- The Washington Times - Monday, August 4, 2014

EXCLUSIVE:

The president of Nigeria disclosed Monday that his government is using third parties to talk to Islamist extremists and try to secure the safe release of the 200 schoolgirls they kidnapped, saying military action could prove too deadly.

In an exclusive interview with The Washington Times, President Goodluck Jonathan also said that U.S. help during the schoolgirls crisis has not produced any results.

“They have been with us for over a month, and we have not been able to get the girls out,” he said. “So you really see that the help has not yet resulted [in] something positive. I wouldn’t say they have helped or they have not helped. Basically they are there to help with intelligence gathering and so on.”

In Washington for an African leaders’ summit with President Obama, Mr. Jonathan directly addressed the criticism both inside his country and abroad to his response to the terrorist group Boko Haram’s kidnapping of the girls from the town of Chibok in April, saying a swift military response likely would have resulted in the death of the children.

“We have not been able to get [an answer]. How do we get these girls out?” he said. “If it is to risk a few dead bodies, it is easier. You can blast the place and carry the corpses. But is that what we have to do? So it is delicate, and that’s why we are proceeding with caution.”

Mr. Jonathan, who faces re-election in 2015, disclosed that he has authorized third parties to try to secure the girls’ safe release.

“Negotiations from Day One. We have set up a committee — what I call a dialogue committee — [for] the challenge we have in the north, even before the kidnapping of the Chibok girls. We have a team. And we encourage people to assist them. We do negotiate,” he said. “Quite a number of people have come with different information. We encourage them. But none of them have yielded any results.”

Nigerian and U.S. advisers to Mr. Jonathan immediately clarified his remarks after the interview, stating the Nigerian government was not directly negotiating with Boko Haram but instead using intermediaries.

“The president is not negotiating with Boko Haram. He is, however, encouraging dialogue between the sect and the government,” said Lanny Davis, a former Clinton White House adviser who has been advising the Jonathan administration on international media strategy related to the crisis.

“Recently, even before the girls were taken, he set up a committee to dialogue with Boko Haram. Currently, there are third parties reaching out to Boko Haram to secure the safe return of the girls, and the administration is actively encouraging these backroom initiatives,” he said.

The kidnappings fueled international outrage and spurred a social media campaign in the West with the rallying cry of “#BringBackOurGirls.”

Mr. Jonathan, who belatedly accepted offers of help from the Obama administration to find the girls, said American help hasn’t produced any measurable results.

Mr. Jonathan took baby steps on the carpet of his hotel suite to demonstrate the impact so far of the effort by the US and other global allies to help his country finds the girls — “one fraction of a centimeter.”

“It’s like when we are learning elementary physics in secondary school, and they will define ‘walk’ as ‘effort by distance,’” he said. “No matter what the effort, if you don’t move the load by a distance, the walk is zero. The effort I put, multiplied by zero, is zero. No walk. Yes, they are doing something, but no result yet.”

Mr. Davis, the adviser to President Jonathan, said Nigeria was appreciative of the help offered by numerous countries.

“The government of Nigeria greatly appreciates the efforts by the United States and other nations to help rescue these girls and bring them home safely without risking their lives. We welcome their support and hope it will continue,” he said.

A spokesman for the White House National Security Council said the U.S. is providing a broad range of assistance to the Nigerian government to help find the girls.

“The United States continues to support Nigerian efforts to bring about the safe recovery of the abductees and to advise the government of Nigeria on its response,” NSC spokesman Ned Price said. “We are advising on issues of survivor support, humanitarian assistance, criminal investigations, intelligence and strategic communications. All the while, we recognize that this is a Nigerian-led effort.”

Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, initially threatened to sell the girls into slavery. He has since called for a swap: his jailed militants in return for the girls.

Two weeks ago, Mr. Jonathan met with a group of about 50 girls who escaped from the terrorist group and with parents of the abducted girls. He assured them that he was dedicated to bringing home the rest of the girls safely.

But his government’s fight against the insurgency is stalled, with activists reporting that Boko Haram has seized more than a dozen villages in eastern Nigeria in recent months. Tens of thousands of people have fled their homes in the northeast of the country.

New fears have been raised in recent days that Boko Haram, an Islamist group whose name means “Western education is forbidden” might be using some of the kidnapped girls as suicide bombers. Last week a suicide bomber, reportedly a teenage girl, blew herself up at a college in Kano, Nigeria, killing six people.

Mr. Jonathan, who is attending the three-day U.S.-Africa summit hosted by Mr. Obama, told The Times that authorities have a good idea where some of the girls are being held. But he said potential rescue operations are “delicate” when confronting militants who are willing to die.

He pointed to an episode in February 2013 in which an offshoot of Boko Haram killed seven foreign hostages in northern Nigeria before authorities could rescue them. And he said the advice from the U.S., the United Kingdom, France and Israel has not solved that dilemma in the case of the kidnapped girls.

“They are ready to die,” he added about the Islamist militant group. “So when you are dealing with that scenario, it is very different from the ordinary kidnapping by criminals or people who don’t want to die. So it is very, very delicate.”

For weeks after the kidnappings, Mr. Jonathan faced intense criticism from the international community for failing to accept outside help to locate the girls.

Nigeria finally agreed to accept advisers from the U.S. nearly a month after the kidnappings, as Mr. Obama decried the situation and first lady Michelle Obama posed for a photograph while holding a sign proclaiming “#BringBackOurGirls.”

Mr. Jonathan was reported to be angered when Mr. Obama, in a phone call about the assistance, raised accusations of human rights abuses by Nigerian security forces.

In the interview Monday, Mr. Jonathan said he is optimistic that the government will recover the girls safely.

“Definitely, we will,” he said. “Because, luckily for us, we have not had the case of killing.”

He said he is encouraged, in part, because Boko Haram has not released any videos of girls being killed.

“These are criminals,” Mr. Jonathan said. “If they kill them, they will just show you how they have killed the girls. They will show you how they are slaughtering them. We have various films [and] videos that they release where they slaughter people. Even among themselves, when they send us [a video of] someone who betrays them, they will slaughter them like rams.”

He concluded, “If they kill these girls, they will show [videos to] the world to bring condemnation [and] make the world [believe] the Nigerian government isn’t doing enough. That’s why they [will] have slaughtered those girls. But so far, we have not had any video clip showing that those girls are being killed.”

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