analysisBy Vincent Obia
Perhaps, the closest the country has got to solving the Boko Haram insurgency is the ongoing peace deal between the group and the federal government. The leadership of Jama'atul Ahlis Sunnah Lidda'awati Wal Jihad, also called Boko Haram, offered the conciliatory gesture penultimate Thursday and the federal government responded on a positive note.
There had been a number of failed attempts in the past to broker peace with the group. But one unique thing about the present peace move is that it appears to have the backing of the Boko Haram mainstream. Apart from pockets of giddy denials, there has not been any serious statement saying that the current peace process is not true.
It is hard to predict how the talks would fare. But the momentum and interest from both sides seem to suggest a looming success in the attempt to solve the insurgency that has crippled the economy and social life of much of northern Nigeria these past three years.
Boko Haram offered the olive branch in a teleconference with journalists in Maiduguri by its spokesman, Abu Mohammed Ibn Abdulazeez, who is said to double as the second-in-command (Amir) to their leader, Imam Abubakar Shekau. It said it would end its campaign of violence, enacted since 2009, and embrace peace if the federal government arrested and prosecuted immediate past Borno State governor, Senator Ali Modu Sheriff, released detained members of the sect, and agreed to meet with it in Saudi Arabia. Other conditions given by the group include the rehabilitation of its members and rebuilding of places of worship destroyed during the 2009 uprising that led to the death of Boko Haram's original leader, Mohammed Yusuf.
Sheriff is widely believed to have funded the group at some point before parting ways with it.
Boko Haram named as mediators between it and the federal government Congress for Progressive Change presidential candidate, General Muhammadu Buhari; Dr. Shettima Ali Monguno; former Yobe State governor, Bukar Abba Ibrahim; Ambassador Gaji Galtimari, who had once headed a panel on the violence in the north; and Hajia Aisha Wakil and her husband, Alkali Wakil.
Abdulazeez said the terrorist sect had chosen five people from its fold to negotiate on its behalf with the government, namely, himself, Abu Abbas, Sheikh Ibrahim Yusuf, Sheikh Sani Kontogora, and Mamman Nur.
The federal government welcomed the Boko Haram peace offer. President Goodluck Jonathan's Special Adviser on Media and Publicity, Dr. Reuben Abati, said in a statement, "The federal government is committed to peace and security for the benefit of all Nigerians. If what the proposed ceasefire is intended to achieve are the objectives of peace and security, then it is a welcome development.
"Don't forget that President Jonathan had made it clear that if the people behind Boko Haram are ready to come forward, and table their grievances, then government will be willing to listen to those grievances. There have been attempts before now, by concerned persons to reach out to the Boko Haram through back channels, in response to government's call that all efforts should be made to resolve the problem.
"I suspect that this latest development may be related to that."
Many Nigerians have also hailed the peace move.
"I welcome anything that will lead to dialogue and negotiation to bring solution to whatever problems in the country, real or perceived. This is based on my belief that only dialogue can solve problems," elder statesman, Alhaji Tanko Yakassai, told THISDAY. "It is in the interest of everybody for them to engage in dialogue. The people in the affected areas will enjoy peace and those who took up arms against the country will also enjoy peace. The Boko Haram people will enjoy peace if amnesty is extended to them."
Speaker of the House of Representatives Aminu Tambuwal, penultimate Saturday in Osun State, voiced support for the latest dialogue with Boko Haram, saying, "If the sect is now accepting that there should be a kind of peace pact with the federal government, I am sure the House will encourage that. The House of Representatives is the House of the people of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and any step that can bring peace to the country will be welcomed."
Tambuwal acknowledged that not all the terms put forward by Boko Haram would be met. He said, however, "I think government should be engaged and see how best the issues can be resolved."
Happenings on the sidelines of the proposed talks between the federal government and Boko Haram, however, do not seem to guarantee the badly needed peace. Just as Nigerians were hailing the peace gesture by Boko Haram, on November 2, gunmen believed to be members of the sect killed a 79-year-old retired senior military officer based in Maiduguri, General Mohammed Shuwa, at his residence.
