MAIDUGURI, Nigeria – An alleged member of the radical Islamist sect Boko Haram set conditions Thursday for peace talks with Nigeria's government, asking that negotiations to end its bloody guerrilla fight be held outside of the nation and that a former military ruler be involved.
The demands came during a telephone conference call with local journalists in Maiduguri, the city in northeast Nigeria that once held the sect's main mosque and has suffered the brunt of its violence over several years of shootings and bombings. However, whether the offer represents a clear call for peace from the group remains unclear, as its command and control structure remains a mystery and the call for talks came from a member unknown by the media until Thursday.
The man, who identified himself as Abu Mohammed Ibn Abdulaziz, said the peace talks must be held in Saudi Arabia and involve former military ruler Muhammadu Buhari. The man said those were conditions set by Abubakar Shekau, Boko Haram's leader.
"We are not actually challenging the state, as people are saying, but the security (forces) who are killing our members, children and wives," the man said in the call. "We are highly offended but if this government is sincere, everything (the attacks) will come to an end. We want to dialogue but government must show sincerity in its handling of the situation."
The man also said that authorities also must arrest former Borno state Gov. Ali Modu Sheriff as a precondition for talks, as well as compensate sect members whose family members have been killed. Imprisoned sect members also must be immediately released, the man said.
The call came through the channels that Boko Haram usually communicates with journalists, who gathered at the local office of the Nigeria Union of Journalists to listen. However, Abdulaziz spoke entirely in English, which is unusual for the sect. Also, journalists ordinarily hear from a spokesman who uses the nom de guerre Abul Qaqa in such calls. The man also did not call for the implementation of Shariah law across Nigeria, a multiethnic nation of more than 160 million people. That long has been a demand of the sect.
It is also unexpected for the sect to ask specifically for Buhari as a negotiator. Buhari, who came to power in January 1984 and was deposed in August 1985, ruled Nigeria country with an iron fist. However, he is popularly viewed across Nigeria's north as an honest man and has been a perennial presidential candidate since the country became a democracy. Yinka Odumakin, a spokesman for Buhari, could not be immediately reached for comment Thursday.
Rumors about indirect peace talks between Nigeria's government and the sect have floated around for some time. In March, the government thought a possible mediator could be Datti Ahmed, a Kano physician who heads a prominent Muslim group, the Supreme Council for Shariah in Nigeria. However, Ahmed publicly backed away from the suggestion that he be a mediator out of security concerns.
Officials representing Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan have claimed several times in recent weeks that the government is in indirect talks with Boko Haram. However, a Sept. 30 Internet video featuring Shekau shows him repeatedly denying that the group is in peace talks with Nigeria's weak central government and promising more attacks.
Boko Haram, whose name means "Western education is sacrilege" in the Hausa language of Nigeria's Muslim north, has been attacking government buildings and security forces heavily over the last year and a half. This year alone, the sect is blamed for killing more than 720 people, according to an Associated Press count.
The violence caused by Boko Haram, and the heavy handed response by Nigerian security forces, has drawn increasing international scrutiny. A Human Rights Watch report in October accused Nigerian security forces and Boko Haram of likely committing crimes against humanity in their fighting. An Amnesty International report released Thursday made a similar claim and alleged that the Nigerian government is illegally holding hundreds of people suspected of participation in Boko Haram violence in inhumane conditions and without access to lawyers.
Associated Press writer Jon Gambrell in Lagos, Nigeria, contributed to this report.