Â â€¢Â Calls for PDPâ€™sÂ deregistration,Â revises figures onÂ Dapchi abductees
Â â€¢Â Girls reunite with theirÂ families, waitÂ for Leah SharibuÂ continues
By Tobi SoniyiÂ in Lagos,Â Paul ObiÂ in Abuja andÂ Michael OlugbodeÂ in Dapchi with agency reportÂ Â Â Â
The federal government has disclosed that it is in talks with the Islamist terror group, Boko Haram, on a possible ceasefire, with the ultimate aim of securing a permanent cessation of hostilities.
This is the first time in years the government has said it is talking to Boko Haram about a ceasefire in an insurgency that has killed tens of thousands of people and ravaged the North-east of Africaâ€™s biggest economy.
President Muhammadu Buhariâ€™s government has, however, repeatedly said it was willing to hold talks with the terrorists.
The talks on a ceasefire was disclosed by the Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed in an email to Reuters, outlining the background to the release of more than 104 schoolgirls returned last week by the group after their kidnapping onÂ February 19Â from Government Girlsâ€™ Science and Technical College (GGSTC), Dapchi, Yobe.
It was the biggest mass abduction since Chibok four years ago when the same group took 276 girls from a school in neighbouring Borno State, sparking global outrage over the kidnapping.
But Boko Haram stunned Dapchiâ€™s residents last Wednesday when they drove into the town and returned the girls, who said five of their group had died in captivity and one had not been freed.
The ministerâ€™s revelation on the ceasefire talks came on the heels of the open letter written by civil society group, Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP), to the president urging him to drop the proposed policy to grant amnesty to members of Boko Haram.
â€œUnknown to many, we have been in wider cessation-of-hostility talks with the insurgents for some time now,â€ said Mohammed. â€œWe were able to leverage on the wider talks when the Dapchi girls were abducted.â€
â€œThe ultimate aim is the permanent cessation of hostilities,â€ he later told Reuters by telephone.
Mohammed said the week-long ceasefire, starting on March 19, had been agreed to enable the group to drop off the girls.
Also, at a press briefing yesterday in Lagos on the Dapchi girls, the minister said there should be a criterion for withdrawing the registration of the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) over its allegation last week that the abduction and return of the Dapchi students was stage-managed by the federal government.
Mohammed, who was obviously still smarting over the PDP allegation, also debunked the conspiracy theories that have made the rounds since the girlsâ€™ return last week.
â€œIndeed, there should be a new criterion for withdrawing the registration of a party like the PDP which has failed both as a ruling and an opposition party! If a party cannot rule and cannot be in opposition, what else can it do?â€
For the umpteenth time, Mohammed also revised the exact number of persons who were kidnapped from Dapchi last month, saying contrary to governmentâ€™s earlier statement that 110 students were kidnapped, the actual number of students kidnapped was 111 while total number of those abducted onÂ February 9Â was 113.
According to him, â€œA total of 113 persons were abducted from the school in Dapchi onÂ February 9, of which 111 were students of the Government Girlsâ€™ Secondary and Technical College.
â€œThat means one student was not captured on the list of 110 abducted students that was compiled by the school, on the basis of which the federal government gave the number of abducted schoolgirls as 110.
â€œAlso kidnapped were two other persons, who are not students of the college. They include a primary school boy who came to the school to sell water and another primary schoolgirl. That brings the total number of abducted persons on that day to 113.
â€œSo far, a total of 107 persons, comprising 105 Dapchi schoolgirls and the two non-students, have been released by the insurgents.
â€œSix Dapchi schoolgirls are yet unaccounted for. All efforts are being made to secure their release,â€ Mohammed said.
Five of the girls remain unaccounted for and are suspected to have died during their abduction.
Another is Leah Sharibu, a Christian, who was said to have been held back by her abductors due to her refusal to convert to Islam.
Mohammed insisted that girls were released as a result of intense back-channels engagement aimed at securing their quick and safe release.
This, he said, was done in concert with a friendly country, an international organisation and trusted facilitators, whom he failed to name.
Mohammed further maintained that the government did not pay a dime to secure their release.
â€œThe insurgents brought the girls back to the location of the kidnapping themselves as an apparent gesture of goodwill, following relentless efforts by the government to find long-lasting solutions to the conflict,â€ he said.
