls. “Why can’t you go in and rescue them?” One mother shouted, using her headscarf to wipe away tears.
Pleas could backfire
General Sarkin-Yaki Bello, co-ordinator of the government’s counter-terrorism centre, told the women their pleas could backfire: “We are dealing with one of the most vicious groups in the world. If we go in there and rescue them, do you think they won’t kill them?”
A prisoner swap deal could also set a dangerous precedent, warned Bello, who has overseen three successful hostage rescues from criminal groups operating in Nigeria’s southern oil-producing creeks. “If we negotiate with Boko Haram for the girls’ release today, we put more girls at risk tomorrow.”
One tentative attempt at negotiation derailed amid the government’s distrust of the intermediary, there were questions over how many girls were still alive, and pressure from army officials and Western allies, according to two senior officials and a senate source.
“They want to negotiate the release of 10 of their top commanders in jail,” said a security source, a demand that marks a step up from the sect’s long-running calls for the release of their foot soldiers. The source, whose identity the Guardian is protecting and who has met the Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau several times, said communications between the extremists and the government had deteriorated to the point where the sect’s leaders were unsure about which of its commanders were still alive.
And any new talks are likely to be protracted. “The sticking point has always been the release of their own comrades. [Boko Haram] won’t go any further until all their members are released,” said Shehu Sani, who took part in of one of two rounds of doomed negotiations in recent years.
Cash cow ransoms
Boko Haram initially shunned high-profile ransoms as a cash cow. Other African al-Qaeda offshoots, such as Somalia’s al-Shabaab and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb based in Mali, had garnered almost $130-million in a decade of kidnapping Westerners by the time Ansaru, a local Boko Haram breakaway faction, abducted its first Westerner in 2012. The following year, a $3-millon ransom was paid to free a French family of seven.
But for the most part, Boko Haram has relied on bank robberies, protection money, car smuggling and the quiet ransom of dozens of wealthy Nigerians to fund arms, food and fighters’ salaries, according to official documents seen by the Guardian.
“They want to expand. They need money for food, arms, recruits. They have started to realise they have no choice but to kidnap,” added an official, who said disagreements over tactics had contributed to the group splintering.
Now the militants appear to be capitalising on unexpected global outrage. In addition to the Chibok girls, at least another 250 girls are also being held by the group, and hundreds of abducted boys have steadily filled its ranks for over two years, with little public outcry.
In public, the government’s response has been to declare total war. “I assure you ... that these thugs will be driven away,” the president, Goodluck Jonathan, said last week, adding that he had ordered a full-scale operation to ensure the girls’ freedom and loosen Boko Haram’s grip in its northeastern enclaves. – © Guardian News & Media 2014