Despite the Nigerian government’s public rejection of any prisoner swap with extremist Boko Haram sect, its officials, alongside the Red Cross, are currently in talks to trade Boko Haram militants for more than 200 Chibok schoolgirls abducted by the sect in April, the U.K. Telegraph reported Friday.
The report said Red Cross officials have held secret negotiations with top Boko Haram leaders held in Nigeria’s maximum security prisons and a list of 16 senior commanders the sect wants freed in exchange for the girls, has been drawn up.
Boko Haram insurgents kidnapped over 200 girls from their school dormitory in Chibok on 14 April.
The abductions alarmed the world triggering massive campaign to secure their freedom with the United States, United Kingdom and France and other countries offering technical support.
The efforts have remained futile more than five months after as the girls remain in captivity.
Boko Haram leader, Abubakar Shekau, threatened to sell some into slavery and marry others off.
The Telegraph said the Red Cross is acting as a neutral partner to ensure the Nigerian government and Boko Haram, with deep distrust for each other, honour the swap agreement.
“We felt the negotiations would go better with the backing of a major international humanitarian organisation like the ICRC. There have been two or three ICRC people at each meeting – international staff rather than Nigerians – and they accompany the government security agents to the various prisons and detention centres to identify the people that Boko Haram wants released,” the Telegraph quoted Fred Eno, a civil rights activist.
The newspaper said negotiations began two months ago when Red Cross officials and Nigerian activists met with a senior Boko Haram leader serving a life sentence, called Omar, at the Kuje Prison in Abuja.
The report said the talks were close to being concluded at a point with the government deploying representatives to Yola to receive the girls, but things broke down after Boko haram reneged on its promise to release all the girls at once.
“The insurgents wanted to release the girls on a piecemeal basis, but the government turned down that offer,” said an unnamed source quoted by the Telegraph.
“There was also some opposition from some factions inside of the government to doing any kind of prisoner swap at all, as they feel the Boko Haram prisoners are hardened criminals who have committed heinous crimes,” a source was quoted as saying.
Another reason the prisoner exchange still remains inconclusive has been the inability of government officials to match the names on Boko Haram’s list to insurgents held in prisons, Mr. Eno told the Telegraph.
According to him, that could be because some of the names are inaccurate. But the report says this heightened the sect’s suspicion that the government was trying to hold some prisoners back.
The news that the government is negotiating with the sect may gladden their parents and the #BringBackOurGirls campaigners who have consistently called on the government to do more to secure the release of the girls.