There are strong indications that the 218 schoolgirls abducted six months ago in Chibok, Borno State, by the violent Boko Haram sect may be released on Monday following a ceasefire agreement between the sect and the Federal Government.
The Federal Government, through the Nigerian military, had on Friday said that it had agreed to a ceasefire with the violent sect and that the Chibok girls would soon be released.
The deal was announced by the Chief of Defence Staff, Air Marshal Alex Badeh.
The military has struggled to defeat Boko Haram sect which began attack against Nigeria since 2009.
The Islamist militant group sparked global outrage six months ago by abducting more than 200 girls from the town of Chibok.
Badeh said, “A ceasefire agreement has been concluded between the Federal Government and the Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal Jihad (Boko Haram).”
The President’s Principal Secretary, Hassan Tukur, told BBC Focus on Africa that an agreement to end the Boko Haram hostilities had been reached after talks with the violent group.
He said the agreement was reached after one month of negotiations in Saudi Arabia. The negotiation was said to have been headed by the Chadian President Idriss Deby.
Tukur said Boko Haram announced a unilateral ceasefire on Thursday and the government had responded.
He said, “The Boko Haram members have assured us that they have the girls and that they will release them. I am cautiously optimistic.”
Tukur and Danladi Ahmadu, who calls himself the Secretary-General of Boko Haram, told VOA’s Hausa-language service that the abducted girls would be released on Monday in Chad.
The girls are alive and “in good condition and unharmed,” Ahmadu said.
President Goodluck Jonathan has faced strong criticism over a deteriorating security situation in Nigeria, with villages in the North-East Borno State inaccessible due to the threat from Boko Haram.
The group had demanded the release of detained extremists in exchange for the schoolgirls.
The Defence Headquarters, however, directed all service chiefs to stop further offensive against the Boko Haram sect.
The Chief of Defence Staff said that he had directed the service chiefs to comply with the ceasefire agreement.
Badeh stated this after a three-day bilateral conference between Nigeria’s military leaders and Cameroon which focused on the coordination of trans-border military operations between the two countries.
The Cameroonian military was led to the conference in Abuja on Wednesday by the country’s Chief of Defence Staff, Gen. Maka Rene Claude.
Badeh said, “Without any prejudice to the outcome of our three days interactions, and the conclusions of this forum, I wish to inform this audience that a ceasefire agreement has been concluded between the Federal Government of Nigeria and the Allul Sunna Li Daawa Waj Jihad.
“I have accordingly directed the service chiefs to ensure immediate compliance with this development in the field.”
Decisions reached at the conference include joint border patrol, intelligence sharing and how to handle internally displaced persons.
The decision to suspend the counter terrorist operation followed a ceasefire agreement between the Federal Government and representatives of the Boko Haram Sect at Ndjamena, the Chadian Capital.
The Director of Defence Information, Maj.-Gen Chris Olukolade, said that what the “ceasefire means is that there would be no fire.”
When one of our correspondents asked him if the current development would affect troop deployment in the North-East, he stressed that there would be cessation of hostilities in consonance with the terms of the agreement.
Saturday PUNCH learnt that the Ministry of Special Duties led by Saminu Turaki and the Office of the National Security Adviser played a crucial role in the realisation of the ceasefire agreement.
An intelligence source said that the decision to negotiate in earnest with the Boko Haram was taken during the President Jonathan’s meeting with his Chadian counterpart, Mr. Idris Derby, in Ndjamena, on Monday, September 8, 2014.
It was learnt that the President visited Chad with his National Security Adviser, Sambo Dasuki, because of the security dimension to the mission.
The Minister of Communications Technology, Mrs. Omobola Johnson; the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Dr. Nurudeen Mohammed; and the Director-General of National Space Research and Development Agency, Prof. Seidu Mohammed, were also in the President’s entourage.
Meanwhile, some prominent Nigerians have expressed divergent views over the ceasefire agreement.
A Lagos-based lawyer and human rights activist, Mr. Fred Agbaje, who hailed the agreement, said though the development was a little belated, it would save the lives of Nigerians and enhance the protection of their property.
He said, “I welcome the idea of ceasefire between the Federal Government and Boko Haram because we still have over 200 of our girls with the group. So, it will be foolhardy not to accept such an arrangement.
“It shows that force sometimes cannot bring the best solutions. If you check history very well, war has never completely solved any problem. Force could bring about temporal solutions, but not lasting and enduring reliefs. Fighting terrorism is very expensive and so it will be economically wise to sheathe the sword and embrace dialogue.
“But we have yet to see the terms and conditions of the agreement, so we must be careful how we thread. In my humble opinion, both the Federal Government and the terrorist group must be honest and honour the terms of the agreement so that peace can be achieved.
But the Spokesperson for the Catholic Church of Nigeria in the North-East, Rev. Fr. Gideon Obasogie, asked the Federal Government to be cautious and not trust the insurgent group totally.
“Terrorists will always be violent and they are not the type of people that should be trusted,” he said.
The cleric, however, asked the Federal Government not to rely on the agreement until the terrorists surrender themselves to the military.
