Red Cross role represents first official confirmation that Nigerian government is in talks with terror group, despite vow that it would not negotiate
The International Committee of the Red Cross has become involved in a secret prisoner swap deal to secure the release of the Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram, the Telegraph UK has learned.
Officials from the Geneva-based organisation have sat in on talks between the Nigerian government and a senior Boko Haram leader currently held in one of the country’s maximum security prisons.
The Red Cross officials have also visited a number of other jails, identifying a list of 16 senior commanders that Boko Haram wants freed in exchange for its hostages.
The group is thought to be holding more than 220 schoolgirls captive, having kidnapped them from the north-east town of Chibok in mid-April.
The ICRC’s role in the talks represents the first official confirmation that the Nigerian government is actively engaged in talks with Boko Haram over the release of the girls. Publicly, Nigeria’s president, Goodluck Jonathan, has maintained that the government would never agree to any kind of negotiations.
The ICRC, whose global remit includes prisoners’ welfare, has agreed to act as an independent party in ensuring that the two sides, neither of which trust each other, honour any prisoner swap agreement. It has also offered to monitor and oversee any co-ordinated exchange of the schoolgirls for the militants.
Fred Eno, a veteran Nigerian civil rights activist who has been involved in the talks, told The Telegraph: “We felt the negotiations would go better with the backing of a major international humanitarian organisation like the ICRC. There have been two or three ICRC people at each meeting – international staff rather than Nigerians – and they accompany the government security agents to the various prisons and detention centres to identify the people that Boko Haram want released.”
The negotiations began around two months ago, when representatives of the ICRC, along with government officials and intermediaries from Nigerian civil rights groups, met with a senior Boko Haram leader currently serving a life sentence in Kuje prison, near the Nigerian capital, Abuja. The Boko Haram leader, identified only as “Omar”, acted as a spokesman for all the group’s detainees.
A source close to the talks claimed that at one point, the discussions came close to reaching a deal, with delegations despatched to the city of Yola, in North-East Nigeria, in preparation for picking up the girls.
However, the deal then broke down when Boko Haram refused to release all the girls at once, as the government had insisted.
“The insurgents wanted to release the girls on a piecemeal basis, but the government turned down that offer,” the source said. “There was also some opposition from some factions inside of the government to doing any kind of prisoner swap at all, as they feel the Boko Haram prisoners are hardened criminals who have committed heinous crimes.”
Mr Eno said the 16 prisoners that Boko Haram wanted released were not well-known names among the Nigerian public, but were still senior figures in the group. “They were senior enough that some other commanders who had taken their place are worried about what will happen to their own positions if they are released,” he said.
He added that one of the reasons for the breakdown in the agreement was that in some cases, the ICRC and prison authorities had been unable to match the names on the Boko Haram list to prisoners held in any jails. He said was possible that this was because the names were simply wrong or inaccurate, but that the group had inferred that the government was trying to hold some prisoners back, and had therefore refused to release all the girls at once.
News of the ICRC’s involvement may bring a glimmer of hope for the girls’ families, many of whom have begun to fear that they may never see their daughters again. Some have even asked the government to officially declare their children as dead so that they can conduct formal funerals. Western diplomats in Abuja also told The Telegraph recently that they doubted the girls would ever be released because of Western pressure on the Nigerian government not to negotiate with a terrorist group as brutal as Boko Haram.
The ICRC has a track record in trying to assist people held captive by insurgent groups. In Afghanistan, its staff have made discreet visits to private jails run by the Taliban, even as the Taliban engage in fighting with coalition forces.
A spokesman for the ICRC in Geneva would neither confirm nor deny its involvement in the talks, but said it was willing to help “in facilitating the transfer of people back to families if necessary”.
He added: “We have a dialogue with all the different parties, and if there is any way we can help as a neutral humanitarian organisation, we will.”