An aid line at Damasak, north Nigeria, retaken from Boko Haram. Picture: ReutersGROWING military pressure on Nigeria’s Boko Haram Islamists has raised hopes that they may free some of their schoolgirl hostages as part of a deal to escape being hunted down and killed.
Tuesday marked the first anniversary of the kidnap of more than 200 schoolgirls from the town of Chibok and diplomats say the sole chance of any of them being released alive is if the cornered commanders of Boko Haram opt to use them as “bargaining chips”.
The girls’ plight drew worldwide attention last year, thanks partly to the BringBackOurGirls social media campaign endorsed by Michelle Obama and numerous celebrities.
But even with the help of Western military spy planes and hostage negotiation experts, they have remained well beyond the reach of the Nigerian authorities.
It is widely believed that they were split early on into dozens of smaller groups, making any rescue attempt on one group liable to invite brutal retaliation against others. But diplomats have now said that recent military gains against Boko Haram may have pushed it to the point where some of its individual leaders may be willing to negotiate to save their own skins.
Nigerian and Chadian troops fighting on either side of the border have retaken several towns seized by the Islamists and many of the group’s commanders are now scattered and on the run.
Some are believed to have groups of the girls in their custody and may be prepared to free them now that they are in a position of weakness.
The alternative would be to face continued determined hounding from the Nigerian military and the prospect of no mercy if caught. Given how the tide of battle has turned against them, that may seem a worse prospect than the risk of being punished by Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakr Shekau, for co-operating with the authorities.
“If pressure is maintained, that is one of the ways that the girls could find freedom,” one Western diplomat said. “For some of these armed groups, they could be bargaining chips for some kind of settlement with the authorities.”
Such a move might also open up the way for a longer-term settlement brokered by Nigeria’s new president-elect, Muhammadu Buhari, who beat Goodluck Jonathan in last month’s elections.
While more extreme elements such as Shekau himself are seen as “irreconcilable”, it is thought that some kind of amnesty would persuade many rank and file fighters to lay down their weapons, especially if combined with offers of jobs and economic development in the dirt-poor areas of northern Nigeria where they live. The diplomat said: “It is at an early stage, but that is a strategy that we would support.”
Diplomats say the last reliable sighting of the hostages was a group of 20 to 30 girls at an abandoned school compound around the town of Gwoza, near Nigeria’s mountain border with Cameroon, in September last year. It was taken by “eye in the sky” satellite planes. They were being watched over by Boko Haram guards.
Mr Buhari, a former general who served as a military ruler of Nigeria in the mid-1980s, made the issue of tackling Boko Haram a key part of his election strategy. Diplomats hope he will prove more engaged in the task than Mr Jonathan did.
A British military source said Mr Jonathan’s government had done relatively little with the “vast amounts of intelligence” supplied by RAF Sentinel spy planes and Tornados. The RAF resource was then diverted by increasing demands for their use in Iraq and Syria.
“We were not seeing a great clamour from the Nigerian authorities to sort this out,” the source said.
Since the kidnapping, attempts have been made to free the girls through back-channel negotiations, most of which foundered after opposition from the government, which did not wish to be seen to bow to Boko Haram’s demands.
Shehu Sani, a Nigerian civil rights activist involved in past dialogue attempts, said he agreed with the diplomats’ assessments that the playing field against Boko Haram had now tilted.
“The girls are now the insurgents’ last cards, and the best time to reach out to them for dialogue is when they are seriously under pressure,” Mr Sani said.
The Daily Telegraph, London