Unknown to many Nigerians, the 243 Chibok school girls from Borno, abducted in April last year, would have been released since July same year. But the plan was bungled by former President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration. This much has been revealed by Comrade Fred Eno, one of the leading facilitators of the failed negotiations. Eno, a former special assistant to the late acclaimed winner of the annulled June 12, 1993 presidential elections, Chief MKO Abiola, spoke in an exclusive interview with YEMI KOLAPO, in Abuja. Excerpts:
The activities of Boko Haram have been described as alien to Nigerians. How do you think Nigeria got to this stage?
Sadly enough, it is not totally unexpected, given the way we have governed ourselves. So, am I surprised that we found ourselves in the grip of insurgency? No, I’m not. What surprises me is the degree of carnage – the large number of lives and the amount of property already lost. I don’t think we have ever come closer to national disintegration since the 1967-70 civil war. So, how all of these came about is a factor of how we let things that should command urgent and serious national attentions wait for so long. Questions that should have elicited urgent and proper answers from the national leadership were left to linger for so long. Everybody dismissed these people (Boko Haram insurgents) as thugs, rag-tags and whatever; failing to understand that their dresses or dress code had nothing to do with their thoughts, their ideologies and their belief. This is not in any way suggesting that I subscribe to the mayhem and violence across the country. But I must say that these people did approach our courts when their leader was killed. These people did approach our government to ask for redress, not once, not twice. We paid no attention. This is as far back as six years ago, in 2009. So, how we got here is no magic. I think it’s a failure on the political leadership of this country, which allowed matters to get out of hand.
From the available reports and from your closeness to the negotiations then, would you say that Government took the right step at the right time?
No. Government did not take the right step. Government was indeed slack about taking a prompt action. The fact that there were controversies was indicative of the politicisation of a matter that ought not to be politicised. National security is not politics. National security is not PDP or APC. It is a very serious national issue. And I think it is because of the politicisation that prompted such insinuation as to whether the report was not directed at blackmailing the President. Be that as it may, these girls have spent more than 537 days in captivity. Don’t forget that, prior to Chibok, these same insurgents had slaughtered children in their dormitories, and had kidnapped more than 2000 other women across the communities. But the symbolic value of Chibok is what has prompted this interview as you must have read and heard some of the things we tried to do. The Chibok girls’ issue became a symbol, not just of the extent to which the insurgents could go, but even on the side of the government. These people basically were not expecting the kind of global reaction the abduction attracted. They said this to us, at least with the team that engaged them at a point. They were taken aback. You killed thousands of people, kidnapped thousands of women, invaded tens of schools and the international community did not make a loud noise until the abduction of the Chibok girls. The girls were abducted in April 2014 but I got involved in May.
I’m a member of the Civil Rights Congress, and have been its international consultant for 18 years. I had been involved in a lot of human rights issues. We provided free legal aid to hundreds of people, even those involved in Sharia-related cases. So, many people across the North had confidence in the CRC, which founder and Chairman, Shehu Sani, is now a senator.
So, we built a trusted network across the North. And that should be expected because our activities covered a cross-section of people, including victims of insurgent actions in the area. In the course of the abduction of the Chibok girls with its global outcry, we saw the opportunity to tell the people in authority to listen. We successfully impressed it on former President Olusegun Obasanjo to visit Maiduguri to meet with the family of Mohammed Yusuf who emerged as the leader of the group that was providing medical care to the families of the people whose houses were destroyed. The group was going around getting metal or plastic sheets to put shelter over hundreds of families, whose homes had been bulldozed.
These things don’t happen in a vacuum. They were the ones being seen to care for thousands of helpless women and children, who were left in the open. Whether it is Shekau or anybody else, they were providing that. So, we got the approval of Chief Obasanjo to get involved, in his status as former President.
Beyond being an elder statesman, you can’t question Obasanjo’s nationalism and patriotism for the country. So you couldn’t have gotten someone better to approach the then President on how to end the scourge.
So you approached him to go there?
Yes. We approached him because of his qualifications. We needed somebody like Obasanjo to get the go-ahead from Government.
Of course, Obasanjo did. He went to Maiduguri, accompanied by Shehu Sanni and a couple of others. He met with the people, had a discussion and listened to their grievances. He briefed the Presidency, though we were not privy to what transpired between him and sitting President Jonathan. I don’t want to point fingers at anyone but the point is that the matter fizzled out. Of course, we sat back for over 24 months.
As a result of that failed effort, between 10,000 and 15,000 people have lost their lives; lives we could have saved. We were at the crossroads because we could not take it upon ourselves to speak for Government. We then checked around. Everybody said the only person who could exert great influence on Jonathan was Chief Edwin Clark. We approached him and said, “The President respects you. Please inform the President that if there is any opportunity to free those girls, it will be one that will bring the bona fide leadership of these insurgents on the table with the representatives that have absolute confidence of the President, if not the President himself.” He accepted and I have no reason to doubt that the President then gave him reasonable authority to negotiate on his behalf. So, Jonathan gave Clark a blank cheque.
