EXCLUSIVE: How Nigerian govt. bungled Edwin Clark-led fresh negotiation to free Chibok girls
The missing Chibok
schoolgirls held captive by Boko Haram
Why did the high level negotiations between the Nigerian
government team and Boko Haram insurgents, led by a former Minister of
Information, Edwin Clark, to secure the release of 220 Chibok girls, crumble
shortly before the Muslim Sallah holidays in Yola last July?
Knowledgeable sources to the negotiations, speaking to PREMIUM
TIMES in Abuja, Yola, and Geneva, have offered rare insights into talks that
have come closest yet to secure freedom for the abducted girls, and relieve
President Goodluck Jonathan of perhaps the worst nightmares of his
But the government bungled the process with its unnecessary
exuberant display of enthusiasm and excessive show of force, insiders in the
Parties to the talks have refrained thus far from sharing
thoughts on their negotiations because as some of them told this newspaper, “we
all agreed to maintain a code of silence as a way of helping push the difficult
process to a fruitful resolution and helping this country heal from the pains
of this insurgency.”
It was the story of a 30-day intense and often dramatic
negotiations that could have changed the history of the nation, involving two
notable Nigerian civil rights leaders, Fred Eno, and Shehu Sani, along with
Maiduguri-based lawyer, Mustapha Zanna, and PDP chieftain, Kaka Bolori, along
with three top officials of the International Red Cross headquarters office in
Geneva which served as the “interface” negotiators, and two field captains of
the Boko Haram sect.
In terse responses to PREMIUM TIMES reporting on their
negotiations, however, some of our sources have responded to confirm or deny
aspects of questions posed to them, although it appears there is unanimity in
their perception as to why the Clark Talks finally failed.
“It boils down,
basically, to three key issues: inflexibility and lack of realism on the part
of the insurgent forces; lack of support for a negotiated settlement to the
insurgency on the part of security forces; and what appears to be government’s
acceptance that the security forces were right,” highly placed officials close
to the negotiation told PREMIUM TIMES.
Yola: The Elusive Prize:
There also appears to be agreement among most of the parties to
the negotiation that the “Yola debacle” was the decisive point of failure in
After weeks of tough negotiations, the two sides finally
accepted to what famously came to be dubbed the “prisoner swap” of the Chibok
girls with some commanders of the Boko Haram fighting forces.
Insiders to the talk paid homage to Mr. Edwin Clark’s wisdom and
staying power, saying he was deft at keeping sometimes difficult claims in
perspective as the meetings wobbled on and on between contentious positions of
On prisoner swap for instance, our sources say, the insurgents
were “initially modest in their demands, asking for just 10 of their field
captains who appear to have a holding grip on the imagination of the fighting
forces.” At this time, this was against the whole abducted girls.
While the security forces were combing detention centres,shopping
for the 10 detainees, our sources say something strange happened, suggesting
internal struggles in the camp of the insurgency forces. Our sources understood
the “happening” to be a factional disagreement on the ethnic composition of the
10 names tabled for the swap. “They were all of Kanuri nationality and it
appeared the Hausa/Fulani faction protested this.”
The result of this disagreement was about one week delay in the
negotiations after which a “new list of 15 was tabled, and then it was
increased to 16”.
The ICRC was then working with security forces to identify the
names on the list. In this period, it wasn’t clear if security forces had all
the names in demand, a situation that triggered a new frustration in the talks,
according to our sources. Were they never captured or were they killed in
battle or extra-judicially?
This development, according to one of our sources, led
discussions along a frozen path. “We almost lost ten days again to this but
after a meeting at the Kuje prisons, near Abuja, where Mustapha Umar, one of
the commanders on the list was held, the government team saw a new ray of
However, distrust was now building and the team of two Boko
Haram negotiators switched the terms of demand from 16 sect commanders for all
the girls, to only 30 girls.
But Mr. Clark, according to our sources, told them there was no
realism in their demands and that if they so cherished their compatriots, the
smartest deal for them was to release all the girls. At any rate, Mr. Clark
reportedly argued that such a deal would put President Jonathan at the butt of
a new wave of criticism and provide fodder for the opposition. So this was not
acceptable, he reportedly insisted.
“Swap is not our idea but the idea of the government,“ the Boko
Haram negotiators initially argued, trying to insist on the high road, but they
later deferred to the age of Mr. Clark, according to our sources.
At this point also, the ICRC team clarified the terms of their
engagement, insisting that before the swaps, they would need clear commitments
from the abducted girls and the detained fighters. “Prisoners and the girls
must offer consent before the deal can be closed” ICRC insisted. To get the
consent of the girls the ICRC said they were prepared to risk going into the
enclave of the insurgency.
The Boko Haram negotiators reportedly said they were comfortable
with this, and that it will also help “dispel the claims that the girls were
being maltreated or that they have been forced into marriage which will shock
many people when the girls return.”
With the Abuja negotiations sealed, Yola, the Adamawa state
capital, was agreed as the point of swap. Government negotiators favoured a
discreet arrangement where they would sneak into Yola, the Red Cross would take
custody of the girls, and in turn yield the Boko Haram detainees to them and
conclude the swap.
The management of the Yola episode, according to our sources,
put paid to the whole arrangement. The government, in an exuberant show of
enthusiasm chartered a Boeing 737 jet to convey the girls to Abuja from Yola.
What was thought to be a discreet arrangement turned into a fantasia and loud
orchestra show. Moreover, “when we arrived Yola, half of the airport was
covered with security forces” noted one of the insiders to the deal.
“Then they moved negotiators to the presidential lounge for a
two-hour wait…then 48 hours in the hotel…but Yola had been infiltrated by these
people and the security presence sent a wrong signal…clearly these people
didn’t trust the arrangement and they never showed up.”
When contacted Wednesday, some of the principal actors in the
collapsed negotiation declined to provide details, saying it’s still premature
to divulge “sensitive details”.
“The whole thing is unfortunate, but hopefully we can revive the
negotiations,” one of the negotiators, Fred Eno, told PREMIUM TIMES. “The
president desperately wanted the girls released, but politics of positioning
stood in the way of progress.”
The President of the Kaduna-based Civil Rights Congress, Shehu
Sani, insisted he was not comfortable discussing the matter at this time,
suggesting that it was irrelevant talking about what worked and what didn’t
work at least until the girls are rescued.
Mr. Clark did not answer or return calls made to his telephone
on Thursday morning. He also did not respond to a text message sent to him.
Benoit Matsha-Carpentier, the Senior Media Officer for the
International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, was also
unavailable Thursday morning. He is yet to return calls made to him.
Spokespersons for the Nigerian presidency were also unavailable
to provide insight regarding why the administration acted the way it did in the
final minutes of the negotiation. Reuben Abati, the Special Adviser to the
President on Media and Publicity, as well as Doyin Okupe, the senior special
assistant on Public Affairs, didn’t answer or return calls Thursday morning.
The over 200 girls, mostly teenagers, were kidnapped from their
secondary school in Chibok, Borno State, on April 14.