MORE than 200 schoolgirls kidnapped in Nigeria in April will be set free under an agreement the government has reached with Boko Haram militants, according to the military.

There will also be an immediate ceasefire between the jihadist group and the Nigerian army, according to Air Chief Marshal Alex Badeh, the chief of defence staff. The government said that both sides had told their fighters on the ground to cease hostilities.

Six months after they were herded out of their dormitories and on to trucks at gunpoint before being driven to militant strongholds in the remote Sambisa Forest, the girls will be returned to their families in and around the small northern town of Chibok, under the deal reached yesterday.

Leading negotiations from the government’s side was Hassan Tukur, the principal secretary to Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan.

He confirmed that Boko Haram had promised to give up the girls after a month of negotiations facilitated by the government of Chad.

“They’ve assured us they have the girls and they will release them,” Mr Tukur said of the Boko Haram representatives who met the government. “I am cautiously optimistic.”

The negotiations have mostly been kept secret; until yesterday, little was known of meetings being held in Chad’s capital, N’Djamena, and later in Saudi Arabia. The logistics of the release will be determined at another meeting in N’Djamena next week, Mr Tukur said.

Danladi Ahmadu, who calls himself the secretary-general of Boko Haram, met representatives of Mr Jonathan in Saudi Arabia, to barter over the girls’ release.

Mr Ahmadu said the girls were “in good condition and unharmed”, contradicting the account of the four who recently escaped the camps by walking towards the sunset for three weeks and who said that they had been raped every day by their captors. The few girls who have escaped and survived have returned traumatised, pregnant and starving.

Their parents in Chibok have become increasingly desperate, as politicians’ promises to secure their release have gone unfulfilled. Many of them feel forgotten, their daughters replaced in the government’s list of priorities by the approaching 2015 elections.

Although Mr Ahmadu’s credentials as a representative of the group have been questioned, the deal is said to have the blessing of Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, who at first vowed to sell the schoolgirls in “a market for selling humans”.

“Allah says I should sell. He commands me to sell. I will sell women. I sell women,” he said in one of many propaganda videos he has appeared in, clad in fatigues, clutching an AK47 and telling girls they should “go get married”.

The group, whose name means “Western education is sin”, does not believe girls should go to school, and focuses many of its attacks on schools and colleges. There was no comment yesterday from Shekau on the agreement.

Previous negotiations for the girls, facilitated by the International Red Cross, have been scuppered by the finer details of the release.

The government is understood to have agreed in September to Boko Haram’s asking price: the release of 19 of its imprisoned commanders. However, talks apparently stalled when the group refused to release more than 30 girls at once, to test the government’s commitment to the deal.

The Nigerian government refused to say what price it agreed to pay for the 215 girls yesterday. A government spokesman merely said that it would not give the group any territory.

Boko Haram insurgents already control many towns in the country’s embattled north, to the extent that in August Shekau declared part of the region a caliphate.

A similar deal between Boko Haram and the government of neighbouring Cameroon last week saw the release of 27 hostages, including the wife of the country’s vice-president and 10 Chinese workers. Their price was said to be $US400,000 for the group, as well as arms and the release of militants from jails in Cameroon.

The Chibok girls, who have been the subject of the international campaign #Bring Back Our Girls, led by Michelle Obama, would have cost much more.

The failure of the government to free the schoolgirls has caused outrage in Nigeria and abroad. Despite declaring a state of emergency in the three northern states of Borno, Yobe and Adamawa last year,  Jonathan’s forces have failed to stop Boko Haram claiming territory and arms and taking thousands of civilian lives.

Demoralised Nigerian soldiers frequently complain of being ill-equipped to fight the militants, and sometimes refuse to go into battle with them.

Cameroon, which is not part of the ceasefire deal and already shelters about 200,000 Nigerian refugees, may bear the brunt of Boko Haram attacks. “The Cameroonian government assures you that it will ceaselessly continue to fight Boko Haram until it’s totally wiped out,” President Biya vowed this week.

Boko Haram was founded in 2002 by Mohammed Yusuf, a Muslim cleric who had four wives and did not believe the Earth was round. Since his death in 2009 at the hands of Nigerian security forces, the group has killed more than 5000 civilians.

Source: The US Times

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