Nigerian government ready for talks with Islamist group Boko Haram

But after a Boko Haram campaign that killed at least 1,000, and a government crackdown that killed the Islamist group's leader, there are questions as to what the two sides can discuss.

By , Staff writer

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    Residents survey vehicles damaged after a bomb blast at a primary school in Maiduguri, the capital of Nigeria's Borno state February 29.
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With yet another Nigerian school in flames, the Nigerian government seems ready to settle down to talks with the Islamist militant group Boko Haram.

The militant group, whose name means “Western education is a sin,” has been on a three year long campaign of terror across northern Nigeria, attempting to abolish Nigeria’s secular government and to impose Islamic sharia law in its place. More than 1,000 people have been killed by the militant group, including more than 300 since the beginning of this year alone.

In Abuja, the nation’s capital, the federal government has reportedly accepted the recommendations of a parliamentary committee report, which identified the chief problems of the north as “massive unemployment of youths … existence of private militias … and weak governance and failure to deliver services in the wake of huge resources accruing to states and local governments.”

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Among the recommendations, according to the Nigerian website Myjoyonline.com is dialog with Boko Haram: “the Federal Government should fundamentally consider the option of dialogue and negotiation which should be contingent upon the renunciation of all forms of violence and surrender of arms to be followed by a rehabilitation programme on the side of government.”

It may seem churlish to ask, but what will dialog achieve at this point?

The government captured and apparently executed Boko Haram’s leader, Mohammad Yusuf, while he was in police custody after a 2009 government crackdown. Under new leadership, Boko Haram has reportedly received training in the use of suicide bombs at camps in Al-Shabab controlled Somalia, and has begun a campaign of suicide blasts, including the August 2011 car bombing of the UN headquarters in Nigeria’s capital city, Abuja.

It’s possible that there is a middle ground where these two determined enemies can toss down a picnic blanket and discuss matters, but from an outsider’s point of view, it’s difficult to know how they could create the trust necessary for negotiations.

Even if the government and Boko Haram do manage to sit down to talks – presumably after a very thorough pat-down by security officers – there is a question as to whether discussions are happening between the right people.

The influential Nigerian daily newspaper, Vanguard, today published a piece that questions the common perception that Boko Haram’s rebellion is aimed at the economically powerful Christian South of the country. Instead, Vanguard’s writer Ochereome Nnanna writes, Boko Haram's main enemy is “the Northern oligarchy which does not promote social mobility.”

While the northern political leadership insists the problem has to do with how Nigeria’s considerable oil wealth is shared among the different regions, Mr. Nnanna argues that the real problem is that northern political elites misgovern their states and corruptly funnel state resources for their own benefit. They urge citizens to send their children to Islamic schools, while they send their own children to elite Western-based private schools.

Because of its system, the North may never come out of the cycle of poverty. The system not only impoverishes but also makes poverty a self-perpetuating tool to keep the privileged class in their idle opulence, fully assured by easy money rolling in from the oil wealth of the Niger Delta. The North may also never get out of its “rising violence”. These two twin evils have always been there in the North even before the oil. You never hear of them in nearby Sahelian countries where the oligarchy does not exist.

Whatever its real causes, the conflict is having a devastating effect on Nigerian civilians, both Christian and Muslim, across the Muslim dominated northern region.

Boko Haram, which initially attacked government and police targets has shifted to softer targets such as Christian churches and Western-curriculum schools. The most recent school attack occurred Tuesday night in the town of Gombe state, near the city of Maiduguri, where Boko Haram was founded. Human Rights Watch issued an appeal for the school attacks to stop. It was just the latest in a string of a dozen such attacks in the past two weeks.

"Boko Haram's attacks on schools represent a new and reprehensible development since the group began its campaign of violence in 2009," said Zama Coursen-Neff, deputy children's rights director at Human Rights Watch. “Children and educational institutions should be left alone, full stop.”

According to the Nation newspaper, Boko Haram’s spokesman, Abul Qaqa – who was arrested and remains in detention – explained to Nigeria’s State Security Services why the militant group attacks churches and schools. It is impossible to verify whether these quotes, obtained by the Nation from the State Security Services are the actual statements of Mr. Qaqa or whether they were given under duress.

“We had a grand plan to Islamise Nigeria, starting with the North. We felt that a lot of Muslims were not practising the religion faithfully as they should.”

“The plans to attack churches and schools were not a reaction to any provocation. The plans had been there. You know why the churches had to go. Those schools, for instance, were not teaching the children, according to ways of our faith.”

“These were part of our initial plans of allowing only Islamic schools and wiping away the so-called secular schools.”

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