The Man Who Talks to Boko Haram – Part 1
Last year, an extremist group that is located primarily in Northern Nigeria kidnapped 275 girls from the government secondary school in the Christian-dominated town of Chibok in Borno State.
Students reported to the Chibok Government Secondary Boarding School on Sunday, April 13th, to take an exam on Tuesday morning, despite the fact that the government had closed schools across the state because it could not offer protection.
At about 11pm on Monday the 14th, armed Boko Haram insurgents broke into the school. They burned the administration block and classrooms. Dressed in military uniforms, they told the girls that Chibok was under attack, but that they were there to protect them. The girls believed them and obeyed their orders to enter the vehicles waiting outside.
Forty-three girls escaped, some during the attack at the school and others during the journey to the camp in the Sambisa forest where the captive girls were initially kept.
Nearly one year later, 232 of the girls taken that night from Chibok remain in captivity. It is not clear where they are being held or what circumstances they have been facing during this past year. The first of the babies born to the girls since their abduction arrived in mid-February of this year. Four girls who managed to escape after their arrival at the Boko Haram camp reported being raped on an almost daily basis. They said that those who did not cooperate with the rebels faced severe punishment. Some other girls, who were captured before the Chibok girls, have managed to escape after varying times in captivity. They reported that the rebels have killed girls because they would not renounce their Christian faith.
The Nigerian Government has received harsh criticism for its handling of the crisis. Critics say it has not done enough to secure the girls’ release or to support their families.
In May of last year, news surfaced that an Australian, Stephen Davis, had been negotiating behind the scenes for the release of the girls. Although he secured an initial agreement for the release of about 60 of the girls, the exchange was compromised. In October, there was another glimmer of hope when the government announced it had reached an agreement for their release. But just as the news broke, fighting intensified and a person claiming to be the leader of the group, Abubakar Shekau, whom the military previously had announced was dead, denied the existence of a deal in a video released to media. “War is what we want,” the speaker declared.
Dr. Stephen Davis, the Australian who had been involved in the negotiations for the release of the Chibok girls, served as Director at the International Centre for Peace and Reconciliation at Coventry Cathedral in the U.K. in 2005 and 2006. Davis also served as an advisor to two Nigerian presidents—Olusegun Obasanjo, and Umaru Musa Yar’Adua. Davis became involved in the negotiations because of his recent history of interaction with the forerunner of Boko Haram, Jama’atu Ahlul Sunnah Lih Da’awa Wal a struggle or fight against the enemies of Islam.. Following telephone conversations he had with contacts in the group soon after the kidnapping, he was confident that there was a good chance of securing the release of some, if not all, the kidnapped girls.
Although he received logistical support from the Nigerian presidency, he received no payment for his negotiations for the release of the girls and was never formally contracted.
“Soon after arrival in Nigeria and discussions with the Presidency, I traveled to Borno State in the northeast by military aircraft provided through the Presidency,” Davis said. “As the visit was to be discreet, it was decided that I would be met at the military airbase by a civilian and travel in a private vehicle. Over subsequent days, I met with the head of the Maiduguri University Teaching Hospital who was cooperative in providing medical team support for any kidnapped girls who might be handed over.”
Davis learned that the majority of the girls were not being held in Nigeria, but in camps in Cameroon, Chad and Niger. A small group was confirmed to be in Nigeria, ready to be handed over.
Around the same time, Davis received a phone call from a young man named Idris, who claimed to also have been abducted by Boko Haram and forced to drive vehicles during their attacks. “Over subsequent weeks and many interactions by phone, we arranged a vehicle to assist Idris to escape and bring with him four girls who had been kidnapped in Chibok. The girls managed to escape, but Idris, and the driver we sent to pick them up, were apparently killed by Boko Haram,” Davis said. “The girls escaped (from Cameroon) by walking west to follow the setting sun each evening, knowing that would eventually lead them to Nigeria. After several weeks, they arrived at a village on the Nigerian side of the border, and through a local pastor, they were reunited with their families.”
Davis said he came close to brokering a release three other times, only to have each handover ruined at the last moment. In one episode, he told World Watch Monitor, “We had set out on a trip to receive a group of Chibok girls who were to be handed over at the village of Kirenowa near the northern border with Niger. At New Marte, we picked up a military escort and continued to Kirenowa.”
Fifteen minutes before the exchange was scheduled to take place, another group kidnapped the girls in order to cash in on the several million Naira reward, which the police had publically announced just 24 hours before. Shortly afterward, Boko Haram attacked Kirenowa, wiping out the military barracks. They also took New Marte and Dikwa, both large towns with substantial military presence.
Davis became aware that powerful figures with “vested interests” were sabotaging his efforts to broker a deal. “While I was making efforts to secure the release of the girls, I realized that if I got 30 or 40 girls out, the political backers of the group would have the militants kidnap another 60 to replace them—and a further 100 villagers would likely die in the process. I became very frustrated. The backers threatened that any commander of the group who agreed to participate in any peace dialogue or handover of girls would be slaughtered by other commanders.”
Davis implicated former Borno State Governor Modu Sheriff in funding the rebel group for political gains. In addition, he accused former National Security Adviser Andrew Azazi of pocketing money from generous defense budgets designated to help fight the insurgency. He also said a senior Central Bank of Nigeria official has provided an official channel by which to supply a Boko Haram agent in Egypt with funds to buy weapons and military uniforms. “In short, the sponsors of Boko Haram clearly want to show that a Christian President cannot overcome the current insecurity caused by Muslim extremists,” Davis said.
Davis has concluded that the first step in defeating the highly radicalized and increasingly organized Boko Haram is to arrest the sponsors, cut off arms supplies and communications, and isolate them geographically.
In a previous interview with World Watch Monitor, he reported that commanders of the political arm of Boko Haram were tired of the ritualistic bloodletting and that if the sponsors’ influence were removed, these leaders would be ready to negotiate an end to the insurgency. According to Davis, as long as the sponsors are in the picture, no negotiation would take place.
Story to be continued next week…
Father, once again we bring before Your throne of grace these Nigerian girls kidnapped by Boko Haram insurgents. We pray for Your continued protection over them, and that You would save their bodies from harm, their hearts from distress, and their faith from hopelessness. We pray for their families; that You would encourage them with hope. And, we give thanks for Dr. Davis as he pursues every avenue possible to obtain their safe release. We implore You to remove the influence of Boko Haram sponsors who have created these barriers to negotiations; that You would provide opportunity for Dr. Davis to end this stalemate. And we pray that You will give the world eyes to see that You have done it. In the name of Jesus, a refuge for the oppressed and our stronghold in times of trouble, Amen.