Exclusive: Goodluck Jonathan scrapped deal to exchange girls for Boko Haram prisoners after pressure from West, it is claimed
Nigeria’s president was sent a new video of the schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram in which they beg him to spare their lives through a prisoner swap, sources close to the militia have told The Telegraph.
The video was said to have been handed to Goodluck Jonathan’s office by an intermediary who started a dialogue with the group two weeks ago. The intermediary, a Nigerian journalist, obtained the video as a way of proving to Mr Jonathan’s office that he had authentic lines of communication to Boko Haram’s leaders.
However, the source claimed that a subsequent deal to release the girls – planned for a week ago on Monday – was scrapped after Western governments placed pressure on Mr Jonathan not to negotiate for any prisoner swap.
The deal would allegedly have seen around 50 of the girls released in exchange for an equivalent number of Boko Haram fighters currently in Nigerian jails. The Nigerian government has denied that any deal was on the table, and has so far neither confirmed nor denied the existence of the video.
Claims of the video’s existence surfaced as Nigeria’s Chief of Defence Staff claimed that the military now knew where the girls were located. Speaking on Monday, Staff Air Marshal Alex Badeh, described it as “good news for the parents” but said that the military would not risk “going there with force”.
Nigerians United Against Terrorism group attends a demonstration on 26 May calling on the government to rescue the kidnapped girls (AP)
However, he declined to give specific details, raising speculation about the accuracy of his claims. The Nigerian military has made several unsubstantiated statements in the past over the girls, including a claim last week that it had been tracking them ever since they were kidnapped in mid-April.
The Nigerian journalist who is said to have obtained the latest video was named by the source as Ahmed Salkida, who is from the north-east state of Borno, which is Boko Haram’s main stronghold.
His contacts with the group have been so close that on past occasions he has been arrested on suspicion of being a sympathiser, and two years ago he moved with his family to Dubai.
However, around four weeks ago, the Nigerian government agreed for him to come back to Nigeria to see if he could assist in negotiating for the girls’ freedom. He and a trusted cleric then risked their lives by heading up into the remote bushland areas where the group operate, meeting a senior assistant of Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakar Shekau.
“The government said to the intermediary to prove himself to show whether he was capable of brokering a deal or not, and insisted that he should obtain proof of life of the hostages,” the source said. “So during his talks with the insurgents, he obtained a DVD which had clips of girls being interviewed by members of the group, in which they asked President Jonathan to do a prisoner swap to get them freed.
“That DVD was shown to the government, and a deal was arranged so that the girls would have been released a week ago on Monday, but at last minute the government backed out.”
The precise reasons for the government’s alleged change of mind were not known, said the source. But he pointed out that the weekend before the proposed release date, Mr Jonathan was at the summit to discuss the Boko Haram crisis in Paris, also attended by British and American officials as well as the governments of Niger, Cameroon and Mali.
Presidents of Niger, Cameroon, Nigeria, France, Chad and Republic of Benin (L-R) attend a press conference at the end of the Paris Summit for Security in Nigeria (EPA)
“The Nigerian government got a lot of offers of co-operation by neighbouring countries at the summit, and I think that emboldened them against negotiations,” the source said. “They also seem to be afraid that if they do a prisoner swap, they will lose the support of the West.”
As a result, the source said, the negotiations had now “crashed”, with Mr Salkida returning to Dubai. The DVD remains in the possession of the Nigerian government and has not been released publicly.
The source added that a separate effort at mediation was now underway via Nigeria’s former president, Olusegun Obasanjo, who stepped down in 2007 and was involved in a round of previous peace talks with the group in 2011-12. Mr Obasanjo is understood to have held a meeting in recent days with clerics at his country residence outside Lagos to explore new channels of dialogue.
“Mr Obasanjo is very worried that this kidnapping is casting Nigeria in a bad light, and is also uncomfortable with Nigeria inviting other outside nations to assist,” said the source.
“The plan is to get the girls freed in exchange for some Boko Haram suspects who have been put in jail but never actually brought for trial before a court.”
Boko Haram, which wants to impose hardline Islamic rule on northern Nigeria, is believed to be holding a total of around 220 girls hostage. They were kidnapped from the town of Chibok, in north-east Nigeria, in mid-April.