By Mark Pippah
After spending 913 days in Boko Haram captivity, the nation was agog recently when the news of the release of 21 out of 219 abducted Chibok schoolgirls broke. Since then, Nigerians have been asking how and what led to their release. In fact, there were speculations that five detained commanders of the Boko Haram sect were swapped in exchange for the girls and so on.
It was on this backdrop that the Chairman, Senate Committee on Local and Foreign Debts, Shehu Sani, while appearing recently as a guest on a Television programme spoke on his involvement in the release of the girls by the Boko Haram sect among other issues bordering on defeating terrorism.
You have always advocated for negotiations. How did you know that negotiation was going to work as it were?
First of all, the release of the 21 girls was not something that happened at an instant; it was a product of a process, a process that began almost two years ago. I drafted the terms of agreement and the roadmap towards what is realized today. The idea was that, I had a square plan where you have the insurgents at one side, the government at the other side, and then the need to have a negotiator and then a third party from outside of Nigeria that will provide guarantees for both sides that the terms of agreement will be implemented. This was a product of failed attempts that happened in the past. Why did it fail? It is because there was no trust and confidence from both sides and most times, the negotiators feel insecure and are consistently frustrated. So, what happened now that led to this release was that the negotiation between the government and the insurgents done by the Swiss and also the negotiator is what produced what we have. Now, I brought the Swiss into it and I also brought the negotiator that did all these things here and it succeeded because of a number of things. First of all, we must give credit to our security agents for the very fact that they kept the pressure on the insurgent group and it was very clear to them that victory using violence or force is very slim and secondly, there was a guarantor which is the Swiss government that assures the negotiators and the government and also the insurgents that this will succeed. And also you have an insurgent that is actually or fully linked and have the knowledge of the group and the group has confidence in him. So, those factors led to the success which we have achieved now.
If there was no Swiss government, it’s going to be very difficult because most times, why it failed in the past is that each time there was going to be a deal, you see some form of sabotage either from security agents or from someone. And now, this succeeded because of the very fact that many meetings were held both at the Swiss and also in Nigeria and in some countries where the insurgents felt very comfortable. So, the roadmap which I drew led to the success of what we have now.
You said this happened over a period of two years and in the period of two years, we had all sorts and even only recently we saw the conflict between the military and even those who were supposed to have had links with Boko Haram in the past that were declared wanted by the security agencies. In fact they came out and said they know where these girls are, they should help release them. How did that affect the confidence building which you talked about? Was that a ploy to divert attention or was it just all a part of the grand scheme? What did you make of that?
Well, in the last few years that these girls remained in captivity, there were a lot of people that presented themselves as negotiators. Some of whom were the people who were declared wanted by the military. But this person who I introduced to the embassy and I also brought in the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) into it and the reason are the very fact that some people thought the ICRC negotiated but they didn’t negotiate. Even when we went and sat down with them, they said I know they don’t negotiate. What they do is to ensure that the terms of agreement of the negotiators are simply implemented. So, the plan I brought were two. One is that we look at the possibility of a swap whereby the girls will be released and the insurgents that are in detention will also be swapped and the second is to look at other aspects of the possibility of reaching a deal. Now, in the last administration, there were a lot of missteps and failures and why; it is simply because when it comes to the very point of releasing the insurgents for the girls, security agents will give a very negative report on the consequences of that. There were three to four attempts which failed. But the tenacity of the negotiators, the commitment of the Swiss government and also, the very fact that we have new security chiefs who are committed to exploring the options of dialogue and that was why we kept the momentum and then we succeeded at this very time we are.
Part of the reasons the Federal Government gave for the initial failures of certain negotiations was that Boko Haram was split and it didn’t know which faction really have the girls. How much of an influence did that play on eventually securing the release of the girls? Can we say that all the girls are still in one place?
