Former President Olusegun Obasanjo has met with people believed to be close to Boko Haram in an attempt to broker the release of more than 200 kidnapped schoolgirls by Boko Haram, even as it emerged last night that one of the abducted girls had escaped from her captors.
Confirming this to THISDAY yesterday, the former president said the talks were only exploratory, adding: “As an African father, a Nigerian father or grandfather, any of the girls could have been my daughter or grand daughter… So I am only trying to reach out to see what can be done to secure their release.”
But despite the global effort to secure the release of the girls, the sect continued its onslaught on communities in the North-east where it killed 34 people, including armed forces personnel and policemen, on Monday.
The meeting took place last weekend at Obasanjo's farm in Ogun State, reported the AFP yesterday.
Present at the meeting were relatives of some senior Boko Haram fighters as well as intermediaries and the former president, the source said.
“The meeting was focused on how to free the girls through negotiations,” said the source who requested anonymity.
Obasanjo had previously sought to negotiate with the insurgents in September 2011 after Boko Haram bombed the United Nations headquarters in Abuja.
He later flew to the Islamists’ base in the Borno State capital, Maiduguri, to meet relatives of former Boko Haram leader, Mohammed Yusuf, who was killed in police custody in 2009.
The 2011 talks did not help stem the violence and some at the time doubted if Obasanjo was dealing with people who were legitimately capable of negotiating a ceasefire.
Spokesmen to the former president could not be reached to comment on the latest talks. But the source told AFP that Obasanjo had voiced concern about Nigeria’s acceptance of foreign military personnel to help rescue the girls.
“He said he is worried that Nigeria's prestige in Africa as a major continental power had been diminished” by President Goodluck Jonathan’s decision to bring in Western military help, including from the United States.
Mustapha Zanna, the lawyer who helped organise Obasanjo's 2011 talks with Boko Haram, said he was at the former president's home on Saturday.
But he declined to discuss whether the Chibok abductions were on the agenda. “I was there,” he told AFP, adding that Obasanjo was interested in helping the orphans and vulnerable children in the North-east and that possible charitable work was on the agenda.
Zanna had represented Yusuf's family in a wrongful death lawsuit filed against the government following his death in police custody. It was not clear if Obasanjo’s weekend meeting had been sanctioned by the government.
According to the source, Obasanjo supported a prisoner-for-hostage swap that would see some of the girls released in exchange for a group of Boko Haram fighters held in custody.
Sect Kills 34 in Borno, Yobe
But notwithstanding the efforts from different angles to rescue the girls and curb the reign of terror foisted by Boko Haram, 34 people were killed in a series of attacks by members of the sect in Borno and Yobe villages on Monday.
In Buni-Yadi, Gujba Local Government Area of Yobe State, 14 soldiers and 11 policemen, including a Divisional Police Officer (DPO) and a Divisional Crime Office (DCO), were said to have been killed Monday evening by suspected Boko Haram members who laid siege to the town for over two hours.
According to sources, the insurgents started the onslaught on the town from 5 pm and set all security and military formations in the town ablaze.
Residents of the town told reporters on the phone yesterday that the insurgents also set on fire the area court and district head’s residence and office as well as a few residential quarters.
The palace of the Emir of Buni-Yadi, Alhaji Muktar Ali Gangaran, was also vandalised by the insurgents.
Some security personnel, who did not want their names in print, said 14 corpses of soldiers and 11 corpses of policemen were conveyed to the Damaturu Specialist Hospital mortuary.
A resident of the area, one Malam Modibbo Kawu, said the insurgents drove into the town in several Hilux vans on which they hoisted the sect’s flag, they moved straight to the military formation in the town from where they launched the attack. They also deployed an armoured personnel carrier (APC) to prosecute the attack.
He said they told residents of the town not to get scared. According to him, “They said they were not here to attack us but had come for a reprisal attack against the security forces. They claimed they had been attacked by the military at Alagarno last week.”
Kawu added that the insurgents set the district head’s house on fire, burnt the local government secretariat and divisional police station as well as the military base in the area.
However other sources in the town disclosed that over 20 corpses of the military and similar number of policemen were seen being conveyed to Damaturu, the state capital.
