Amid battles, Boko Haram offers dialogue with Nigerian president

A caller claiming to speak for the Islamist militant group Boko Haram called a local TV station on Sunday demanding 'one on one' dialogue with Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan.

Afolabi Sotunde/REUTERS
Nigeria's President Goodluck Jonathan speaks to the media during a visit to This Day newspaper in Abuja April 28.

The Islamist extremist group Boko Haram, which has killed thousands in the past three years, has for the second time offered to begin dialogue with the Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan.

The offer came via a phone call to a Nigerian television station, AIT, on Sunday. The caller claimed to be a spokesman for the group that calls itself Jama'atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda'awati Wal-Jihad, better known by local Nigerians for their slogan "Boko Haram," which means "Western education is a sin."

“We want Dr. Jonathan one on one," the caller said on AIT television. "No police, no nothing. And if he doesn’t address us in the next 78 hours, we are going to strike, and this time around, we are coming to Abuja and Lagos. We are not hiding it; we are going to see to it.”

It was impossible to verify if the caller was in fact a member of Boko Haram, and indeed for which faction of Boko Haram the caller may belong to, following reported splits within the secretive organization. But while the president himself has remained silent about the offer of dialogue, members of his cabinet have suggested in the past few days that the Nigerian government would be open to the idea of talking.

Namadi Sambo, the Nigerian vice president, confirmed to reporters this weekend that dialogue remains the best option for solving the lingering crises in the country and appealed to all Nigerians to embrace peace.

"I want to use this opportunity to appeal to Nigerians, especially members of Boko Haram to embrace peace," Mr. Sambo told reporters while opening a new school in Kaduna State this weekend. "Let them come and sit down and dialogue with the Federal Government so that peace can reign in our country.”

Given the level of violence that has occurred thus far in this low-level insurgency, and how ambitious the goals of Boko Haram are – the militant group seeks to replace the secular constitution with Islamic sharia law across the Muslim-dominated north of the country – it is difficult to imagine what benefit might come from dialogue. But as death tolls continue to rise, including blasts at Christian churches, attacks on foreign aid missions, and counter-insurgency efforts that have killed hundreds of suspected Boko Haram members, the suggestion of dialogue may be a welcomed respite from the wave of killing that neither side can sustain.

It is unclear why Boko Haram would suggest talks at this time, but there was nothing in the tone of the phone call to AIT to suggest that the group was wavering or suffering from exhaustion.

"I am going to summarize what we want," the caller said. "Firstly, release some people [the president] arrested. Secondly, if Jonathan wants to cooperate with us, he must follow what the letter we sent [said]…. He knows what we want ... the application of sharia Islamic law [in the north]...:"

After calling for "one-on-one" talks with President Jonathan, the caller was asked, "You people want to negotiate with the President directly?"

The caller replied: ”They are the ones causing our riot…. It’s a problem, and if he wants to make negotiations with us directly here, two conditions: First, he must come to Yobe State, with no police or security with him…. Second, he must appear at AIT station, we will put a number, he will call us and we tell him our reason. We want to talk to him openly, we want the public to know what the problem is, and we don’t want to say something privately. We want it openly.”

The offer has received a mixed reaction. Christian pastors and some politicians have called on the government to remain firm against Boko Haram, while others, including the secretary general of the Nigerian Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs, have appealed to the government to negotiate. 

If Jonathan does open dialogue with Boko Haram, he could anger Nigeria's Christian community, which is powerful in Nigerian politics, and which dominates much of the economically prosperous southern part of the country.

Last week, the head of the Christian Association of Nigeria, Ayo Oritsejafor, told reporters that he could no longer guarantee that Christian pastors would urge their parishioners to remain restrained when their community comes under attack.

“I will now make a final call to the Nigerian government to use all resources available to it to clearly define and neutralize the problem as other nations have done,” Mr. Oritsejafor said, according to Agence France Presse. “The Church leadership has hitherto put great restraint on the restive and aggrieved millions of Nigerians, but can no longer guarantee such cooperation if this trend of terror is not halted immediately.”

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