Boko Haram talks in doubt as mediator quits

ABUJA (Reuters) - A Muslim cleric brokering peace talks between Nigeria’s government and Islamist militant group Boko Haram said on Sunday he was quitting the negotiations because he doubted the government’s sincerity after information was leaked.

Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan gestures during an interview with Reuters at the Presidential Villa in Abuja January 26, 2012. REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde

The departure of Datti Ahmed, a former close ally of Boko Haram’s founder, could be a major blow for the discussions which were only in their early stages.

The talks were aimed at ending months of bomb and gun attacks by Boko Haram that killed hundreds, mostly in the majority Muslim north of Africa’s top oil producer. The group has said it wants to impose Islamic sharia law across a country split equally between Christians and Muslims.

Political and diplomatic sources told Reuters on Thursday people close to Boko Haram had been carrying messages back and forth between the sect’s self-proclaimed leader Abubakar Shekau and government officials.

Ahmed said on Sunday he had been in touch with senior officials from the government and Boko Haram, which had been ready to discuss a reconciliation.

But he had now decided to pull out of the process after details of the discussions appeared in the Nigerian media. He did not say who he thought had leaked the information.

“This development has embarrassed us very much and has created strong doubts in our minds about the sincerity of the government’s side in our discussion, as the discussion is supposed to be very confidential to achieve any success,” he said in a statement.

“In view of this unfortunate and unhelpful development, we have no option but to withdraw from these early discussions.”

Ahmed is the President of the Supreme Council for Sharia, a group Boko Haram’s founder Yusuf was also in before he was killed in police custody in 2009, triggering a widespread violent uprising by the sect.

Ahmed said he and a colleague had met with Nigerian government officials at the “highest level” on March 5 and “a high-ranking civilian officer” was appointed to liaise with them towards a successful resolution of the crisis.

“We contacted the leadership of the sect and established from them that they were prepared to consider “Sulhu” which means “broad reconciliation” regarding the dispute between them and the government,” Ahmed said in a statement on Sunday.

No one from Nigeria’s government, which has not confirmed talks are taking place, was immediately available to comment on Sunday.

Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan told Reuters in January that the government was open to dialogue but said sect members were hidden and therefore direct talks were unlikely.

Boko Haram’s self-proclaimed leader Abubakar Shekau has not said the group was interested in dialogue in his videos posted online and neither has the group’s spokesman, Abu Qaqa, who holds sporadic telephone interviews with local media in the sect’s heartland of Maiduguri.

But they have not ruled them out completely either.

Recent arrests and deaths of senior figures have weakened the group, analysts say.

The group has not managed to launch a widescale, coordinated attack since one in Kano that killed 186 people in January, reverting to crude bomb attacks and drive by shootings.

Boko Haram’s factional nature means it will be difficult to negotiate any ceasefire deal with all elements.

Editing by Tim Cocks