Again, Obasanjo seeks dialogue with Boko Haram; says sect has legitimate grievances

Former President Olusegun Obasanjo

Nigeria’s former President, Olusegun Obasanjo, has again advocated dialogue with the insurgent group, Boko Haram, saying the group has legitimate grievances despite its brutal five-year campaign that has killed more than 15,000 people, with hundreds of thousands displaced.

The former president said Nigeria should not rule out talking to the terrorist group which recently pledged allegiance to Islamic State (ISIS) – but he said that should only happen after a sustained military campaign.

Boko Haram’s run of violence against innocent people in schools, places of worship, markets and homes, only slowed relatively in the last few weeks in the face of increased military onslaught from Nigeria and neighbouring Chad, Niger and Cameroun.

The military has retaken 15 of 16 major towns seized by the group, the latest being Bama in Borno State, recaptured on Monday.

In response, Boko Haram has launched more suicide bomb attacks killing scores of civilians.

In an interview with the International Business Times in Dubai, Mr. Obasanjo advised that in dealing with the terror organization, the Nigerian government should not rule out dialogue if the group is willing to talk. He said that should happen only after sustained military operations against the militants.

Mr. Obasanjo, who spoke at the side-lines of the Global Education Forum conference, said with only 19 per cent of the population in Boko Haram’s stronghold of North-East Nigeria receiving education, [compared to 79 per cent in the South-West and 77 per cent in the South-East], there was no question that the area should feel marginalised.

“We don’t need anyone to tell us that that is a problem; a problem of disparity, a problem of marginalization, a problem because education is fundamental to your employability and to your living conditions. If you are not educated you are handicapped,” Mr. Obasanjo said.

Mr. Obasanjo again criticised President Goodluck Jonathan’s response to the group, saying the incumbent failed to act quick enough in taking the fight to Boko Haram.

That failure, he said, had given the group “false confidence” to spread to neighbouring Chad and Cameroon.

“The response of the government initially was definitely not enough. When Boko Haram started showing their fangs about four years ago, the reaction should have been firm and unmistakable. We have lost ground,” he said.

Mr. Obasanjo said as progress is made with the regional response from Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon and Niger, the Nigerian government should not rule out engaging with the militants.

“If Boko Haram is ready to talk, we should talk. But by the time they are ready to talk they will need to be pounded a little bit militarily: at that stage they will be ready to talk,” Mr. Obasanjo said.

Mr. Obasanjo has made similar calls in the past. In 2011, he made a unilateral attempt to open talks with leaders of the deadly sect.

The effort ended on a bloody note with the murder of Babakura Fugu, the man who received Mr. Obasanjo, and attempted to establish a link between insurgents and the former president.

Mr. Fugu, a brother-in-law of Mohammed Yusuf, Boko Haram’s founder, was shot to death shortly after Mr. Obasanjo left his home in Maiduguri, the Borno Stat capital, where he had flown to for a meeting.

The effort was not at the instance of the federal government, officials said at the time.

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