Before we reached this point here, actually, somehow, the factionalisation of the group helped in leading to this success which we have achieved now but if you go back through history or memory, you’ll see that faction came when it was clear that the group has lost a lot of ground and now, they started questioning themselves about the leadership and then this was what happened. But I have the confidence that the girls are not in different camps; they are with the faction that the Federal Government has been negotiating with and that was why they were able to secure the release.
All of the girls?
I believe so.
Was there any ransom paid?
Well, I think in the interest of not subverting the process going on to secure the release of the next 83, I think that question should be deferred. But I am of the firm belief that the government is on the right course and the negotiator which I introduced and also the Swiss government which is fully working on this are on the right path to securing the next set of Chibok girls. But I cannot say that ransoms were paid but I can tell you that it is better we keep this preview so as not to undermine the process which is still very fragile and also to support those who are still heavily involved in this to succeed and I must create this impression. I am not in the current negotiation and I chose deliberately not to be but I drafted the formula and I brought in the Swiss. I brought the ICRC and also brought the negotiator and I set the things for the success of this but I believe that as much as the talk is going on, we should simply continue to pray and support those who are fully involved in this.
But what about if there was any swop of five Boko Haram commanders in detention?
Well, I read a lot of news about swap but I can assure you that there was no swap. Actually, when you have a hostile situation like this, there are meant to be give and take situations. But the very fact that the process worked could be attributed to almost a number of things and first, like I’ve said earlier, we had a third party who was fully prepared to provide guarantees to both sides and to also assure the negotiator that he’s not going to be held complicit as being an accomplice and we also have an international humanitarian agency that give that international ambiance to the whole thing and also, is committed towards bringing these girls and also we have new security chiefs who can easily detect what is real and what is scammish and now we are able to succeed. And also, credit should fully be given to those who continued to agitate for the freedom of these girls because by their agitation, they kept the issue of the girls on the national spotlight and also in our memory and our conscience. And also the military; if at all the insurgents knew that they are really military, this could have been very difficult to achieve. So, it is a combination of a number of factors but most importantly, the negotiator that reached out to the group and also provided evidence of its capacity to negotiate has done fantastically wonderful job for the nation.
That question came up because I had heard some interview of yours some time ago; I think you were speaking in Kaduna sometime in April that yes it was possible to release the girls but we may have to pay a very high price for their release including some sort of swap. So, one wonders if it was not included in this one, is it something that we shouldn’t be surprised to see in future negotiations such as for say the 83 girls now?
Well, I think for now, what is most important to us is to see that the next set of girls are freed from captivity using the same process. If we can recall very well that in the last two years since this abduction happened, we have seen so many people laying claims to their capacity and ability to negotiate and we have also seen the government doing things in a lot of respect and we have also seen people who have made fortunes out of this. And it led to that point of despair, of pessimism, or skepticism, or cynicism, or despondency that possibly these girls will not be freed. But for now, the process has yielded result and what is most important is for us to continue to support the process. But I think what is of note for us to be very cautious about is that there is a statement made by one of the girls who said it in Hausa. She said the Lord has saved her life, she never thought she will be free. Sometimes she has bombs dropped very close to her and by that narrative, it is an indication of what actually happened and we hope that all of them will be out but certainly I believe that there are some sad stories that we at the end of the would come to understand when we don’t see all of them released.
You said you’re not involved in this current negotiation. Why you are not involved in this one?
First of all, I don’t see why I should be there for now for the very fact that I have already set the phase and the person who I personally introduced for this negotiation has been doing a very good job and he is capable of doing all that I can do. So, as far as I am concerned, there is no one I can vouch that could have done this more than this person; the fact that the new DSS chief has been a very committed person to it. He has worked tirelessly and has been able to do what others couldn’t do in the past and as such, I’ve seen a very good team in that. First of all, even before I reached out to the Swiss I did try to reach out to some other countries to serve as mediators but they flatly turned it down. But I know the history of Switzerland, one that has intervened in conflict situation globally and has helped to bring about peace and sometimes intervened in having negotiations succeed globally. They have that resume for this and also the ICRC.