Other eyewitnesses said well-armed insurgents stormed the town and attacked the police divisional office of the area as well as the military base killing scores of security personnel who were on duty at the time of the attack.
“I can confirm to you that several policemen, soldiers and mobile policemen were killed. We the civilians were not allowed to come close to the casualty area, but over 20 bodies were seen,” one of the eyewitnesses said.
The state Commissioner of Police Mr. Markus K. Danladi, who confirmed the incident, said he had just visited the scenes of the attacks but could not give the casualty figure, adding that he was still getting the details.
The Police Public Relations Officer in the state, DSP Nansak Chegwam, admitted he was in Buni-Yadi but gave no details of the attack.
Some security personnel, who spoke to reporters, expressed regrets over the attack which claimed the lives of several of their colleagues.
The attack on Buni-Yadi, 50 kilometres south of Damaturu, was the third in the area by Boko Haram insurgents this year.
Calls to the spokesman of the security forces in Yobe State, Lt. Eli Lazarus, for confirmation were not answered at the time of filing this report.
In another incident, suspected terrorists attacked Chinene village in the Chikide-Joghode-Kaghum Ward, Gwoza Local Government Area of Borno State, killing nine persons and setting ablaze six churches and residential houses.
There were claims that the insurgents also hoisted their flags on some structures in Ashigashiya ward of the local government, signifying their conquest and take over of the communities.
It was also gathered that several other persons were left with serious gunshot wounds, while many were forced to take refuge in the bushes and surrounding hills.
A local government official, Nglamuda Ibrahim, said many of his extended family members and friends displaced in the latest attack had been calling for assistance since Monday night.
He said people now live in perpetual fear, as some of them who had taken refuge in the hills believe there would be another attack because some of the insurgents were seen lurking around.
Ibrahim said: “As we speak, I am still receiving distress calls from them, they are all crying and calling for help; no soldier or police official has gone there yet.”
He said: “The gunmen mounted their flags in Ashigashiya which depicts that it is now under their rule.”
He added that six churches were burnt, but could not determine the number of houses that were burnt in Chinene village.
“They also attacked Amuda village where one person was killed and several others were injured,” he said.
He said from the SOS call from his people, they now live in fear that they might be picked out by the insurgents in their hiding place.
Ibrahim said: "Some of them told me that the insurgents were perfecting strategies to kill them, adding: “Currently, the insurgents have mobilised at Izhaghathagwa Mountain, planning how to finish our people; that is why they have been calling for help before the gunmen find them.”
He listed the names of some of those killed in Chinene village as Bulama Dajiba, Bulama John, Haruna Wadda, Bitrus Kurma, Haruna Kwatha, Haruna Waruda, and Shaibu Galva.
Ibrahim called on the military authorities in the state to quickly salvage the situation and help to rescue the villagers, their wives and children before the terrorists catch up with them in the mountains.
“We have a detachment of soldiers that is deployed to Gwoza but none of them cares to go behind the mountains even though everyone hears the sound of the shootings there,” Ibrahim said.
A top security officer, who confirmed the multiple attacks on Gwoza communities said: “We all have received the report from Chinene village. It was really another sad episode there and we learnt that the insurgents hoisted their flag in Ashigashiya.”
However, the police spokesman, DSP Gideon Jubrin, could not be reached as all his phone numbers were switched off.
But a top police source confirmed the deadly attacks in Chinene, stating that nine persons lost their lives in the attack.
Abducted Girl Escapes
However, as the sect continued with its rampage, it emerged last night that one of the girls kidnapped last month by Boko Haram had escaped.
According to an online news website, The Cable, the National Chairman of Kibaku Area Development Association, Dr. Pogu Bitrus, confirmed that the girl had escaped, but refused to reveals identity, saying it could endanger her life.
“The girl is currently at a location I cannot disclose,” he said. “But I can assure you that she is safe.”
Bitrus further revealed that four other girls escaped last week, but they were shielded from the media in the interest of their safety. Similarly, another source in Chibok confirmed the news, saying: “It is true. I have just confirmed that one girl escaped.”