Boko Haram has denied carrying out the killing, but in hindsight, every aspect of the murder bears the imprint of the group. Moreover, the Defence Headquarters has indicted the sect for the murder.
Besides, the Joint Task Force in Maiduguri said on November 1 - the same day Boko Haram declared its peace offer - that the sect had hatched a plot to target public officers, citizens, and politicians.
JTF spokesman, Lt. Col. Sagir Musa, stated, "Information available to the Joint Task Force (JTF) Operation Restore Order indicates that Boko Haram terrorists are plotting to attack government officials, civil servants, politicians and other law abiding citizens in Borno State."
The military taskforce called for vigilance among citizens.
But security personnel on peace keeping operations in the Boko Haram hot spots have also been accused of ruthlessness against the civilian populace, a situation analysts say tends to build sympathy and support for the insurgent group.
In a report that coincided with the Boko Haram peace offer, Amnesty International accused the Nigerian security forces of extrajudicial murders and high-handedness in trying to contain the sect's insurgency.
"The cycle of attack and counter-attack has been marked by unlawful violence on both sides, with devastating consequences for the human rights of those trapped in the middle," said Secretary General of Amnesty International, Salil Shetty. "People are living in a climate of fear and insecurity, vulnerable to attack from Boko Haram and facing human rights violations at the hands of the very state security forces which should be protecting them...
"Every injustice carried out in the name of security only fuels more terrorism, creating a vicious circle of murder and destruction."
However, Defence spokesman, Colonel Mohammed Yerima, denied the Amnesty report, stressing that the security forces only kill Boko Haram suspects during gunfights, not in extrajudicial executions.
"We don't torture people. We interview a suspect; if he is not involved we let him go. If he is involved we hand him to the police. I totally disagree with this report. It is biased and it is mischievous," Yerima said.
There are some Nigerians who also feel that Amnesty International acted in bad faith by releasing the report with scathing criticism of the country's Armed Forces. They say such report may be sending out the wrong message, with dire consequences for the country's security.
"I want to appeal to the international organisations to help us in Nigeria to live in peace with one another. I'm not happy with the Amnesty International report alleging extrajudicial killings by the Nigerian Armed Forces. It is not an exercise that was fairly conducted. They said the Armed Forces killed a significant number of people, but they did not tell us the circumstances under which these alleged killings took place: where it happened, the identities of the victims," said Yakassai.
"My concern is that through their acts of omission or commission the international organisations are trying to encourage anarchy in different parts of the world.
"I am concerned that if you subject security forces to unjustified and unwarranted condemnation, you demoralise them. You can erode their confidence and make them disgruntled. The fear here is that they could get so disgruntled that they may look the other way when there is crisis in the country. So I want to appeal to the international organisations to help us live in peace.
"I also want to appeal to the media not to write stories without details. They should always respect the time-honoured principles of news reportage."
Maybe, finding people who sincerely believe in a negotiated settlement of the Boko Haram conundrum and are prepared to identify with the process is one of the greatest challenges faced by the federal government in the latest attempt to talk with the group.
Many of those nominated by Boko Haram to mediate on its behalf have either distanced themselves from the sect or remained noncommittal. Some of the nominees have long been suspected to have association or sympathy for the group. Both former governor of Yobe State, Ibrahim, who is now a serving senator, and Buhari maintain that they were never consulted by the group before their names were published as recommended mediators.
"Nobody contacted me. Nobody consulted me about it and I would not say anything about whether I am going to accept to serve on the team or not, until I am officially contacted by the group," Ibrahim was recently quoted as saying.
It is not clear if he has been officially contacted by Boko Haram and if he has acquiesced to the nomination.
Buhari told newsmen on Wednesday in Abuja, after a meeting of the Board of Trustees of CPC, "I do not know any member of Boko Haram and, secondly, I do not know any member of my party that knows them.
"So, how can I represent people I do not know, that I do not believe in whatever their cause is?"
Buhari has seemed to find it very difficult to condemn Boko Haram and its activities. In fact, his utterances and those of some CPC members, particularly, its secretary, Buba Galadima, in the period before and during the post-election violence last year, fuelled suspicion that he is in sympathy with the ideals of Boko Haram or actually inspires them.
