The Nigerian government has confirmed that it is in dialogue with Boko Haram, the militant Islamist group notorious for terror attacks against Christians and others across the country's restive north.
The dialogue began this month with a secret meeting between Boko Haram's deputy leader, Abu Mohammed, and Nigeria’s Vice President Namadi Sambo, security adviser Sambo Dasuki, and other top government officials. The meeting was held in Saudi Arabia.
Mr. Mohammed with Boko Haram confirmed the talks after they were first announced by Nigeria's minister of information, Labaran Maku, Wednesday.
“The government is willing to negotiate because of the security challenges posed by the group who are attacking security formations, universities, and other government formations," said Mr. Maku. “The government welcomes any initiative that will usher in peace, security, and tranquility in the country, especially in the light of the security challenges that we have faced in the last two years."
This marks the second time the government and Boko Haram have engaged in talks. The first dialogue broke off because the federal government could not accept the mediators. This time, the announcement has been met with optimism in the conflict-weary north.
“Virtually all people of the northern Nigeria are optimistic with dialogue. These security challenges cause a lot of fear, loss of hope, and anxiety among the people because the affected states were in serious destruction by the Boko Haram," says Abba Anwar, an analyst based in the northern city of Kano. “I pray and hope that the federal government will look into their grievances and find out modalities to address them for the interest of the teeming people who are suffering from these security challenges."
The group's official name in Arabic translates to ”People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet's Teachings and Jihad," while its common name means "Western education is a sin." The group's stated goal is to overthrow Nigeria's secular government and institute sharia law, at least in the predominantly Muslim north.
In these talks, Boko Haram is seeking release of all their members in detention, the rebuilding of mosques destroyed in the fighting, and the prosecution of those who killed their former leader Mohammed Yusuf, according to a source at the secret meeting who was not authorized to speak.
The Nigerian government finds itself under mounting pressure to show progress in shutting down the violent rebellion unleashed by Boko Haram since 2009 that has left thousands dead. So far, the military efforts against the group have done little to slow the killing spree.
While Boko Haram has attacked churches filled with worshipers, Muslims have also been targeted by the group. Some celebrations of the Muslim holiday of Eid were canceled in northern areas including Kano because of the threat of Boko Haram attacks. At a mosque in Maiduguri, Muslims attending Eid prayers were allowed near with just their prayer mats; vehicles were directed to park 200 yards away from the praying ground due to fears of bombing and attack by Boko Haram.
“Nigeria’s security [forces] are seriously worried with these challenges, though we are succeeding in dealing with them. But our hope is to dialogue with them [Boko Haram] because it’s like a guerrilla war, we are fighting faceless people who at any time attack and kill our people,” says John Shehu, a security official in Kano.