Why it has been difficult to secure the release of remaining Chibok girls—Information Minister Lai Mohammed

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It has been three years since the dreaded Boko Haram sect invaded Chibok town and abducted more than 200 girls from Government Girls Secondary School. In this interview with our Correspondent, VINCENT IKUOMOLA, the Minister of Information, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, speaks on the efforts of the current administration in ensuring the return of all the girls as well as an end to the Boko Haram menace.

IT is three years now that more than 200 Chibok girls were abducted by the Boko Haram sect. Some of them have been successfully rescued as a result of this government’s efforts but a lot of them are still in captivity. What is the hope for the remaining girls?

You see, I think it is quite unfortunate that when people talk about the Boko Haram insurgency, the focus is always on the missing Chibok girls, and every effort of government in combatting this deadly insurgency is often measured against the return or otherwise of the Chibok girls. The Boko Haram insurgency, unfortunately, is not just about the missing Chibok girls alone. Every day, our gallant soldiers risk their lives to ensure that a final closure is put on the Boko Haram insurgency. There is no doubt that the missing Chibok girls have captured the attention of the entire world, and we make no attempt to belittle or treat the issue of the missing girls with any disrespect or that it is only a small part of the big picture. That is not what we are saying. What we are saying is that the return of the Chibok girls is a part of a very comprehensive approach to putting behind us the Boko Haram insurgency. And it is not correct to say that the government has abandoned either the search for these missing girls or that we have abandoned the dialogue for their release.

Evidence that we have not abandoned the search for them is the fact that only recently, you can see that the military conducted its firearm tournament in the dreaded Sambisa Forest. That is to show you what we have done to ensure that Boko Haram people have no stronghold at all. I remember that prior to our coming into office, a total of 14 local government areas out of 20 in Borno State were under the effective control of Boko Haram. And by this, we mean these were local government areas where they were not just present but they had their government there, they appointed tax officers and emirs. They had their own judiciary and they did similar things in parts of Adamawa and Yobe. Today, they do not have any foothold in any area in the North East. For us, we take this as very big achievement.

Anybody who is familiar with insurgency will know that insurgency is not something that you finish overnight. Countries like Columbia and other parts of the world that had witnessed more than 40 to 50 years of insurgency will testify to this. But you continue to engage and at the same time you continue to improve your military capacity and you continue to reintegrate into the society people who had been held hostage.

What exactly is the government doing to secure the release of the remaining girls? The government is daily working for the release of these girls. The dialogue and negotiation are quite complex, very delicate and they are not things that we can always give a progress report. But as an insider and one who is in touch with major stakeholders, I can assure you that the search, negotiation is proceeding very slowly, I admit. But we have been able to achieve confidence building between us and the captors. The fact that the Boko Haram group has also been factionalised is another challenge, because you must be sure you are talking to the right faction and not only the right faction, with the faction that can actually produce the girls. These are some of the complexities in the dialogue and negotiation.

What are other challenges the government facing in the release of these girls?

When you are involved in negotiating with insurgents, it is a different field of endeavour entirely. One, most of these negotiations involve nationals of other countries. At times, they can even nominate for you who will be your own representatives in the negotiation. They can tell you they don’t want XYZ there. Now, when these meetings take place, people come from every part of the world to meet at a neutral place, which is not in Nigeria. So it has a lot of logistics. It involves lots of confidence building. It involves a lot of tact. At times, the idea is to provoke you. They could make demands that if you are not trained in the art of negotiation, you will throw out. And at times they make demands just to test your sincerity of purpose and to test your commitment. Even finding a venue that was going to be acceptable to everybody at times could be a challenge, and even negotiation as to what could be the form of exchange, where and how also could be challenging. But the most important thing to me is getting their confidence, and where you are able to get it, sustaining it is easier. But just an innocent innocuous press statement could destroy months of painstaking confidence building. These are some of the challenges we are facing.

What is the hope of rescuing the remaining girls?

When you talk about the girls’ return, I feel more comfortable with that. But there are always two approaches to getting the girls returned. I think the most viable one is negotiation. Because it is negotiation that will ensure that they are returned in one piece; they are returned alive. Any other option carries a lot of risk. But both options at times are necessary, because at times you can also only negotiate from the position of strength. So you combine both the military option with the negotiation, because the military option and negotiation are not mutually exclusive and they actually work many times.

