Africa

Can Nigeria-Boko Haram deal free the Chibok girls?

Campaigners in Abuja march during a rally for the release of the schoolgirls abducted by Boko Haram. Photo: 17 October 2014 Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Campaigners across Nigeria have campaigned for the release of the abducted schoolgirls

The Nigerian government has announced what it says is a truce with Boko Haram militants and a deal to free more than 200 abducted schoolgirls.

If this turns out to be true it will be some of the best news Nigerians have heard for decades.

The fact that the announcement comes from the top of Nigeria's military ought to give it considerable weight. This is not a whisper or a rumour of a deal. It is a statement from the Chief of Defence Staff, Air Marshal Alex Badeh.

But there is massive scepticism here, and some question whether the announcement was in any way timed to coincide with the imminent announcement that President Goodluck Jonathan is going to run for re-election.

Air Marshal Badeh gave very few details apart from saying a ceasefire had been struck with the group known as Boko Haram and that the Nigerian military service chiefs had been instructed to comply.

Then he walked away - no more details and - certainly - no questions from the media, who had been expecting a somewhat duller statement following a meeting between the top brass of the Nigerian and Cameroonian military.

Then it was over to the politicians and spokesmen to fill in the large gaps, including the fate of the Chibok girls, who have to an extent already become political pawns.

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Media captionNigeria's chief of defence staff, Alex Badeh, announces the truce to the media

President Jonathan's principal private secretary, Hassan Tukur, told the BBC that as part of the deal 219 abducted schoolgirls who have been missing for six months would be freed by Boko Haram.

But (and it is a very big but) he said more talks would take place next week to work out exactly how the girls would be released.

One-sided announcement

But what is the position of the jihadists who have been causing havoc across the north-east? That is the big question.

It would, of course, be more convincing if the news of the deal had come from both sides.

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Media captionBoko Haram means "Western education is forbidden" in Hausa

On Friday, the Voice Of America broadcast an interview with Danladi Ahmadu, a man calling himself the secretary general of Boko Haram (hardly a regular title for a jihadist group).

I have failed to find anyone who has ever heard of him. He said a deal had been struck with the government.

The surprising thing is Nigerian officials had not given any indication that negotiations with Boko Haram were taking place.

There had, however, been plenty of rumours of talks being held in neighbouring Chad sparked by President Jonathan's surprise visit to Ndjamena last month.

The presence at those talks of the controversial ex-governor of Borno State, Ali Modu Sheriff, added fuel to the rumours. He has long been accused of having links to Boko Haram - an accusation he denies.

With Nigeria's elections due early next year, it would be a major boost for the governing People's Democratic Party if a deal were to be struck soon.

Political games?

A deal with Boko Haram now would fuel the belief that this conflict is more to do with Nigeria's internal politics than to do with religion.

It would also prompt the question as to whether there are politicians from whichever party who are willing to see thousands killed and entire communities torn apart for their own personal gain?

Many Nigerians will remain extremely sceptical about the news of this deal.

The military and the government have in the past released statements about the conflict which have turned out to be completely at odds with the situation on the ground - including one report which said almost all the Chibok girls were free.

The celebrations here will not begin unless the violence stops and the hostages are home.

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