As the Dapchi schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram were finally reuniting with their families, Nigeria delivered a small bombshell: it revealed it had begun ceasefire talks with the notorious jihadists.
The talks began months ago, according to officials.
But, to those desperate for a breakthrough in the bloody insurgency, they also caution that divisions among the militants may well hamper progress toward peace — and analysts say similar initiatives have foundered in the past.
“Government is ever ready to accept the unconditional laying down of arms by any member of the Boko Haram group who show strong commitment,” President Muhammadu Buhari said on Friday when he met the schoolgirls in Abuja, the national capital.
“We are ready to rehabilitate and integrate such repented member(s) into the larger society,” said Buhari. “This country has suffered enough of hostilities.”
A total of 111 schoolgirls were abducted by Boko Haram from the northeastern town of Dapchi on February 19 in the largest mass kidnapping since 2014 when over 200 schoolgirls were taken from Chibok.
In a scene that shocked many Nigerians, the jihadists returned to the town in an unobstructed convoy, flying the black Boko Haram flag, to drop off most of the girls.
Six girls are still missing, including one who was held back for refusing to renounce Christianity. The five others are believed to have died in the initial stages of the kidnapping.
Information Minister Lai Mohammed said that a week-long ceasefire was declared on March 19 as part of “intense back channel” negotiations to allow Boko Haram to return the hostages.
The Nigerian government has repeatedly denied paying a ransom or releasing imprisoned Boko Haram fighters in exchange for the schoolgirls.
“The insurgents’ only condition was their demands for a cessation of hostilities and a temporary ceasefire to enable them to return the girls (to) the point they picked them (up),” explained Lawal Daura, a senior security official, on Friday.
The talks with Boko Haram explored the “permanent, possible cessation of hostilities” and the “possibility of granting amnesty to repentant insurgents,” Daura said.
But he warned that achieving success would be “problematic” since the group is splintered into rival camps.
– Competing factions –
A source close to the Dapchi negotiations told AFP that the government has been negotiating with the Islamic State-affiliated Abu Mus’ab al-Barnawi faction of Boko Haram.
Al-Barnawi, the son of deceased Boko Haram founder Mohammed Yusuf, leads one faction, while Abubakar Shekau, Yusuf’s former deputy, leads another.
“Talks have been ongoing between the government and the insurgents from the Al-Barnawi faction,” said the source, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The source said peace talks began in earnest after the July 2017 ambush on an oil exploration team in Lake Chad that killed at least 69 people.
“The major headache now is extending the talks to the Shekau faction which is averse to negotiations,” said the source.
Striking a deal with one faction doesn’t guarantee that the other faction will follow, said security analyst Ryan Cummings.
“You’re not talking to a homogenous, centralised insurgent group,” said Cummings.
“Boko Haram is an umbrella movement comprised of various factions motivated for different reasons, some ideological, others profit, some might be a combination.”
Others fear that the talks are being used as a diversion by Boko Haram to regroup.
“The military is opposed to negotiations with the militant groups, especially on release of hostages, which is believed to mostly involve ransom payment,” said another source close to the talks.
“The military sees Boko Haram using the halt to buy time.”
– Rebel negotiators –
It’s not the first time Nigeria has talked about a ceasefire with Boko Haram.
In 2014, former president Goodluck Jonathan’s government claimed it had brokered a deal with the militants, though Boko Haram attacks continued quickly soon after.
Then, as now, experts questioned the legitimacy and influence of the rebel negotiators.
Shortly after being elected in 2015, Buhari said he was mulling amnesty for Boko Haram fighters.
“If the Boko Haram leadership eventually agrees to turn over the Chibok girls to us — the complete number — then we may decide to give them (the prisoners) amnesty,” said Buhari at the time.
“We’ve had previous conversations about ceasefire that turned out to be illusions,” said political analyst Chris Ngwodo.
“The distinction here is that this appears to be a specific initiative targeted at a specific faction of Boko Haram,” said Ngwodo.
“Perhaps for the first time, at least publically, the federal government is trying to exploit the factions.”