(Bloomberg) -- Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari’s government is switching tack in its bid to end a nine-year-old Islamist insurgency in the northeast by pursuing talks to resolve a conflict that’s cost thousands of lives and brought the region the brink of famine.
Information Minister Lai Mohammed announced the negotiations effort in a statement Monday and credited back-channel talks for securing the March 21 release of more than 100 schoolgirls abducted from the northeastern town of Dapchi last month. The government has been in contact with the insurgent group known as Boko Haram since the August kidnapping of an oil exploration team in the area, he said.
“The government has come to realize that the military option will not bring this insurgency to an end,” Freedom Onuoha, a senior political science lecturer at the University of Nigeria in the southeastern town of Nsukka, said by phone. “Most insurgencies end at the political table, not on the battlefield.”
Boko Haram has been waging a violent campaign since 2009 to impose its version of Islamic law on Africa’s most populous country of more than 180 million people. The Feb. 19 mass abduction of students from Dapchi echoed a 2015 kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls from the town of Chibok in the same region, many of whom have not been released. The government says it did not pay a ransom.
Buhari, who hasn’t said whether he will seek re-election next year, came to office in 2015 with a pledge to end the insurgency. While government forces have driven the insurgents from most of the towns they once occupied, the militants still routinely carry out hit-and-run attacks and suicide bombings.
Boko Haram has splintered into various factions over the years. One led by Abubakar Shekau is mainly active in southern Borno state, while a second headed by Abu Musab al-Barnawi that has reportedly pledged allegiance to Islamic State, operates in the north around Lake Chad and claimed responsibility for the attack last year on the oil team.
“The success of the negotiation to release students suggests that they’ve established a credible negotiation channel within the higher structure of the group,” Onuoha said. “The issue now is, which faction of Boko Haram is the government in talks with?”
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