Boko Haram blasts away amid disarray in Nigeria at top echelon

Twin bombs in Jos, not far from Abuja, killed more than 40 people Tuesday. The government has issued conflicting statements about its willingness to negotiate with Boko Haram.

[Story updated on May 21 to include latest casualty figures out of Jos.] 

Days after Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan agreed in Paris to international efforts to deal with Boko Haram, many in Nigeria say his government's contradictory statements about negotiating with the insurgents, and its inability to produce a list of the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram, symbolize an overall failure. 

Boko Haram, the Muslim extremist group operating out of Nigeria’s northeast, took more than 200 girls from their school in mid-April and then in early May offered to exchange them for prisoners.

Yet it remains unclear what Nigeria’s actual position on negotiations is, with different agencies contradicting each other and with internal clashes over whether Boko Haram’s leader, Abubaker Shekau, is even alive. Last week, an official spokesperson said Mr. Shekau was dead, without offering proof. Moreover, a month after the abductions, civic and parent groups, along with diplomats, continue to be baffled that no list of the kidnapped girls is forthcoming.

Meanwhile, Boko Haram is continuing its escalation of attacks and blood, with a twin bombings in the town of Jos that by Wednesday's official accounting killed at least 119. Two days ago a suicide bomb in Kano, in the northeast, took another five lives. Amnesty International estimates some 1.500 killed by Boko Haram since January. 

For months, Nigeria has said little about the insurgent group that wants to create a sharia state in the northeast, and what it has said appears to lack authority or coordination. Tanimu Turaki, who heads a presidential committee tasked with dialogue with Boko Haram, said last week, after Shekau’s video offer to swap girls for prisoners, that "the window of negotiation is still open."

Yet the next day Nigerian Senate President David Mark, from Mr. Jonathan's political party, said that "Nigeria will not negotiate with terrorists under any circumstance."

On May 15, the state-funded Voice of Nigeria station quoted Information Minister Labaran Maku as saying, "Government has made it very clear that we are ready to go to any length to secure the release of our daughters that have been in captivity." He said other statements "should be discounted." 

"I think these conflicting signals are not helping matters on the ground, because it is further creating confusing in the whole process," said Shehu Sani, president of the Kaduna-based rights group, Civil Rights Congress.

To date, the most definitive response has come not from the president, but from Mark Simmonds, Britain's minister for Africa.

Mr. Simmonds relayed his understanding of Jonathan's position to reporters, saying that the president "made it very clear that there would be no negotiations with Boko Haram that involved a swap of abducted schoolgirls for prisoners," though he was open to dialogue on general terms to reach a solution.

The Nigerian government is in a difficult position.

"If it dialogues with the insurgents, they'll be seen to be surrendering to terror,” says Mr. Sani, “and if they refuse to dialogue with the insurgents and the insurgents kill the girls, they will still be blamed for refusing to take the offer from the rebel group … what's most important is to get back those girls home alive and safe."

Boko Haram has killed thousands since it began its violent campaign in 2009 to establish an Islamic state in Nigeria and has killed more than 1,500 people in the first three months of this year alone, according to Amnesty International.

Last weekend, Jonathan and other African presidents neighboring Nigeria agreed in Paris  on a regional plan to fight Boko Haram. The group’s fighters are known to take advantage of and regularly cross and seek shelter along the nation’s porous borders with Cameroon, Niger, and Chad.

On May 16, Boko Haram suspects attacked a camp run by a Chinese company in northern Cameroon and kidnapped 10 Chinese nationals, the Chinese state news agency said.

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