Cameroun Boosts Border Forces
In a related development, Cameroun has deployed about 1,000 troops to its border with Nigeria to fight the growing threat of the Islamist group.
A defence ministry spokesman said the troops would carry out reconnaissance missions and return fire if necessary.
Retired US General Carter Ham, who was formerly one of the commanders of the US Africa Command (AFRICOM), which liaises with African countries on military matters, told the BBC that the Nigerian government must now be considering its options.
“There are difficult options at best. Certainly a military or security force hostage rescue operation brings with it great, great risk, and I think there have been a public debate about Nigeria's capability to perform that, but… if they have an opportunity and see that is the right thing to do, they probably could.”
Documents Contradict WAEC, Police Claims
Meanwhile, contrary to the impression created by officials of the West African Examination Council (WAEC) that the body had warned the Borno State Government against conducting the examination at the Government Secondary School, Chibok, fresh facts have emerged to indicate that no such warning was given by WAEC.
According to Borno State Government sources, both the state government and WAEC did not anticipate the degree of the security challenges that resulted in the abduction of the over 200 schoolgirls from the school on April 14. Both parties had therefore made preparations to conduct the examination.
After the kidnapping of the schoolgirls, the wife of the president, Mrs. Patience Jonathan, on May 2, had summoned the school’s principal, Mrs. Asabe Kwambura and officials of WAEC to enquire about the abduction.
At the meeting, the Head, National Office of WAEC in Nigeria, Mr. Charles Eguridu was reported in the media to have said that WAEC had categorically declared Chibok unsafe for the May/June 2014 West African Senior School Certificate Examinations (WASSCE) but that Governor Kashim Shettima overruled the warning and insisted that the examinations be held.
However, correspondence made available to THISDAY yesterday showed that a letter written by WAEC, with reference number MD/ZO/OA/10/203, dated March 19, 2014 and signed by F.M Gaiya, zonal coordinator of the exam body, suggested that WAEC did not single out Chibok as unsafe and the body actually made preparations alongside the state government to conduct examinations in all centres in the state.
The Borno State Government, nevertheless, admitted that WAEC had raised the general issue of insecurity in the state and asked for adequate arrangements, but stressed that no specific mention was made of Chibok as implied by WAEC and some politicians.
The documents also showed that the WAEC authorities had also requested special security arrangements to facilitate the movement of WAEC materials and personnel during the examination period.
In a letter written to the deputy governor of the state, Mr. Zannah Umar Mustapha, WAEC had specifically asked for the “provision of three (3) pick up vehicles to convey security (sensitive exam) materials on three routes from Maiduguri-Biu (daily); Maiduguri-Auno (daily) and Maiduguri to Askira-Lassa-Chibok (twice weekly), as well as armed escorts for each route and adequate security for the examination centres in Maiduguri, Biu, Askira, Lassa and Chibok.”
The correspondence revealed that Chibok was among the towns where WAEC had planned to conduct the examination.
In one of WAEC’s letters, the body said: “In addition, I am pleading for the provision of two houses for the Deputy Registrar/Zonal Coordinator and his assistant who have been hobbling from hotel to hotel as a result of the prevailing security situation in the state.”
Borno State Government sources also contended that contrary to the statement of the Borno State Police Commissioner that the police were required to provide security only at Chibok in the day time, the correspondence exchanged between the state government and the police command do not suggest that the request for security was only for day time.
Similarly, in countering the narrative by the supervising Minister of Education, Mr. Nyesom Wike, that he had also written the Borno State Government to collapse all schools in the state to Maiduguri for the purpose of writing the examination, state government sources said the directive by Wike could have applied only to unity schools in the state, and not state schools.
“The Minister neither has controlling or advisory powers over schools owned by Borno State Government and as such he couldn’t have directed the Borno Government not to conduct exams in Chibok,” a government source explained.
He pointed out that the fact that WAEC in a letter, with reference no MD/ZO/OA/10/204, had requested logistic support from the state government to the tune of N1,668,000, out of which the government released N1.5 million, which the zonal coordinator received, showed that both the state government and the WAEC authorities had prepared for the examination in the entire state, without envisaging the degree of insecurity that resulted in the kidnapping of the girls.