When exactly was this?
We are talking of May/June, just before the end of the National Conference. The delay had gone on from April when the girls were abducted, and in May, it was still whether they were truly abducted or not. But by mid-June, we were almost two months after the abduction, yet no response. When we now got the consent from Chief Clark, it was then a question of how we would go about it. We tried several resource persons, governments of prominent Arab, Muslim states to see if they could help send messages across. The only credible institution was ICRC.
Acceptable to who?
To both sides. Government was comfortable and the insurgents too were. The ICRC had to agree. There was no clear indication that either the government or the insurgents would trust us. We were however encouraged to some extent that on the government side, Chief Clark had President Jonathan’s ears. On the insurgents’ side, it was more difficult and complicated. You would throw a stone into a pool of water and they say, okay, wait and if you see three ripples, know it is us. If you see four, it is not us; if you see five, it is us. So, you have to sit and watch the pool. You know they don’t have a reliable line of communication. After several attempts, we convinced the International Red Cross that we were actually dealing with the bona fide representatives of the insurgents. I believe they too did their investigations. We were standing in between. I think we facilitated about 29 meetings. The insurgents asked that we free 10 of their captured members. Strangely, these are not the famous names of Boko Haram that you think will be on that list. But to them, these were critical actors.
Who were they?
They are normal people. The point is that they were trying to tell us that those people were important to them because they had served their course in detention. It was at this point that the ICRC became weary because it had to accompany the security service personnel to the various prisons and detention centres across the country. By the last week of July 2014, they agreed and left to prepare the girls. So, we handed the list to the ICRC and the security agencies that would begin the process of bringing together the people on the list for release.
Sadly, out of the 17 names on the Boko Haram list, only four could be found. Listen, these people had gone on the agreement that they were going to put these girls together. The ICRC had mobilised its resources on the understanding that ICRC was not government’s agency. So, the agency did not need official support because of its strict humanitarian mandate.
You didn’t ask questions? How come they couldn’t find them?
We asked questions. You see, dealing with an establishment like the national security could be very frustrating. Instead of national security, we have virgin security. One has to be very careful because negotiations do not follow a straight course. So, we did ask questions, but it was apparent that somewhere along the line, they didn’t want some of those people released. Somewhere along the line, some of them might have died. They thus created a big problem for us. Our own credibility was at stake. We had to start asking the Boko Haram negotiators not to renege on their promise over the girls; urging them to accept the four detainees and prove their truthfulness to the world.
We told them: “Don’t go back on your word. If you say the government is going back on its words, let the government be the one to be seen as not keeping its words. Let the world see government as being insincere.” They said they would not accept four because they would not be able to explain the disparity to their people. It took another two weeks for them to say, okay, ‘if you are releasing four out of 17, we too will release only 50 girls.’ But Government representatives and others made it clear that it must be all or nothing. The negotiators agreed, saying since ‘we have given our words, let’s do it.’
We then mobilised and were to move to Yola and then to Mubi, both in Adamawa State. From there, the negotiators would indicate the next line of action. At that point, I read in the newspapers about satellites showing groups of people moving across certain parts of the Northeast. Yes, they did indicate to us that they would need to plan because the girls were in different locations, and that they had to be brought to the Gwoza complex. Government insisted we went as a group. I disagreed. On the planned day of deployment, when we were supposed to move into Adamawa, we found that the ICRC had moved long before us. They had adequate plans to receive 300 people in trauma. They had their medical team; they brought in specialists and experienced people. We had gone through a long process of convincing the insurgents. They knew the ICRC people were on ground because they had seen them and they knew the way they came. And that was what also informed the idea to make it low-key. They saw Yola airport; they saw us. Not just us, not even government; they saw people arrive in a jumbo jet with only eight persons on board.They also saw people supposed to be working on a confidential deal cruising about in a convoy of battleready troops; driving to the governor’s residence all with fanfare. As far as they were concerned, the authority was planning an invasion and would use the opportunity to invade them. Expectedly, they just cut off communication with us. I wasn’t surprised. I am not a professional negotiator; I’m not a professional mediator. I’m just driven by passion to see things done and done properly because I was as frustrated over this matter as every other person.
But they were comfortable with the ICRC…
Extremely. And with government? No. They were comfortable up to that point, but I think their comfort dissipated at that level when official negotiators’ actions became inconsistent with the situation at hand. These are people you get a message from; someone saying we agreed that this meeting would take place on so, so and so dates.
How were you meeting?
There would be no phones and they would come for the meeting at the venue. It might be a different set of people, one more or one less; but you would see that, at the meeting, somebody would give you a recap of what was discussed at the last meeting. So, you would know that these were people who got proper briefs on the discussions.
Now, did you at any point in time get close to seeing the girls?
Not at all, because we were doing all of these in cities.
What is the way forward?
I believe with the new leadership in the country, and the level of commitment that the security services have demonstrated, there is the possibility of attaining a certain level of military success. The President has given a deadline; we should have an effective negotiation and dialogue mechanism, because we need a way forward that will enhance the military victory.