Nigeria’s government and Boko Haram have agreed a ceasefire that brings closer the release of more than 200 schoolgirls kidnapped in the north of the country more than six months ago.
Secret meetings held between the authorities in Abuja, the Nigerian capital, and representatives of the al-Qaeda-linked militia have led to an temporary agreement to lay down arms.
Part of the deal includes “the need to rescue all the captives of the terrorists, including the students of Government Girls’ Secondary School, Chibok”, said Mike Omeri, anti-terrorism spokesman of the president’s national information centre.
There would also be an immediate ceasefire, with Boko Haram apparently saying it would suspend its bombing and kidnap campaign, and the Nigerian army agreeing not to target suspected militant camps.
“From the discussions, [Boko Haram’s representatives] indicated their desire for, and willingness to discuss and resolve all associated issues,” Mr Omeri said. “They also assured that the school girls and all other people in their captivity are all alive and well.”
The announcement came days after protesters marched in Abuja to mark the six-month anniversary of the girl’s abduction. Close to 300 teenage girls were kidnapped by armed gunmen as they were driven back to their school in coaches after an excursion.
Some managed to escape, but an estimated 219 are still being held captive, reportedly in Nigeria’s neighbour, Cameroon, whose military was involved in the ceasefire talks.
There was immediate scepticism, however. One Western diplomat in Lagos, Nigeria’s coastal commercial capital, pointed out that Goodluck Jonathan, the president, is in the middle of campaigning for the presidential elections due next year.
“He’s having a tough run with Boko Haram, and he needs a boost,” the diplomat said. “It’s the main thing that people are concerned about, security. If he can score a ceasefire, great. If he can bring the girls back, even better.
“But we’ve not yet heard from Boko Haram. Until then, we’re taking this with a little salt.”
Aid groups working to secure the release of the schoolgirls welcomed the news, but also remained cautious.
“This ceasefire is incredibly promising, but we aren’t there yet,” said Hussaini Abdu, country director for ActionAid Nigeria. “Until every girl is released negotiations must continue.
“We are excited about the possibility of restoring peace in the country, but these girls must remain a priority and we therefore urge the government to ensure that the safety of all of them is guaranteed as part of any truce.”
Britain is among several nations that has offered assistance to the Nigerian government and its military to help find the missing schoolgirls.
Privately, Western security sector sources in the country report exasperation among those coming to help over the slow pace of the Nigerians’ reactions to the kidnap crisis.
The girls are understood to have been separated into several groups, making an armed rescue far more complicated and dangerous, leaving talks as the only likely route to their release.
Boko Haram has in the past insisted that it would only release the teenagers if Nigeria freed several of the group’s senior commanders, who have been captured and are in jail. There were no immediate details of what Boko Haram will get out of the ceasefire deal.
The group has been blamed for hundreds of killings in bomb or gun attacks, and it is increasingly choosing targets over an ever wider area of northern Nigeria.
It began as a local militia targeting people who broke strict Islamic regulations such as drinking alcohol. But it recently linked with al-Qaeda’s franchise in West Africa, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and appears to have taken on far more ambitious aims, including ridding northern Nigeria of Christians.
Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, frequently justifies attacks on Christians as revenge for killings of Muslims in Nigeria’s volatile “Middle Belt”, where the largely Christian south and mostly Muslim north meet.