Envoys of Nigeria’s president are in negotiations with elements of the Islamist insurgency behind an onslaught of attacks that has destroyed government buildings and killed hundreds of people, according to senior officials.
The envoys have engaged with leaders of the Boko Haram militant group whom they view as less hostile, more pragmatic and harboring legitimate economic grievances, in an effort to bring a halt to the group’s attacks on the government, police and Nigeria’s Christians.Boko Haram, based in Nigeria’s impoverished, mostly Muslim north, is seen as a loose alliance of young militants with a variety of grievances and agendas. The group is also believed to be starved for cash, in part because governors in the north have abandoned the practice of paying the militants to leave their states alone.
“Under the circumstances, if you look hard enough, you can find moderate elements you can communicate with,” said Gen. Andrew Azazi, national-security adviser to President Goodluck Jonathan.
The talks have taken on added urgency amid rising violence. On Jan. 20, bombings in the northern city of Kano killed at least 186 people. More than 500 people have died in attacks attributed to Boko Haram over the past 12 months.
The Boko Haram representatives have responded to government overtures with a set of nine demands, according to Junaid Mohammed, a former legislator with close ties to governors in Nigeria’s north.
Among the demands are prisoner releases, a return of seized property and compensation for the killings of its members, said Mr. Mohammed and a Nigerian security official. The group also asked the government to impose strict Shariah law in the north, which is predominantly Muslim, and for job-creation programs for the poor.
Government and foreign officials say senior Nigerian officials are divided on how to deal with Boko Haram, with some advocating a tougher line.
Gen. Azazi, who is Mr. Jonathan’s closest ally in the government campaign to fight Boko Haram, said some members of the president’s national-security team remain skeptical that talks will halt the group’s attacks.
He added that some also worried that any compensation paid to the group could be used to purchase weapons. Gen. Azazi declined to comment on the group’s demands or the government’s response to them.
Boko Haram’s purported spokesman Abul Qaqa—a man whose identity has never been confirmed—has told local media that Nigerian governors are no longer paying the group to leave their states unharmed, and has demanded the release of prisoners.
Nigerian security officials say they believe the group has also lost another source of revenue: former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, who was driven from power and killed last year.
The Libyan leader funded militias and mercenaries in Africa’s Sahel region, which includes northern Nigeria, as well as in Nigeria’s oil-rich southern delta, said Gen. Azazi, the national-security adviser.
“We strongly suspect that he funded” Boko Haram as well, Gen. Azazi said.
Boko Haram has evolved from an insurgency using bow and arrow to one able to deploy complex strikes involving simultaneous bomb blasts and gun attacks on the government, the police, and on Christians in the country of 155 million people.
The Nigerian police estimate the group now has around 10,000 youth recruits.