MORE than 200 schoolgirls kidnapped by Islamist Boko Haram militants could be freed as early as tomorrow, according to government sources in Nigeria.
Two senior government sources said efforts were being made to secure the release of the girls by Tuesday at the latest, but the move could come as early as tomorrow, although they declined to comment on where the handover would take place.
However, community leaders in the girls’ hometown were sceptical over news of a ceasefire with the Islamic extremists who abducted their daughters six months ago. Bana Lawan, chairman of Chibok Local Government Area, said there will be no celebration until they see the girls, “and then we will know it is true”.
Community leader Pogu Bitrus said: “People rejoiced, but with caution.”
He said many residents are wary of believing the army’s announcement that Boko Haram extremists have agreed to an immediate ceasefire. Reports last night said that Boko Haram had killed several people in two attacks on Nigerian villages, since the ceasefire announcement.
Nigeria’s armed forces chief, Air Chief Marshal Alex Badeh, announced on Friday that they had reached a deal that would enable the release of the girls, whose abduction in the remote north-eastern town of Chibok in April caused international outrage.
The announcement came a day before a rally of supporters of president Goodluck Jonathan in Abuja at which either Jonathan or his vice-president, Namadi Sambo, is expected to announce his candidacy for February 2015 elections.
The timing, coupled with a history of abortive government attempts at truce deals with Boko Haram and military claims to have rescued some girls that proved false, mean Nigerians are likely to greet the newly reported breakthrough with scepticism.
“I can confirm that FG [the federal government] is working hard to meet its own part of the agreement so that the release of the abductees can be effected either on Monday or latest Tuesday next week,” one source said.
Officials at the presidency and military did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Boko Haram has also not yet commented on the reported truce. The group’s sole means of conveying messages are videotaped speeches by a man claiming to be Abubakar Shekau, its leader, whom the military last year said it had killed.
A second government source involved in the talks was more cautious, stressing that there might have to be more discussions in Nigeria and the Chadian capital Ndjamena – the nearest non-Nigerian major city to the heart of the Boko Haram insurgency – before all the details are ironed out. “We have confidence in those we are negotiating with, but we are still doing it with considerable caution. Boko Haram has grown into such an amorphous entity that any splinter group could come up disowning the deal,” he said. “We believe we are talking to the right people.”
Boko Haram is believed to be divided into several factions that loosely co-operate with each other, and it is unclear with which faction the government has been negotiating. It says the talks were held with a formerly unknown militant called Danladi Admadu, who alleges he is the group’s “secretary-general”.
Underlining the uncertainty over the chain of command, in Boko Haram, Nigeria’s military said last month that a man who had been posing as Shekau in the group’s growing number of videos had been killed in clashes over the town of Konduga.
Boko Haram, whose name translates roughly as “western education is sinful”, has massacred thousands in a struggle to carve an Islamic state out of religiously mixed Nigeria, whose southern half is mainly Christian or Animist in faith.
Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country and its oil-rich economy is the continent’s largest.
The schoolgirls’ abduction stunned the world, spurred a global Twitter campaign to get them rescued and heaped pressure on Jonathan’s administration to do more to protect civilians in the north-east where Boko Haram’s insurgency is focused.