Obasogie said, “We have to be cautious of this ceasefire agreement; terrorists are not a group of people to be trusted. Our people are still in the hiding, being displaced.
“Until they all return home safely and the insurgents surrender themselves, they should not be totally trusted.”
A Lagos-based security expert, Dr. Ona Ekhomu, said it was not yet time to rejoice over the ceasefire agreement.
He asked the military to be cautious before it started jubilating because the insurgent group had not kept promises in the past.
He said, “They are not known for keeping their end of the bargain, but let us wait and see what happens. This agreement should be matched with action. These people should not be allowed to go free no matter what.
“Their flags should be burnt up. Their leader is dead and they could have agreed to ceasefire because of that. We have to take precaution. They should not take us unawares again.”
The leader of BringBackOurGirls campaign team, Dr. Oby Ezekwesili, expressed hope that the ceasefire would be sustained.
She said in her Tweet, “Like many of you, I simply cannot afford another heart shattering episode and so we are praying that what we are all reading is true.”
Lagos lawyer and human rights activist, Mr. Femi Falana, said, “Whereas the authorities of the Armed Forces have already announced a ceasefire, we are yet to hear from the Boko Haram Sect. So, we hope it is not a unilateral ceasefire. I also hope that the ceasefire is total on the part of the Federal Government and the implication of that is that it should lead to suspension of further trial of soldiers for mutiny.
“If you are suspending further hostilities with the Boko Haram sect, that means there is no point any longer in putting the boys on trial for asking for more arms to fight the sect.”
But Nigeria’s Chief Security Spokesman told AFP on Friday that there was no deal with the Boko Haram sect for the release of Chibok schoolgirls after the Federal Government had said an accord had been reached.
Asked if a deal for the release of the girls had been finalised, the head of the National Information Centre, Mike Omeri, said, “No. That part has not been agreed but we are inching closer and closer.”
“Already, the terrorists have announced a ceasefire in furtherance of their desire for peace,” Omeri said in a statement.
Meanwhile, Borno State Governor, Alhaji Kashim Shettima, had yet to make categorical statement over the ceasefire deal as of the time of filing this report.
The governor’s media associate, Isa Gusau, said the governor would make comments at the appropriate time.
A human rights lawyer, Wahab Shittu, had described the news of the ceasefire agreement between the Federal Government and Boko Haram as a “welcome development”.
He expressed hope that the ongoing negotiations would lead to the release of the abducted Chibok girls.
He said, “Every option that can be explored in getting this insurgency to come to an end ought to be welcomed by all Nigerians. This is an insurgency that has destroyed valuable lives and properties. It has also impeded development and constituted a threat to the democratic process, so everybody is concerned. If there is ceasefire, it is something that all of us should celebrate because today, Nigerians live in fear.”
Meanwhile, parents of the abducted girls, represented by the BringBackOurGirls coalition, have expressed doubts over the ceasefire arrangement.
The parents noted that there had been similar promise of ceasefire in the past which did not amount to anything, but expressed the hope that the current efforts would yield results and lead to the release of the schoolgirls and other victims.
The Media Coordinator of the group, Mr. Rotimi Olawale, said the negotiation should also extend to every victim of Boko Haram abduction, including men, women and girls in the sect’s captivity.
Meanwhile, a Nigerian journalist, Ahmad Salkida, and activist, Shehu Sanni, who had been involved in negotiations with the extremist sect expressed doubt over the ceasefire deal.
Salkida, who doubted the deal on his Twitter page, said, “I guess Nigerians are tired and as such, any news that offers respite on this protracted war between Nigeria and Boko Haram is always welcomed. Sadly, anybody that despises such good news becomes Nigeria’s enemy.
“But the leadership of Boko Haram is said to be miffed that a nation of the size and magnitude of Nigeria, with high level of intelligent people is being easily encased in deceit and nobody seems to be asking tough questions.
“What is most worrying here is that the government at the highest level and intelligence has embraced this ‘good news.’ This shows lack of understanding of the reality that this is an ideology that can only be neutralised after long hard work that has yet to start.
“It also appears that the government is more interested in shadows and bubbles than in substance and clear-headed engagement with the group.”
Sani said his contacts told him Boko Haram members had denied Ahmadu as their representative.
He said on his Twitter page: “All my attempts to confirm the ceasefire deal did not produce any result. My sources are telling me that they don’t know who that person is. For Boko Haram to reach any ceasefire, such information must come from the leader of the group.
“Any statement that is not coming from the leader of the group cannot be said to be credible and will not be complied with by the group members. The leader is the only person they respect and listen to.”
An analyst for the BBC, Will Ross, said it was a surprising development given the fact that there had not been any indication of negotiations going on between the Federal Government and the militant group.
He said, “Nigerian officials had not given any indication that negotiations with Boko Haram were taking place. Even though there had been rumours of talks in neighbouring Chad, this is a very surprising development.
“Many Nigerians are extremely sceptical about the announcement especially as there has been no definitive word from the jihadists.
“The military has in the past released statements about the conflict in North-East Nigeria that have turned out to be completely at odds with the situation on the ground.
“So many here will only celebrate when the violence stops and the hostages are free.”