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Buhari said he's willing to swap detained Boko Haram militants for Chibok girls

By The Rainbow
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File photo: screen grab from video showing Boko Haram’s Abubakar Shekau delivering a speech Photo: Getty Images

Muhammadu Buhari, the Nigerian president, has said his government may consider releasing jailed Boko Haram fighters in exchange for the return of more than 200 schoolgirls kidnapped from the northern town of Chibok last April.

Mr Buhari, who in July vowed to defeat the Islamist insurgent force within 18 months, said the authorities were talking to the “few” Boko Haram fighters in custody to determine how important they were to the group and whether they could be used as suitable bargaining chips.

He also stipulated that “the complete number” of captured schoolgirls be released in “reasonably healthy condition” however, potentially raising the bar too high for any deal to be done.

Boko Haram fighters stormed a school in the remote northeastern Nigerian town of Chibok on April 14 last year, seizing 276 girls who were preparing for end-of-year exams in an abduction that shocked the world.

Fifty-seven escaped, but nothing has been heard of the 219 others since May last year, when about 100 of them appeared in a Boko Haram video, dressed in Muslim attire and reciting the Koran.

Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau has since said they have all converted to Islam and been “married off”.

Mr Buhari’s predecessor Goodluck Jonathan faced criticism for his slowness to respond to the mass abduction, which was adopted as a cause by Michelle Obama and spawned a twitter campaign under the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls.

His staff had briefed about the possibility of a prisoner swap to secure their release but the policy was ruled out officially several times.

Mr Buhari came to power in March this year largely on the back of a pledge to root out insecurity in Nigeria because of Boko Haram which has resulted in tens of thousands of people killed and many more kidnapped or displaced.

In July, Mr Buhari sacked the country’s most senior military chiefs following an Amnesty report which accused them of systemic human rights abuses and the deaths of 8,000 prisoners detained under security sweeps aimed at clamping down on Boko Haram.

He told AFP in an interview during a visit to Paris this week that he was confident “conventional” attacks by the group would be rooted out by November – but cautioned that a spate of recent deadly suicide attacks, some of them waged by children, were likely to continue.

“The few (prisoners) we are holding, we are trying to see whether we can negotiate with them for the release of the Chibok girls,” he said.

“If the Boko Haram leadership eventually agrees to turn over the Chibok girls to us – the complete number – then we may decide to give them (the prisoners) amnesty.”

He said the girls should also be in “reasonable healthy condition” and said the negotiation process with the group, which is thought to now be fractured into several centres of power, would not be easy. The status of the prisoners themselves, he added, was not yet clear.

“We are trying to establish if they are bona fide, how useful they are in Boko Haram, have they reached a position of leadership where their absence is of relevance to the operation of Boko Haram?” he said.

Nnamdi Obasi, thinktank International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Nigeria, said the government would have to tread carefully but applauded Mr Buhari for taking a direct approach. “The government must be careful it is not raising hopes and going down a road that leads to nowhere,” he said. “There is a strong interest in getting the girls back, stronger with this new administration. At the same time, I do not think there is readiness for the release of some of the leaders they were asking for, they have committed incredible atrocities and there’s a strong resistance to letting them go.”

Yesterday, Amnesty International said that attempts to quell Boko Haram in neighbouring Cameroon had claimed more than 400 lives.

It said at least 380 civilians had been killed by the terrorist group, whose name means Western Education is Sinful, since January 2014, and another 25 have been killed by the “heavy-handed” response of the security forces, the group said in a report released on Wednesday. They were among more than 1,000 people, including children as young as five, to be arrested by the Cameroonian security forces. Another 130 people are missing, Amnesty said.

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