By Rafiu Ajakaye
Nine years after attempts to crush the insurgency in the northeast region with military firepower reached a stalemate, Nigeria has said it is exploring negotiations with Boko Haram.
The war against Boko Haram has displaced millions and claimed over 20,000 lives.
If the militants agree to lay down arms, Abuja said it would grant them amnesty, safe passage and rehabilitation.
Nigeria’s secret police chief Lawal Daura first revealed the amnesty proposal amid “ongoing negotiations” on Feb. 26. It was corroborated about a month later by President Muhammadu Buhari.
“This country has suffered enough of hostility. Government is, therefore, appealing to all to embrace peace for the overall development of our people and the country,” Buhari said.
Nigeria’s resort to dialogue followed rising violence by the group. International Crisis Group (ICG) said in a report last week that violence by the militants and herders-farmers crisis claimed over 300 lives in March alone.
On Feb. 19, the Boko Haram faction allied to the Daesh abducted some 112 schoolgirls and a boy from northeastern Dapchi town in Yobe state -- mirroring a similar mass kidnapping of 276 girls some four years earlier in neighboring Borno. At least 113 of the girls taken in 2014 remain in captivity. All but one of the 113 taken from Dapchi have been freed.
Boko Haram killings and destructions have also continued in neighboring Cameroon. On Thursday, 20 houses in Far North Zamga town of the Francophone country were razed with deaths reported in attacks earlier this month.
Opposition to dialogue
Citing the atrocities by the group and its continuous violence despite negotiation claims, Nigeria’s main opposition People's Democratic Party (PDP) says the amnesty offer is misplaced.
Prominent nonprofit organizations have also rejected the idea. They called for accountability for all violators of human rights.
“We believe that granting amnesty to Boko Haram would be an open violation of the Nigerian Constitution and international law and would entail a virtual denial of justice for victims,” Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) said in an email to the Anadolu Agency.
Fears of impunity and rights violations are compounded by government's earlier chest-thumping that it has "technically defeated" the militants.
But followers of the crisis say the dialogue and amnesty offer may well be a genuine way out of the crisis.
Nnamdi Obasi, senior advisor on Nigeria at the ICG, said the talk of amnesty marks a significant shift from the country's initial claims of military victory.
“Given the government’s continuing inability to impose its own solution to the conflict, the prolonged suffering this insurgency has inflicted on civilians in the northeast and the huge cost to the country, the government’s exploration of dialogue [with] the insurgents is understandable,” Obasi told Anadolu Agency.
Beegeagles, West Africa’s most authoritative defense and security blogger, agrees, adding that whereas the local army has largely curtailed Boko Haram’s activities, the militants are yet to be dealt a knockout blow.
There is no telling if and when that day shall come, he cautioned.
“However weakened, the menace which the terrorists pose to civilians was again exemplified in the Dapchi abductions and the attack on outlier communities on the edge of Maiduguri a few days ago. For how long should civilians endure that?’ he said.
Analysts say several challenges lie ahead. Boko Haram is clearly divided, each faction with varied disposition to dialogue. Who is Nigeria talking to, and how genuine are those speaking for the militants?
The country had been down this road before. In October 2014 when the Goodluck Jonathan administration announced a cease-fire which it said followed agreements by both parties to talk, Boko Haram chief Abubakar Shekau promptly issued an audio message dismissing such agreement.
The latest attempt is not without its own troubles.
“The government’s engagement with the insurgents is still quite foggy. It is not clear if it is engaged with only (Abu Musab) Al-Barnawi’s ISWAP, or Daesh, or whether there are also some elements of Shekau’s faction that are disposed to talks,” according to Obasi.
“And even for ISWAP, it's also not clear if the leaders the government is talking with are firmly representative of the entire group.”
Beegeagles said the Al-Barnawi’s group appears open to talk -- a presumption based on claims that the faction was behind the Dapchi abduction which was promptly resolved through what Abuja called ‘back-channel’ negotiations.
Unlike the 2014 rebuttals, neither faction has dismissed the latest claims about ongoing talks.
But this is hardly a guarantee of any concrete outcome, warned Ryan Cummings, director of Johannesburg-based Signal Risk, who said both sides must watch out for and prevent spoilers that may derail the new efforts.