By Lagun Akinloye
A shaky ceasefire between the Nigerian government and the Islamist militant group Boko Haram has been announced by figures from both sides. Despite the possible reduction in hostilities, the Nigerian government's emergency rule in three states most effected by the conflict will continue.
Tanimu Turaki, Chairman of the Presidential Committee on Dialogue and Restoration of Peace in the North-East, announced on radio that "Boko Haram will lay down their arms as part of the agreement so as to end the insurgency," and that the "Government agreed with the ceasefire".
Meanwhile, Imam Muhammadu Marwana, a senior member of Boko Haram, reportedly confirmed the agreement, adding "I appeal to those who lost their loved ones to our activities to forgive us, and on our side we have forgiven all those who committed atrocities against us".
The details of any ceasefire remain uncertain, as do reports of whether a deal has officially been signed yet, and it is worth pointing out that rumours of this type have emerged before evaporating in the past. However, these latest announcements do appear to be more concrete than some previous reports of alleged ceasefires. And with the situation in the north of Nigeria perhaps worse than ever, an end to hostilities would prove hugely significant. Since a state of emergency was declared in three Nigerian states in May, there have been accounts of huge numbers of civilian casualties, thousands fleeing the region, and a deepening humanitarian crisis.
Sowing the roots of radicalism
Boko Haram, a northern-based Islamist sect, is believed to be responsible for thousands of deaths since 2009, when its founder Mohammed Yusuf was killed whilst in police custody. Across the north of Nigeria and in its major cities, the group has carried out shootings and bombings of targets from churches and public gatherings to the UN headquarters in Abuja.
The group's latest attack is believed to have been on a boarding school in Yobe State on 6 July in which 29 students and one teacher were killed. This was the third time a school has been targeted in the north-east in recent weeks.
Boko Haram's main demand is that Nigeria, a multi-confessional nation, submits to Islamic rule. However, the group's rise and its ability to recruit members are also inseparable from broader socio-economic and political dynamics in the region, such as poor governance, alarming levels of illiteracy, and chronic unemployment. Amidst this cauldron of social ills and immobility, groups such as Boko Haram provide young men with an alluring alternative.
As Bukola Ayorinde, a professor in social sciences at the University of Ibadan, told Think Africa Press, "The blame for the rise of Boko Haram lies on the shoulders of the government. There is also a political factor, but poverty and hopelessness has made the sect and such groups seem attractive to young men. And now they are made to die for something they do not necessarily believe in."
Broken olive branches
Since 2009, the Nigerian government has struggled to deal with Boko Haram's offensives, and in its latest bid to combat the group it declared a state of emergency in Yobe, Borno and Adawama states this May. Curfews have been imposed, movement has been restricted, phone lines have been suspended, and there has been a huge military presence on the streets as the army has swept through in its search for members of Boko Haram. On announcing the state of emergency, President Goodluck Jonathan insisted "we will hunt them down, we will fish them out, and we will bring them to justice."
This strategy is seen by many as a final resort after numerous attempts at reconciliation were rebuffed. On 24 April, for example, President Jonathan set up a 26-member Amnesty Committee, headed by Special Duties Minister Tanimu. The committee had a three-month mandate to try to convince Boko Haram to lay down its arms in exchange for official state pardons and social reintegration.
But dialogue soon broke down, and Boko Haram stepped up bombings and assassinations throughout April and May. Boko Haram's repeated rejection of peace talks, for which it cited insincerity on the part of the Nigerian government, led to Jonathan's military escalation via his declaring a state of emergency.
Abubakar Gambo, a political blogger and resident of Maiduguri, a Boko Haram stronghold, also blamed the government for the breakdown in talks. "The government did not make enough effort to understand the root of the problem or listen to the people of troubled areas, but instead just assumed the root of Boko Haram is exactly like that of the Niger-Delta insurgency," he explained. What the negotiators failed to realised, according to Gambo, is that with Boko Haram, "you couldn't just pay them off."
States of emergency
According to the official government line, the state of emergency has been a roaring success. On 28 June, Minister of State for Defence, Olusola Obada, defiantly proclaimed that the new strategy had had a "99% success" rate. "The troops of the Joint Task Force have been able to dislodge the Boko Haram insurgents and restore normalcy in the affected states," said Obada.
However, many residents would disagree with such a triumphant assessment. On 31 May, for example, Al Jazeera reported unverified accounts that the military has so far killed many more civilians than it has Boko Haram members. A government spokesperson rejected these claims. On 6 June, the New York Times interviewed Nigerian refugees who had fled to neighbouring Niger. These refugees report a climate of fear and terror back in Nigeria and told stories of young men being rounded up, disappearances in the night, and indiscriminate killing.
Furthermore, thousands of Borno State residents are believed to be fleeing into Niger and Cameroon after airstrikes by Nigerian fighter jets and amidst the prolonged ground offensive. And last month, the UNHCR, the UN's refugee agency, said it had registered 6,000 Nigerian refugees in Niger.
In response, Borno State's Deputy Governor Zannah Umar Mustapha has pleaded with the refugees to return home, saying the government was making "necessary arrangements to ensure their safety". Meanwhile, it was announced last Wednesday that 25,000 metric tonnes of corn and millet from Nigeria's grain reserves will be allocated to people in the areas most affected by the state of emergency.
A shaky ceasefire
Given the deteriorating humanitarian situation in the north of Nigeria, news of a ceasefire could not have come at a better time. Boko Haram's shootings and suicide bombings have long ravaged the region and stepping up of military activity in the past weeks thanks to the state of emergency has further precipitated the suffering of ordinary Nigerians.
These Nigerians caught in the crossfire of intensifying hostilities would no doubt welcome any news of an end to the conflict. However, while announcements may be promising, we cannot forget previous false dawns, and the dashed hopes that have accompanied past rumours of a ceasefire being reached.
A great deal of uncertainty remains around what could be a momentous step forwards for the country. But what is certain is that the longer the current situation continues, the more Nigeria will suffer.