Nigeria amnesty panel hopeful of talks with Islamists

Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan speaks in Abuja on February 12, 2013.  By Pius Utomi Ekpei (AFP/File)

Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan speaks in Abuja on February 12, 2013. By Pius Utomi Ekpei (AFP/File)

ABUJA (AFP) – The head of a panel set up to seek an amnesty deal with Nigerian Islamist group Boko Haram voiced confidence Wednesday that members of the insurgent group could be brought into talks.

The statement came as rescue workers deployed to the remote northeastern town of Baga, where the Red Cross says fierce gun battles killed 187 people.

The military has disputed this figure, but the toll makes the Baga violence the deadliest-ever episode in the Boko Haram insurgency, which has killed thousands since 2009.

President Goodluck Jonathan created the amnesty panel last week to study how a deal could be offered to the extremists.

Jonathan has previously referred to Boko Haram as “ghosts” who could not be talked to.

The group’s purported leader Abubakar Shekau, declared a global terrorist by the United States, has dismissed any idea of an amnesty deal with the government.

But the amnesty committee chairman said there was hope for negotiations.

“I think the first strategy is to open up a line of communication and I am sure there are a lot of links that we can work on,” Kabiru Tanimu Turaki, Nigeria’s minister for special duties, said after the panel’s first meeting.

“It is when they have trust in us and we build confidence that all stakeholders will sit down…to say ‘this is our feeling, this is our position, these are our grudges or these are our complaints,'” Turaki said of the panel’s strategy.

Boko Haram, blamed for scores of attacks across northern and central, is believed to be made up of different factions, including a hardcore Islamist cell.

Shekau’s extreme jihadist faction may resist a compromise with the secular government, analysts say.

But many of the sect’s fighters are thought to be dejected northern youths who have been radicalised out of frustration with excessive government corruption and acute poverty.

Brutal clashes broke out at the weekend in Baga between soldiers and insurgents, during which troops have been accused of firing indiscriminately on civilians and setting fire to much of the town near Lake Chad.

In a statement Wednesday, the National Emergency Management said it had sent “medical and relief assistance” to Baga, following the fighting “in which many lives and property were lost that also led to the displacement of the community.”