Australian negotiator, Dr. Stephen Davis, and Boko Haram commanders in 2013 after BH reportedly agreed to dialogue
By Stephen Davis
I read with interest Asari Dokubo’s comments published on September 14 in the Daily Post.
Asari is quite correct in saying that he knows me well and has met members of my family. In 2004, the Niger Delta was aflame with conflict. Asari, Ateke Tom and Tompolo were waging a fierce war against the Nigerian federal and state governments. Many people had been killed.
Nigerian military were having trouble contending with Asari’s guerrilla warfare. Small, highly mobile and heavily armed militant forces in fast boats struck across the Niger Delta targeting oil installations and military posts. Nigeria’s oil output at one point dropped to as low as 600,000 barrels per day and on average was halved to one million barrels per day.
This was a devastating blow to Nigeria’s economy and the operations of the major international oil companies. Apart from the economic impact, communities were suffering from the conflict with many innocent people killed in military efforts to purge the communities of militants.
My wife and I were living in Port Harcourt and, in 2004, I explored the idea of a peace deal with an Ijaw friend, Von Kemedi. As an Ijaw, he knew Asari who was also Ijaw. Von was able to make contact with Asari who agreed to meet with me.
Von and I subsequently travelled through the swamps in a speed boat to Opurata village to see the damage to villages before transferring to a canoe that we paddled to another village from where we were met by Asari’s men in another fast boat. With a blindfold on we were taken to another island where we waited until another boat escorted us to Asari’s camp. A vigorous discussion took place that night surrounded by Asari’s well-armed fighters. By the end of the night, the foundation of a peace deal has been set down.
I subsequently took the peace proposal to President Olusegun Obasanjo and found him ready and willing to support peace and disarmament. The deal also encompassed demobilisation and a programme to reintegrate the militants back into the communities. This required a skills training programme which President Obasanjo supported. A final essential element was weapons surrender and destruction. The protocol used was that set down by the UN and was agreed by both sides.
At the Villa
I stayed in close contact with Asari by satellite phone each evening around 5pm. We worked out the details of the peace process. The first step was a ceasefire. The ceasefire was set in place on September 8, 2004, but in the following days was broken three times and each time it was the Nigerian military that broke the ceasefire. Even when under fire during a ceasefire breach Asari, honoured his word and withdrew, firing only for self-protection.
To complete the peace deal, President Obasanjo directed me to oversee the extraction of Asari and his key commanders in September 2004. I travelled to the Niger Delta with a handful of SSS men headed by Fubara Duke, an Ijaw man known to Asari and trusted by President Obasanjo.
At 1am on September 29, 2004 Asari, and his commanders met us at Abonnema Landing in the Niger Delta and we proceeded to Port Harcourt airport where we boarded a plane at dawn to take us to Abuja and direct to President Obasanjo in the Cabinet Room. That day was punctuated with amazing revelations as Asari recounted events that led him and his men to defy the government and launch a guerrilla style campaign.
Asari always kept his word to me. He gave me an undertaking on the ceasefire and kept it even in the face of breaches by the military. When it came to time for weapons surrender, he asked me how many weapons I wanted him to surrender. I said, ‘ Asari you have 3,000 men, so I want 3,000 weapons.’
Asari gave a commitment to hand over 3,000 guns, 100 general purpose machine guns and some rocket launchers which were subsequently destroyed in a series of public destructions to UN standards overseen by the Army at Bori Military Camp in Port Harcourt in mid-November 2004.
President Obasanjo kept his word and on October 1, 2004 the peace accord was announced and Asari and his commanders returned to the Niger Delta.
Asari is correct is saying I never paid him anything. I never paid anyone and no one paid me either by way of funds or favours. President Obasanjo did not offer to pay me for the Niger Delta peace accord and I did not seek payment. The peace deal was built on trust. I went to Asari’s camp unarmed and without any security.
Asari and his key commanders travelled with me and the small SSS contingent totally unarmed. We trusted each other with our lives and that built trust. There can be no peace without trust. Without trust, there is merely a ceasefire which will eventually be broken and the fighting resume.
Asari said in his interview with the Daily Post that President Obasanjo broke his word. I am not so sure of that. What I think Asari may be referring to is the demobilisation and skills training that did not materialise after the peace accord. Funds were to be set aside to train the ex-militants for employment and to reintegrate them back into their communities. This phase of the work was to be undertaken by the state governors.