Responding to enquiries on how the insurgents brought the girls back to Dapchi without being arrested by the Nigerian troops, the minister said: â€œUnknown to many, we have been in wider cessation-of-hostility talks with the insurgents for some time now.
â€œThe talks helped to secure the release of the police officersâ€™ wives and the University of Maiduguri lecturers recently. And the talks did not stop thereafter.â€
The minister said government leveraged on the wider talks when the Dapchi girls were abducted.
He said the insurgents decided to return the girls to where they picked them from as a goodwill gesture.
â€œAll they demanded was a ceasefire that will grant them a safe corridor to drop the girls. This is not new. Even in larger war situations, safe corridors are usually created for humanitarian and other purposes.
â€œConsequently, a week-long ceasefire was declared, starting from Monday, 19 March. That is why the insurgents were able to drop the girls.
â€œThis counters the conspiracy theories being propounded in some quarters concerning why it was so easy for the insurgents to drop off the girls without being attacked by the military,â€ he explained.
The minister said the girls were returned so early because of the firm instruction given to the military service chiefs and the Inspector General of Police by the president.
He noted that whereas it took the immediate past administration of Goodluck Jonathan 18 days to acknowledge the kidnap of the Chibok girls, the current administration was responsive and not in denial.
He said: â€œNo stone was left unturned to secure the release of the girls. For the record, the following actions were taken: the president sent the federal government delegation twice to Dapchi and DamaturuÂ within four days, to engage on a fact-finding mission and to condole with the government and people of Yobe State and the families of the abducted girls. I was on both delegations.
â€œThe president ordered the service chiefs and the Inspector General of Police to take direct charge and brief him on a daily basis on the efforts to bring back the girls.
â€œThe president ordered the re-strengthening of a joint operational base involving the relevant agencies and services to coordinate the rescue mission.
â€œConsequently, the service commanders established a unified command centre in Maiduguri and the military also raised several rescue teams to comb the forests in the North-east theatre of operation.
â€œThe Nigerian Air Force maintained aerial surveillance of the area all through.â€
In castigating the PDP for attacking the government after the girls were returned, Mohammed said the opposition party had turned what called for non-partisan celebrations to â€œthoughtless politics, bad, despicable politics that has no place in any democracyâ€.
The minister observed that during national tragedies, countries unite and wondered why the PDP refused to join the government to celebrate the girlsâ€™ return.
â€œLet me encapsulate my reaction to the disgraceful and insensitive politics that the PDP has been playing with the Dapchi girls by quoting the statement of the president when he received the Dapchi girls last Friday: â€˜May I also warn against those elements who have chosen to make political fortune of our citizensâ€™ misfortune. Government would not tolerate any attempt by any person or group to trivialise or politicise security issues for politically motivated ends. Accordingly, the security agencies would not hesitate to decisively deal with such unscrupulous characters.â€™â€
The minister said the PDP and its co-travellers did not understand that terrorism was a global problem.
He also threw the conspiracies theory back at the PDP saying: â€œPerhaps we should ask the PDP what indeed the party knows about the abduction of the Dapchi girls, going by its statement that their abduction and release were stage-managed.
â€œThe party made itself a laughing stock within and outside Nigeria with that statement. Donâ€™t they know that our international friends were involved in the process that led to the release of the girls?
â€œIndeed, there should be a new criterion for withdrawing the registration of a party like the PDP which has failed both as a ruling and an opposition party! If a party cannot rule and cannot be in opposition, what else can it do?”
â€˜No Amnesty for Terroristsâ€™
However, a civil society group, SERAP, has written an open letter to Buhari urging him to â€œdrop the proposed policy to grant amnesty to members of the Boko Haram terrorist group in the interests of justiceâ€, warning that any amnesty programme for the group would be counter-productive and entrench impunity for their members, which could only continue to undermine peace and stability in the country.
The organisation said the government should instead â€œprioritise justice for the victims of Boko Haram and help them to rebuild and get on with their lives, rather than pushing to remove accountability for the mass atrocities committed against millions of Nigerian women, men, children and the elderly, and allowing those responsible to escape justiceâ€.
