By Dapo Olorunyomi
Why did the high level negotiations between the Nigerian government team and Boko Haram insurgents, led by a former Minister of Information, Edwin Clark, to secure the release of 220 Chibok girls, crumble shortly before the Muslim Sallah holidays in Yola last July?
Knowledgeable sources to the negotiations, speaking to PREMIUM TIMES in Abuja, Yola, and Geneva, have offered rare insights into talks that have come closest yet to secure freedom for the abducted girls, and relieve President Goodluck Jonathan of perhaps the worst nightmares of his administration.
But the government bungled the process with its unnecessary exuberant display of enthusiasm and excessive show of force, insiders in the talks say.
Parties to the talks have refrained thus far from sharing thoughts on their negotiations because as some of them told this newspaper, “we all agreed to maintain a code of silence as a way of helping push the difficult process to a fruitful resolution and helping this country heal from the pains of this insurgency.”
It was the story of a 30-day intense and often dramatic negotiations that could have changed the history of the nation, involving two notable Nigerian civil rights leaders, Fred Eno, and Shehu Sani, along with Maiduguri-based lawyer, Mustapha Zanna, and PDP chieftain, Kaka Bolori, along with three top officials of the International Red Cross headquarters office in Geneva which served as the “interface” negotiators, and two field captains of the Boko Haram sect.
In terse responses to this paper reporting on their negotiations, however, some of our sources have responded to confirm or deny aspects of questions posed to them, although it appears there is unanimity in their perception as to why the Clark Talks finally failed.
“It boils down, basically, to three key issues: inflexibility and lack of realism on the part of the insurgent forces; lack of support for a negotiated settlement to the insurgency on the part of security forces; and what appears to be government’s acceptance that the security forces were right,” highly placed officials close to the negotiation told this reporter.
Yola: The Elusive Prize
There also appears to be agreement among most of the parties to the negotiation that the “Yola debacle” was the decisive point of failure in the talks.
After weeks of tough negotiations, the two sides finally accepted to what famously came to be dubbed the “prisoner swap” of the Chibok girls with some commanders of the Boko Haram fighting forces.
Insiders to the talk paid homage to Mr. Edwin Clark’s wisdom and staying power, saying he was deft at keeping sometimes difficult claims in perspective as the meetings wobbled on and on between contentious positions of both sides.
On prisoner swap for instance, our sources say, the insurgents were “initially modest in their demands, asking for just 10 of their field captains who appear to have a holding grip on the imagination of the fighting forces.” At this time, this was against the whole abducted girls.
While the security forces were combing detention centres,shopping for the 10 detainees, our sources say something strange happened, suggesting internal struggles in the camp of the insurgency forces. Our sources understood the “happening” to be a factional disagreement on the ethnic composition of the 10 names tabled for the swap. “They were all of Kanuri nationality and it appeared the Hausa/Fulani faction protested this.”
The result of this disagreement was about one week delay in the negotiations after which a “new list of 15 was tabled, and then it was increased to 16”.
The ICRC was then working with security forces to identify the names on the list. In this period, it wasn’t clear if security forces had all the names in demand, a situation that triggered a new frustration in the talks, according to our sources. Were they never captured or were they killed in battle or extra-judicially?
This development, according to one of our sources, led discussions along a frozen path. “We almost lost ten days again to this but after a meeting at the Kuje prisons, near Abuja, where Mustapha Umar, one of the commanders on the list was held, the government team saw a new ray of hope.”
However, distrust was now building and the team of two Boko Haram negotiators switched the terms of demand from 16 sect commanders for all the girls, to only 30 girls.
But Mr. Clark, according to our sources, told them there was no realism in their demands and that if they so cherished their compatriots, the smartest deal for them was to release all the girls. At any rate, Mr. Clark reportedly argued that such a deal would put President Jonathan at the butt of a new wave of criticism and provide fodder for the opposition. So this was not acceptable, he reportedly insisted.
“Swap is not our idea but the idea of the government,“ the Boko Haram negotiators initially argued, trying to insist on the high road, but they later deferred to the age of Mr. Clark, according to our sources.
At this point also, the ICRC team clarified the terms of their engagement, insisting that before the swaps, they would need clear commitments from the abducted girls and the detained fighters. “Prisoners and the girls must offer consent before the deal can be closed” ICRC insisted. To get the consent of the girls the ICRC said they were prepared to risk going into the enclave of the insurgency.
The Boko Haram negotiators reportedly said they were comfortable with this, and that it will also help “dispel the claims that the girls were being maltreated or that they have been forced into marriage which will shock many people when the girls return.”
With the Abuja negotiations sealed, Yola, the Adamawa state capital, was agreed as the point of swap. Government negotiators favoured a discreet arrangement where they would sneak into Yola, the Red Cross would take custody of the girls, and in turn yield the Boko Haram detainees to them and conclude the swap.
The management of the Yola episode, according to our sources, put paid to the whole arrangement. The government, in an exuberant show of enthusiasm chartered a Boeing 737 jet to convey the girls to Abuja from Yola. What was thought to be a discreet arrangement turned into a fantasia and loud orchestra show. Moreover, “when we arrived Yola, half of the airport was covered with security forces” noted one of the insiders to the deal.
“Then they moved negotiators to the presidential lounge for a two-hour wait…then 48 hours in the hotel…but Yola had been infiltrated by these people and the security presence sent a wrong signal…clearly these people didn’t trust the arrangement and they never showed up.”
When contacted Wednesday, some of the principal actors in the collapsed negotiation declined to provide details, saying it’s still premature to divulge “sensitive details”.
“The whole thing is unfortunate, but hopefully we can revive the negotiations,” one of the negotiators, Fred Eno, told this medium. “The president desperately wanted the girls released, but politics of positioning stood in the way of progress.”
The President of the Kaduna-based Civil Rights Congress, Shehu Sani, insisted he was not comfortable discussing the matter at this time, suggesting that it was irrelevant talking about what worked and what didn’t work at least until the girls are rescued.
Mr. Clark did not answer or return calls made to his telephone on Thursday morning. He also did not respond to a text message sent to him.
Benoit Matsha-Carpentier, the Senior Media Officer for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, was also unavailable Thursday morning. He is yet to return calls made to him.
Spokespersons for the Nigerian presidency were also unavailable to provide insight regarding why the administration acted the way it did in the final minutes of the negotiation. Reuben Abati, the Special Adviser to the President on Media and Publicity, as well as Doyin Okupe, the senior special assistant on Public Affairs, didn’t answer or return calls Thursday morning.
The over 200 girls, mostly teenagers, were kidnapped from their secondary school in Chibok, Borno State, on April 14.