Boko Haram offered to free more than 200 kidnapped women and girls in exchange for senior militant leaders imprisoned by the government, it has been claimed.
The offer is limited to the 219 students who were taken from a boarding school in the northeastern town of Chibok in April 2014, sparking global outrage and a campaign to ‘Bring Back Our Girls’.
According to a human rights activist involved in the negotiations who spoke on condition of anonymity, the jihadists have agreed in principal to the release of the girls in exchange for 16 jailed members of Boko Haram.
The new initiative reopens an offer made last year to the government of former President Goodluck Jonathan to release the 219 students in exchange for 16 Boko Haram detainees, the activist said.
The man, who was involved in negotiations with Boko Haram last year and is close to current negotiators, spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to reporters on this sensitive issue.
Presidential adviser Femi Adesina said on Saturday that Nigeria’s government ‘will not be averse’ to talks with Boko Haram. ‘Most wars, however furious or vicious, often end around the negotiation table,’ he said.
Boko Haram has not shown them since a May 2014 video in which its leader, Abubakar Shekau warned: ‘You won’t see the girls again unless you release our brothers you have captured.’
On Wednesday the `Bring Back Our Girls` campaign staged a protest in Abuja. President Buhari welcomed those campaigners at the presidential villa and pleaded ‘We only ask for your patience.’ He said ‘The delay and conflicting reaction by the former government and its agencies is very unfortunate.’
Campaign leader Oby Ezekwesili said, ‘The rescue of our Chibok girls is the strongest statement that this government could make to showg respect for the sanctity and dignity of every Nigerian life.’
There have been unconfirmed reports that some of the girls have been taken to neighboring countries, and that some have been radicalized and trained as fighters. At least three were reported to have died – one from dysentery, one from malaria and one from a snake bite.
Last year, Shekau said the girls were an ‘old story,’ and that he had married them off to his fighters.
Lawan Zanna, whose daughter is among the captives, said this week that 14 Chibok parents have died since the mass kidnapping, many from stress-related illnesses blamed on the ordeal.
Some of the Chibok girls who managed to escape have been rejected by their community and now live with family friends, tired of hearing taunts like ‘Boko Haram wives.’
The assumption that all girls and women held by the group have been raped is a difficult stigma to overcome in Nigeria’s highly religious and conservative society.
Shekau had threatened in 2013 to kidnap women and girls if Nigeria’s military did not release detained Boko Haram wives and children. The government freed them in May of that year as a goodwill gesture ahead of failed peace talks.
Boko Haram has kidnapped hundreds more – girls, boys, women and young men. Some have become sex slaves, while others are used as fighters, according to former captives.