TheCable: Can you share with us your experience with Boko Haram leaders?
Davis: Let me take you back a bit. I specialise in negotiation. It may interest you to know that I have been involved in peace negotiations in Nigeria since 2004 when President Olusegun Obasanjo invited me to intervene in the Niger Delta crisis. With a local Nigerian colleague, I spoke with Asari Dokubo and took him to Obasanjo at the Presidential Villa in Abuja. Because Asari is a Muslim, the Muslim boys in the north heard about me and warmed up to me. I did a report in 2005 on the threat of extremism among young northern Muslims. Obasanjo’s security chiefs dismissed the report with a wave of the hand. They said no such thing existed.
In 2007, President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, who desired to end the militancy in the Niger Delta, invited me and made me presidential envoy. I toured all the northern states. I went to the country’s borders. I came back with a report that there were some budding sects in the north. The national security adviser (NSA) at the time, Gen. Sarki Mukhtar, dismissed the report. He said they didn’t exist. A succession of NSAs dismissed all these reports and allowed the groups to flourish. By the time President Goodluck Jonathan came to power in 2011, these groups had spread all over the north. They had cells and commanders in 16 out of the 19 northern states.
President Jonathan called me and sought my opinion on the best way to tackle the militancy and bring it to an end. I knew many of the leaders. I spoke with them. They trusted me. They initially wanted to kill me. They thought I was an American but I told them I was not. They also thought I was British but I said I was not. I told them I was an Australian. They relaxed. I don’t know why but they became more accommodating. They became friendly and, gradually, we built the trust. They started feeling free with me. I don’t call them Boko Haram. I call them JAS. People call them Boko Haram. They don’t call themselves Boko Haram.
TheCable: What deal were you seeking under Jonathan’s mandate?
Davis: The president wanted peace. He asked me to discuss with them so that we could arrive at the terms of peace. They came up with some terms that were acceptable and others that were not acceptable.
TheCable: What were those terms?
Davis: They wanted training for the widows of their deceased fighters. They asked the government to give these women cottage training. They, ironically, wanted education for the children of their deceased members. That is why I don’t call them Boko Haram (“Western education is a taboo”). They asked that the children be sent to school. They also wanted the government to rebuild villages that were destroyed by the security agencies. They asked for amnesty as well.
TheCable: What terms were unacceptable?
Davis: The president said he would not grant amnesty in the sense that they meant it. He said those who surrendered their arms would not be prosecuted, but those who continued to commit more crimes would face the law and would be charged with treason. They also wanted women and children who were being held in custody to be released. Their leaders that I spoke with were ready to accept the conditions. But the NSA then, Gen. Owoye Azazi, went vehemently against it. He said there should be no negotiation with terrorists. He completely turned the military against the peace deal I was working on, even though we were very close to bringing an end to the insurgency the same way we did it in the Niger Delta. The military then refused to back the deal. They succeeded in convincing the president not to accept it. I could understand where they were coming from: the security budget was like $6 billion and any peace deal would seriously reduce their budget.
TheCable: How did you become involved in the negotiation for the release of the Chibok schoolgirls?
Davis: Because I had built trust among the militants, I made calls to them when I heard about the abductions. They confirmed to me that the girls were with them. I came to Nigeria in late April (the girls were abducted on April 14). I told the president I would try to intervene and help get the girls out. He said he would give me the needed support if I wanted. However, what I discovered was that thrice we tried to get the girls released, and thrice my efforts were sabotaged. That was when I now realised that some politicians were also involved in the insurgency. There were the remnants of those involved in the former peace deal as well as a political arm and what I call the ritual arm which specialises in butchering human beings.
While I was making efforts to get the girls released, the political backers of the group threatened that if I got 30 or 40 girls out, the militants would kidnap another 60 to replace them. I became very frustrated. They threatened that any commander of the group who agreed to participate in any dialogue would be slaughtered by other commanders. The political sponsors are very powerful because they supply the finances and the arms. Until they are cut off from the group, those girls will not be released. We are talking about 200 Chibok schoolgirls, but there are over 300 other girls that have been kidnapped. There are many young men that they also kidnapped and turned them against their families. They asked them to go and slaughter their family members and they are doing it. Nobody is talking about those ones. They are the new child soldiers.
TheCable: How can we get these girls released?
Davis: The first thing is to stop the bagman who supplies weapons and military uniforms. We know his name, location and associates. If the man is stopped, the slaughterers, the ritual arm of the group, would be demobilised. The girls can be released afterwards. This man controls these ritualists.
TheCable: Was there really any deal to release the girls?
Davis: Yes, there was. Some commanders of the group told me that they would first release 100 of the girls and that would be the first step towards dialogue. They needed a guarantee from President Jonathan that they would not be arrested or prosecuted if they showed up for dialogue. They agreed with me that if they did that and no one was arrested, then they would return to the camps to release the rest of the girls.
TheCable: In all your discussions, did they name their sponsors?
Davis: They named the man who lives in Cairo. He is of the Kanuri tribe. He passes arms, ammunition and uniforms to them. The CBN official who handles the funding (name withheld by TheCable for legal reasons) is an uncle to three of those arrested in connection with the Nyanya bombings. The three boys lived with him. They were arrested by the SSS (Department of State Security) after the bombings but they are yet to be interrogated about their uncle. The official still works with the CBN. He is still there. He works in currency operations. He knows how to handle the transaction in a way that it can never be traced. Western countries are frustrated that they cannot trace the funding. How can they when it is passed on legally, through the gatekeeper, through the CBN?
Also, a senior official of CBN, who recently left the bank, was very close to Sodiq Aminu Ogwuche, the mastermind of the Nyanya bombings who also schooled in Sudan. Ogwuche’s wife used to visit this official in his office at the headquarters in Abuja before the bombings. They were very close. Don’t forget that the CBN official who handles the transactions also used to report to his superior, the official who recently left the bank. Also, there is a politician who was supplying operational vehicles for the suicide bombers. He gave them Hilux vans. He is a prominent politician. If the president goes after these guys, they will say it is political. That is part of the problem. Everybody will say the president is going after his political opponents, especially as there is a general election next year.
The militants also named the former governor of Borno State, Ali Modu Sheriff. In 2003 and 2007, Sheriff was very close to them. He used them for his elections. They worked for him. However, in 2007, the leader of the group, Muhammed Yusuf, collected money from Sheriff in return for support. Yusuf’s mentor, Ja’afar Mahmud Adam, exposed and criticised him for collecting money from Sheriff, and Yusuf ordered his killing in April 2007. But eventually, Yusuf and Sheriff fell out. However, it is acknowledged that Sheriff was and is a major financier of the group. He pays for young men to go for lesser hajj. From there they are recruited into the group. They interact freely with the Al-Shabbab militants from Somalia. They are trained by Al-Shabbab. Some of them go to Mali for training. These guys are in touch with the ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which now simply calls itself Islamic State and controls parts of Iraq). They are deadly. They share the same philosophy.
The militant commanders I spoke with also named a former army chief as one of their sponsors. You have senior military officers who are benefiting from the insurgency because of the security budget. It pays them to keep the insurgency going so that they can continue to make money. I asked them several times who the army chief was and they told me it is… (name withheld by TheCable for legal reasons).
Editor’s Note: In the second part of this interview, Dr. Stephen Davis opens up on why the Nigerian military is unlikely to win the war against Boko Haram and why it is particularly difficult to tackle the militants in the deserts of north-eastern Nigeria.