Nigeria aims to secure the release by Tuesday of more than 200 schoolgirls kidnapped by Islamist Boko Haram militants, two senior government sources said on Saturday, although they declined to comment on where this handover would take place.
Nigeria’s armed forces chief, Air Chief Marshal Alex Badeh, announced on Friday a deal with Boko Haram for a ceasefire that would enable the release of the girls, whose abduction while taking exams in the remote northeastern town of Chibok in April caused international shock and outrage.
The announcement came a day before a rally of supporters of President Goodluck Jonathan in Abujaat which either Jonathan or his vice president, Namadi Sambo, ie expected to announce his candidacy for February 2015 elections.
The timing, coupled with a history of abortive government attempts at truce deals with Boko Haram and military claims to have rescued some girls that proved false, mean Nigerians are likely to greet the newly reported breakthrough with scepticism.
“I can confirm that FG (the federal government) is working hard to meet its own part of the agreement so that the release of the abductees can be effected either on Monday or latest Tuesday next week,” one source told Reuters by telephone.
Officials at the presidency and military did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Boko Haram has also not yet commented on the reported truce. The group’s sole means of conveying messages are videotaped speeches by a man claiming to be Abubakar Shekau, its leader whom the military last year said it had killed.
The second government source involved in the talks was more cautious, stressing that there might have to be more discussions in Nigeria and the Chadian capital N’djamena — the nearest non-Nigerian major city to the heart of the Boko Haram insurgency — before all the details are ironed out.
“We have confidence in those we are negotiating with but we are still doing it with considerable caution. Boko Haram has grown into such an amorphous entity that any splinter group could come up disowning the deal,” he said.
“(But) we believe we are talking to the right people.”
CONFUSION OVER BOKO HARAM LEADERSHIP
Boko Haram is believed to divided into several factions that loosely cooperate with each other, and it is unclear with which faction the government has been negotiating. It says the talks were held with a formerly unknown militant called Danladi Admadu, who alleges he is the group’s “secretary general”.
Underlining the uncertainty over chain of command in Boko Haram, Nigeria’s military said at the end of last month that a man who had been posing as Shekau in the group’s growing number of videos had been killed in clashes over the town of Konduga.
Boko Haram, whose name translates roughly as “Western education is sinful”, has massacred thousands in a struggle to carve an Islamic state out of religiously mixed Nigeria, whose southern half is mainly Christian or animist in faith.
Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country and its oil-rich economy is the continent’s largest.
The schoolgirls’ abduction stunned the world, spurred a global Twitter campaign to get them rescued and heaped pressure on Jonathan’s administration to do more to protect civilians in the northeast where Boko Haram’s insurgency is focused.
Several rounds of negotiations with the jihadist movement have been pursued in recent years but they have never yielded calm, partly because of Boko Haram’s internal divisions.
Since the girls’ kidnapping, the Nigerian military has twice asserted that it rescued some or all of the girls, only to have to backtrack hours later.
At Saturday’s rally in Abuja, many of President Jonathan’s supporters wrapped themselves in the white and green of Nigeria’s flag and sang and danced under a banner reading “We Love YouGoodluck Jonathan. Our support is 100 per cent.”
Two candidates for the main opposition coalition, former military ruler Muhammadu Buhari and ex-vice president Atiku Abubakar, have declared their candidacy against Jonathan.
(Additional reporting by Camillus Eboh in Abuja; Writing by Tim Cocks; Editing by Mark Heinrich)
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