By Vincent Obia
Barely one month after being sworn in as vice president in 2007, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan commenced visits to the communities in the creeks of the Niger Delta to discuss the way forward with militants and traditional rulers.
This followed heightening armed struggle by locals seeking a fairer share of the region’s oil wealth. The visits took Jonathan to the dreaded Camp 5 at Okerenkoko in Gbaramatu kingdom of Delta State, run by ex-militant leader, Government Ekpemupolo, alias Tompolo, and the camps of other Niger Delta agitators. Jonathan also, reportedly, visited the leader of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, Henry Okah, in South Africa.
It was the deliberations, which focused on rehabilitative and developmental measures to wean the region away from armed struggle, that produced the 2009 amnesty programme for Niger Delta armed agitators, proclaimed by then President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua. It also paved the way for the return of peace to the hitherto restive region.
Fast-forward to 2013, Vice President Namadi Sambo has kick-started a process similar to the Yar’Adua era peace missions, and Nigerians are hoping that the outcome would not be dissimilar to the achievement of the presidential mission to Niger Delta.
Saturday’s visit to Borno State by Sambo came two years after his last visit to Maiduguri to receive an honorary doctorate degree awarded to him by the University of Maiduguri. It was the first official visit by the presidency under Jonathan to the state, which has suffered a perilous onslaught by the Islamic terror sect, Boko Haram, since 2009.
The Borno State government had on several occasions expressed displeasure at the seeming abandonment of the state by the presidency, especially since Jonathan’s ascension to power.
Sambo’s Borno visit is, thus, symbolic. It would also serve as a symptomatic relief for residents of Borno and other states in the North-east, where Boko Haram has unleashed a reign of terror since its 2009 violent uprising that culminated in the controversial death of its founder, Mohammed Yusuf, in police custody.
The vice president’s visit followed Monday’s declaration of a unilateral ceasefire by Boko Haram, which said it was now open to dialogue with the federal government.
On Monday, two persons who claimed to represent the major faction of Jama’atul Ahalis Sunna Lida’awati Wal Jihad, popularly called Boko Haram, led by Sheikh Abubakar Shekau, addressed a press conference in Maiduguri, the Borno State capital, where they announced the ceasefire.
One of them, who identified himself as Sheikh Abu Mohammad Abdulazeez Ibn Idris, the commander of North and Central Borno sector of Boko Haram, said the ceasefire came after meetings with the Borno State Governor Kashim Shettima and was declared to end the suffering of the people.
It was the first time anyone would be openly declaring association with the sect, which had communicated to the media only through emails and teleconferencing.
With no major opposition to the announcement of an end to hostilities from factions of Boko Haram, which is believed to operate in disparate semi-autonomous cells across the North-east, the road to peace in the troubled zone and, indeed, the North seems finally here.
Though, there is suspicion in many quarters that the truce declaration might be Boko Haram’s tactic to rearm and strategise following the multinational military offensive against al Qaeda-linked terrorists in northern Mali, where scores of Boko Haram’s leaders were believed to have found sanctuary.
The doubts notwithstanding, analysts say the federal government must seize the moment to return peace to the North-east and other parts of Northern Nigeria by rushing in rehabilitation and development initiatives to fill the space freed by the withdrawing terrorists.
The Borno Elders Forum, led by Alhaji Shettima Ali Monguno, stated at a meeting on Thursday, where they expressed delight at the Boko Haram peace declaration, “On the part of the federal government of Nigeria, we expect that they should embrace this positive opening and capitalise on it in order to open wider space for sustainable peace.” This seems to be the most important message in the Boko Haram ceasefire for the federal government.