By March 2005, a full six months had passed without any sign of training and reintegration. It was no surprise then to find 200 Niger Delta ex-militants had been recruited by foreign mercenaries to participate in a coup attempt in Equatorial Guinea. The ex-militants were intercepted as they departed Warri in a ship bound for Guinea. They had each been promised $5,000 and an AK47.
Had the promised skills training and reintegration been implemented, these young men probably would not have agreed to join the coup attempt in Equatorial Guinea. So Asari is right but it was more likely that the governors were not sincere and not former President Obasanjo. It was the governors that had armed, promoted and used the gangs for political purposes in much the same way that former Governor Modu Sheriff was alleged to have done in Borno State..
It was this failure to honour the agreement to demobilise by providing skills training and reintegration that fuelled discontent and provided the conditions that formed MEND which added bombing and kidnapping to its mode of operation.
Contrary to Asari’s understanding, former President Obasanjo did not bring me to Nigeria on my recent trip to seek the release of the Chibok girls or for any other purpose. Nor did President Jonathan or anyone else. I came to Nigeria in April this year to seek the release of the Chibok girls at my own expense and of my own volition because I could see no progress on the release of the kidnapped girls.
Girls horrifying rape
While Asari may not believe any girls were kidnapped, let me assure you that hearing the stories of some girls who have escaped from Boko Haram camps is a sobering experience. There are many girls who have been kidnapped apart from the girls from the Chibok school.
The kidnapping of girls by Boko Haram has been going on for at least a year. Initially Boko Haram kidnapped girls because the fighters could not go back home to their wives. They used the kidnapped girls. Girls tell how they were raped every day, week after week.
One girl was raped every day, sometimes several times a day by groups of men. Some did not survive the ordeal. The escaped girls tell harrowing stories of rape and abuse. They are traumatised and require medical treatment and counselling. These girls are testament to the horrifying truth about the kidnappings.
But the Chibok kidnappings were only the start of my recent journey to Nigeria. It soon became apparent the (alleged) sponsors did not want any interference in their plan. The “political Boko Haram” which (allegedly) started out as Sheriff’s ECOMOG (so named after the military peace keeping forces operating in Liberia at that time because an SDP – Social Democratic Party- candidate was protected from an angry mob in Bama by a group of youths supporting the SDP) that targeted his political opponents in the 2003 and 2007 elections have since mutated into the Boko Haram we see today that terrorises through beheadings, butchering innocent villagers, bombing innocent people at shopping malls and in churches, raping and kidnapping.
It is true that Sheriff fell-out with Yusuf and the allegation stands that when the military captured Yusuf in late July 2009 and handed him over to the police in Borno State, he was allegedly executed on Sheriff’s instruction. Thus the root of the perception that Sheriff cannot be a sponsor but a hated enemy of Boko Haram. But the core of the old Yusufiya is no longer part of Boko Haram.
Boko Haram is a mutation of political Boko Haram and Shekau’s Ansaru. The Yusufiya grew out of the Izala movement and had great respect for Izala. Boko Haram now beheads Izala followers. The “slaughterers” work with the political assassins and suicide bombers.
The sponsors of Boko Haram do not care how many innocent Nigerians are slaughtered, how many women are raped, how many girls and boys are kidnapped, how many villages are plundered. I have met too many victims to say, “It is not my problem”.
We are each diminished if we allow such crimes against our fellow citizens to persist. The Nigerian military is diminished if it uses Boko Haram tactics to address the problem. Evil will flourish and triumph if good men and women do nothing.
Many Nigerian politicians have said little and done nothing to curb the slaughter of Nigerians that is being supported by the sponsors. While fathers die to protect their daughters and wives are raped and butchered the sponsors of Boko Haram are accorded privileges and protection.
They fly in private jets and are accorded military protection. Are the sponsors of Boko Haram so far above the law? Have the citizens of Nigeria lost the right to bring these men to justice? Who will stand up for the poor and oppressed who are being slaughtered and raped in their hundreds? By the grace of God we trust that good men and women will stand up and justice will prevail.
*Davis, an Austrialian, is a negotiator