You see, why we cannot abandon the military option is because until and when we actually reach an armistice, you cannot abandon the military option. But at the same time, we are also employing the soft approach, which is negotiation. And you see, people don’t seem to understand the enormous challenges the military is facing. Even in the issue of IDPs, it is often unknown to many people that IDPs are probably the single biggest problem we are facing today. Not just in terms of resettling them, providing accommodation but in terms of strategy, in terms of security and even in terms of intelligence management. We have had examples where certain people are deliberately released to the military by the warlords. Their children and their wives are released to the government so that they can move more freely and they can wage a war more efficiently. People released in such manner are always also in contact with the Boko Haram warlords. So at times, even the so-called IDPs in our camps, if not well screened, well monitored, could also be passing very valuable information to the insurgents. Again, another area which people often do not appreciate is that the military is doing a yeoman’s job. When these people are coming back, they have been used to a certain lifestyle where they were, where they were not catered for. And when they come back and you cannot cater for them, there is the tendency for them to want to go back.

And then there is the issue of de-radicalisation. If you wonder what could make a person want to blow him or herself up. Now, in this area, we believe that Nigerians and not just the military must take ownership of this war and assist in being more vigilant as we have always canvassed. But more importantly, we need more funds, more resources to continue a sustained programme of de-radicalisation.

You see, because one thing about the Boko Haram is that for too long, the Boko Haram group were left unchallenged in the field, and they were able to radicalise and change the mindset and perception of these people. It will take a long time and sustained efforts of enlightenment, using the radio, television, even town hall meetings and community meetings, to really de-radicalise the minds of these people.

Another issue that is stirring us in the face and many people are not taking cognizance of is that we have thousands of orphans in our IDP camps. Now, we need a lot of resources to make them adjust to the society and make sure they go to school, ensure that they get skills and ensure they are educated. Otherwise in 10 or 20 years’ time, that will become another army of insurgents that will trouble the country.

You see, the radicalisation of the insurgency is so huge, and given what is happening in Europe, either in Stockholm, Istanbul, Paris, Brussels or USA, you will begin to appreciate better what our military has been able to achieve, because insurgency has no boundary at all, and they are always one step ahead of any government, and our military have been able to make it.  Today, once in a while, you have attacks on soft targets. But that is to be expected because they have been dislodged from their stronghold. They can no longer wage the usual war because we have destroyed all their structures.

The recent attacks seem to indicate a reawakening of insurgency…

You see, this is an enormous challenge that we are facing. This recent surge in attacks should not be seen as a reversal because, as a matter of fact, this so-called reversal or surge is an attempt by them to want to prove to their followers that they are still relevant; that they are not defeated. It is just like what we have been seeing recently in Europe and America where terrorists attack hitherto safe areas. They now employ unorthodox methods like driving a truck, and run trucks into crowded places. Anybody who understands and studies insurgency will know that they are also under pressure to prove to their supporters that they are not defeated. Don’t forget that they still have many people they have misled and misinformed. They are using the Internet very efficiently. They have a very effective way of disseminating it. So these attacks are to reassure their followers and their groups that it is all propaganda; that they are not defeated.

For instance, we used to know where they were before and we could not go there. But today, we have superior firepower, we have superior intelligence and we have superior logistics. And you can see only recently that it is going to get better because the weapons we are using, we are improving on them and so it is careless to say that we are suffering a reversal. No. It is an unorthodox war. You see, for them, they have no rules of engagement, we have rules of engagement. We cannot just say that because we have seen that some Boko Haram people are taking refuge somewhere, let’s go and bomb them, because we will kill innocent people. But they don’t have such constraints. That is why it seems that at times, they have better or superior military power or they are coming back. No, no, no, it is just that the rules of engagement are different. They obey no rules. They have no regulations, and as a matter of fact, their maxim is inflict as much damage, as much death while even we in containing them, we still have to make consideration for the women, children and for many people who did not know anything about this war, for civilians.

For instance, Amnesty International means nothing to them, Amnesty International means a lot to us, because we have to even protect those who are working among them. You know we have the non-governmental organisations who are in IDP camps and liberated areas. We must protect them also. So we are quite constrained in our own approach. It is like two people fighting in a competition with two sets of rules. That is what is happening.

Is Shekau dead or alive?

You know my understanding of Shekau? Shekau may not be a real name. If you kill one Shekau today, there are hundreds that come to that place. For me, Shekau as a person is a symbol of insurgency. Now, whether he is dead or not, I think it is a mute point. What is important, are we wining insurgency or not? The answer is yes.

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