In the letter dated March 23, 2018 and signed by SERAP deputy director Timothy Adewale, the group said: â€œBoko Haram should not be allowed to escape the consequences of their crimes if the authorities are to prevent a cycle of revenge leading to further violence and conflict.
â€œWe believe that granting amnesty to Boko Haram would be an open violation of the Nigerian Constitution of 1999 and international law and would entail a virtual denial of justice for victims.â€
According to SERAP, the international community is pushing for accountability for those who commit the worst of human crimes, and is no longer tolerant of amnesty for war crimes, crimes against humanity or other gross violations of human rights.
Â The letter read in part: â€œAny amnesty for Boko Haram would take away the rights of the victims to justice, ignore the needs of the internally displaced persons, and never bring closure to the mass atrocities committed by the group against Nigerians.
â€œThe victims need to know the truth about what happened, and the alleged complicity of our armed forces and security services in the atrocities committed by the group. The offer of amnesty would prevent the government from addressing these fundamental issues.
â€œIndeed, both individual victims and Nigeria would be disadvantaged by any amnesty to Boko Haram. Besides depriving the country of its opportunity to bring perpetrators to justice, it would also help to create a culture of impunity where perpetrators can anticipate immunity and thus jeopardise the governing power of the authorities in the future.
â€œWe contend that impunity for international crimes and systematic and widespread violations of fundamental human rights is a betrayal of solidarity with the victims of Boko Haram to whom the authorities owe a duty of justice, remembrance, and compensation.
â€œThe pursuit of justice and accountability fulfils fundamental human values, helps achieve peace, and contributes to the prevention and deterrence of future violence. Thus to grant amnesty to Boko Haram is to choose expedience over lasting goals and more enduring values.â€
â€œSERAP is seriously concerned about the governmentâ€™s offer of amnesty to â€˜repentant members of the Boko Haram sect willing to surrender their arms and embrace peaceâ€™.
â€œWe note that any amnesty for Boko Haram members involved in serious human rights violations would be contrary to Nigeriaâ€™s international obligations and commitments, including under the Rome Statute of International Criminal Court, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the African Charter on Human and Peopleâ€™ Rights.
â€œWe contend that any amnesty for Boko Haram with blood stained hands would serve no public interests in terms of the actual reduction of impunity for human rights crimes or deterrent effect.
â€œThe authorities would never be able to get to the root of the causes of Boko Haram. Nigerians would not know the truth about the factors that continue to fuel the activities of Boko Haram if the authorities go ahead to grant members of the terrorist group amnesty.
â€œWe also contend that every state, including Nigeria, has clear obligations to investigate, prosecute and punish or extradite individuals accused of crimes under international law, who are present in a territory under its jurisdiction.
â€œWe are concerned that the proposed amnesty for Boko Haram would have the effect of restricting such important international norms.
â€œWe look forward to engaging with your government on the steps it is taking to take forward the above proposed recommendations to ensure that justice for the victims of Boko Haram is not forsaken for amnesty and impunity for perpetrators.â€
Girls Reunite with Their Families
Meanwhile, the 105 Dapchi schoolgirls who were freed last week were reunited yesterday with their families amidst celebrations.
Parents, relatives and well-wishers trooped out into the streets of Dapchi as the girls arrived in the luxury buses that brought them back from the Nigerian Air Force (NAF) base in Maiduguri.
It was celebration galore as the girls, parents, relations danced along the streets of the town to celebrate the girlsâ€™ safe return.
The girls were handed over to the state government by a federal government delegation led by the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Khadijah Abba Ibrahim.
Yobe governor Alhaji Ibrahim Gaidam, represented by his state Commissioner for Information, Alhaji Mala Musty, commended Buhari for securing the return of the girls.
Residents also thanked the president for securing their freedom and appealed to the federal government not to relent until the release of the remaining girl still in the custody of the insurgents.
BuhariÂ on FridayÂ met with the 105 rescued Dapchi schoolgirls and two other children returned by the terrorists.
He assured them of their safety and said efforts were being made to rescue the remaining Chibok girls and other Nigerians in captivity of the terrorists.
Before they arrived Dapchi, the Nigerian Air Force had airlifted the Dapchi schoolgirls and two other children from Abuja to Maiduguri, the Borno State capital.
