The Federal Government and the Boko Haram sect have opened peace talks with an indirect contact made between the two sides over the past week through two senior clerics, sources privy to the discussions told Daily Trust last night.
A deal is being worked out for a three-month ceasefire during which there would be no attack by the sect and there would also be no “harassment” from the government, one of the sources said.
"Boko Haram wants the release of arrested members as a condition for ceasefire. Then discussions will follow," a source told one of our reporters.
Earlier yesterday, Reuters news agency also reported that “mediated” talks have started.
One of the sources who spoke to Daily Trust last night said the two clerics involved in the negotiations have close contacts in the Boko Haram sect, and they have been shuttling between the sect’s self-proclaimed leader Abubakar Shekau and government officials.
The two clerics were in the Supreme Council for Sharia in Nigeria together with the late Boko Haram leader Mohammed Yusuf, whose death in police custody in July 2009 triggered a widespread violent uprising by the sect.
But one source said the talks were being threatened by leakages in the media.
"The problem is that Boko Haram has intended for this to be confidential. But the issue has already leaked to the media. So now, Boko Haram is threatening to back out though the mediators are trying to persuade the sect to stay on," he said.
There was no immediate comment from the Presidency over the story yesterday. Boko Haram, which makes sporadic tele-conferences through Maiduguri-based journalists, also did not react to the report.
The senior cleric mentioned as the leading mediator did not answer calls made to seek his comments on Wednesday and yesterday.
When our reporter called the other cleric in the talks last night, he pleaded not be named because he said they had agreed ab initio to make these talks secret.
A third source spoken to yesterday said one of the mediators had confided in him that the discussions were going on and there were indications of success. He said the major target for now was to agree to a three-month ceasefire, during which Boko Haram will not launch any attack while security forces will not attempt to arrest any sect member.
The source said if the ceasefire is achieved, then discussions on ending the whole campaign of violence will start.
In its own report, Reuters quoted a source saying that “BH (Boko Haram) has mentioned a conditional ceasefire but it wants all its members released from prison. The government sees this as unacceptable but is willing to release foot soldiers.”
It said a traditional leader and a civil rights activist, whose names were not given, were also involved in the talks.
"It is the first time a ceasefire has been mentioned, so it is a massive positive, but given the lack of trust a resolution is still a way off," the Reuters source added.
National Security Adviser, General Owoye Andrew Azazi, was quoted to have said in January that the government was considering making contact with moderate members of Boko Haram via “back channels.”
President Jonathan has also said in January that the government was open to dialogue but said sect members were hidden and therefore direct talks were unlikely.
The military’s efforts to stem the sect’s insurgency have had mixed results in the past, with human rights groups saying heavy-handed tactics have worsened resentment of authorities.
But more recently there have been arrests of senior figures including Abul Qaqa and Kabiru Sokoto, while some have died in clashes with security forces.
The group has not managed to launch a widescale, coordinated attack since one in Kano that killed 186 people in January, reverting to crude bomb attacks and drive by shootings.