Though, the Boko Haram insurgency is generally traced to the 2009 uprising in Maiduguri, the group's violent activities assumed a fiercer and more dangerous dimension after last year's presidential election won by Jonathan. Jonathan's candidature had been severely opposed by Buhari and some members of the northern elite organised as Northern Political Leaders Forum. Led by former Central Bank of Nigeria Governor Adamu Ciroma, NPLF believed it was the turn of the north to produce the president then to complete what they perceived to be the region's two-term presidency, which the late President Umaru Yar'Adua could not complete before his death on May 5, 2010.
At the outbreak of the post-election violence in which hundreds of people lost their lives, Buhari had insinuated that the riots started by his supporters in some parts of the north were a valid reaction to the presidential election, which he claimed was rigged.
Boko Haram's rhetoric also assumed some political elements since the period after the presidential poll.
But Buhari says he is not in synch with Boko Haram and cannot negotiate on its behalf. He, indeed, feels the federal government and the group are bedfellows.
The CPC National Publicity Secretary, Mr. Rotimi Fashakin, told THISDAY on Tuesday in Abuja, "Let no one be deceived, Buhari has nothing to do with insurgency. He is a patriot and would not remove himself from the path of the ethical discipline that he is noted for.
"The Peoples Democratic Party and Boko Haram ate hand-in-glove. The PDP-led federal government can negotiate with Boko Haram without any other intervening party."
Apparently, the reservations about an open identification with Boko Haram arise from the moral and political burdens that such association is perceived to carry. But analysts believe the overriding need for peace in the country should moderate whatever interests individuals might have.
But there are obvious reservations on the part of Boko Haram, too. The group named a delegation to negotiate on its behalf with the government without including its leader, Shekau. Some previous attempts at dialogue had failed following their renunciation by Shekau. Though, he appears to back the latest effort, pundits believe the federal government may not be wholly enthusiastic about a dialogue without the physical presence of the Boko Haram leader.
Many Nigerians feel the group's leaders and members must come out - like the former Niger Delta militants - and reject violence if any dialogue with the sect is to bear meaningful fruit.
Contrasting the Islamic sect and the former Niger Delta militants, in a recent interview with THISDAY, elder statesman and former National Chairman of PDP, Chief Solomon Lar, said, "Let them come out. During the (time of the) Niger Delta militants, some people came out and said they were the leaders of the militants. That was very reasonable and that was how the late President Musa Yar'Adua was able to tackle the problem of militancy in the Niger Delta.
"The Niger Delta militants were not faceless like Boko Haram. Why didn't Boko Haram people follow the example of the militants by showing their faces?"
Boko Haram leaders allege that their anonymity is as a result of government's betrayal. They accuse the government of seizing the opportunity of dialogues in the past to arrest their members.
Analysts believe the federal government must find a way of filling the confidence gap to reassure the sect that the government means no harm.
But within federal government circles, there are also apprehensions about a possible repeat of the experience of the Yar'Adua administration, which had tried to reach a peace deal with Boko Haram by releasing some of its members and allowing them walk free only for the sect to remobilise and launch even more ferocious offensives.
Fringe groups are believed to have developed within Boko Haram, which, coupled with its rather faceless nature, tends to complicate the sect's ability to come together for a fruitful dialogue. The Boko Haram spokesman, Abdulazeez, who announced the proposed discussion with government, seemed to confirm the existence of factions when he dissociated the sect from some of the acts the public have come to take as the hallmark of the group, like the torching of schools, worship places, markets, etc, and the killing of innocent people. He said such were the handiwork of politicians.
Even though the Defence Headquarters has accused Boko Haram of killing Shuwa, the sect has denied the charge. But there is wide suspicion that fringe elements within the group might have carried out the murder.
The peace deal between the federal government and Boko Haram has been long in the making. The latest attempt may not achieve the truce that the country needs so much. But true reconciliation can come through repeated efforts. As Yakassai put it, like an examination, "You try and fail, you continue to try until you succeed. When you are going for a dialogue, you go with the mind to succeed."
Many believe that in the current peace moves between the federal government and Boko Haram, success starts with sincerity by both parties.