According to NAF spokesman, Air Vice Marshal Olutokunbo Adesanya, a C-130 Hercules aircraft flew the girls to their community after they were received by Buhari and other top government officialsÂ on Friday.
â€œThe Nigerian Air Force (NAF) C-130 Hercules aircraft today, 25 March 2018, airlifted the Dapchi girls back to Maiduguri from where they would be transported to Dapchi under armed air escort to reunite with their families.
â€œThe return of the girls to their community took place after President Muhammadu Buhari and other top government officials had received them at the Government House in Abuja on 23 March 2018.â€
Adesanya added that all the girls, including a boy and three teachers from the girlsâ€™ school, boarded the aircraft.
He recalled that after their return by the Boko Haram terrorists last Wednesday, personnel of the Air Task Force of Operation Lafiya Dole as well as other officers of the Theatre Command received the girls at the NAF Base, Maiduguri.
â€œAt the NAF Base, personnel of the Air Task Force were already waiting to give refreshments to the girls.
â€œAfter the refreshments, the girls were airlifted aboard a NAF C-130 Hercules aircraft to Abuja, where senior government officials received them.â€
But even as the Dapchi girls were reunited with their parents and family members, residents of the town waited expectantly for word on the release of the last schoolgirl, Leah Sharibu, who has remained in captivity.
Leah, a Christian, was one of the 111 girls kidnapped by Islamists, but was not released because, according to her fellow students, she refused to convert to Islam, arousing public outrage even among Muslim groups in the country.
â€œThere is so much expectation in the town following the news that the last remaining girl will be released,â€ Kachalla Bukar, father of one of the schoolgirls recently freed, told AFP lateÂ SaturdayÂ by phone from Dapchi.
â€œWe were told she was on her way but she has not yet been brought,â€ said Kachalla, who is the spokesman of the abducted schoolgirlsâ€™ parents union.
The authorities had asked shopkeepers to closeÂ SaturdayÂ afternoon in anticipation of her arrival.
Also, soldiers deployed in Dapchi disappeared from the townâ€™s checkpointsÂ on Saturday, raising hopes for Leahâ€™s imminent release.
â€œThe sudden withdrawal of soldiers from checkpoints is a clear sign the girl is coming,â€ said Dapchi resident Sanda Masida. â€œWe believe the news of the girlâ€™s release is true because the body language of the security personnel, police and military, indicates the girl is on her way home,â€ said another resident, Tijjani Goni.
â€œThe town is in high spirits and full of anticipation,â€ Goni said.
Buhari had vowed on Twitter to do â€œeverything in our power to bring Leah back safelyâ€.
Hopes were also raised at the weekend when the Inspector General of Police, Mr. Ibrahim Idris said she would be released yesterday, only for her not to surface.
Idris said he cancelled a visit to Dapchi to avoid any â€œsecurity hitchâ€ in the town before Leahâ€™s arrival, without providing further details. But yesterday, the spokesman for Nigeria Police, Jimoh Moshood, said Idrisâ€™ comment had been â€œmisunderstood and misquotedâ€.
â€œThe misunderstanding may be as a result of the already released Dapchi schoolgirls expected back home in Yobe State today but could not arrive due to weather conditions,â€ Moshood said in a statement.
â€œThe police reiterates that they have no information yet on the release of the last Dapchi schoolgirl,â€ he said.
According to witnesses contacted by AFP, the Dapchi girls, before their return last week, were held on an island on Lake Chad, which is a known stronghold for fighters loyal to Boko Haram factional leader Abu Musâ€™ab al-Barnawi.
The Dapchi kidnapping revived painful memories of the April 2014 abduction of over 276 schoolgirls from Chibok, a town in neighbouring Borno State.
While some of the Chibok girls have been freed in exchange for ransom and the release of top Boko Haram commanders, a total of 112 remain in captivity.
Boko Haram has repeatedly targeted schools giving a so-called Western education in the mainly-Muslim region as part of an insurgency that has killed at least 20,000 people and displaced more than 2.6 million since 2009.
While a 2015 offensive launched by Buhari successfully reclaimed swathes of territory back from the jihadists in Nigeria, the group still stages deadly attacks on both military targets and civilians.