The man negotiating for the release of the 200 kidnapped schoolgirls in Nigeria, tells Channel 4 News about his frustration over the chaos surrounding efforts to free them.
Stephen Davis, an Anglican clergyman from Western Australia, who has advised three successive Nigerian presidents and brokered a truce with militants in the Niger Delta a decade ago, said he is confident that negotiations with Boko Haram will succeed. He has fostered links with the group over the past eight years.
But Dr Davis has slammed the general handling of the hostage crisis, saying his team had “come within a whisker” of brokering a release three times within the past month, only to have each handover scuppered at the last moment. He, and others we have spoken to, allege that powerful figures with “vested interests” have sought to sabotage a deal.
The 220 missing girls are, Dr Davis believes, being held in three main camps, under different Boko Haram commanders, all of them outside Nigeria’s borders.
“Despite this,” he said, “every indication is positive. But as we get close to a handover, I am sure that there will be interference from some parties who do not want to see an end to the conflict in the north. That will be the most difficult time.”
There are long-standing allegations of senior figures in the military and intelligence services “skimming” money from generous defence budgets designed to fight the worsening insurgency. An adviser to President Goodluck Jonathan has also told Channel 4 News of deep-seated suspicions that Muslim politicians in Nigeria’s restive northern states do not want to see a Christian president from the south succeed in resolving the crisis.
Asked about this in Maiduguri, the governor of Borno State, Kashima Shetima, scoffed at the notion. “The president is surrounded by paranoid advisors,” he told us.
Others, on both sides, are said to simply want to make money. Still others are understood to have some degree of sympathy with the jihadi group’s demands for a “pure” Islamic state under a strict interpretation of Sharia law in northern Nigeria.
“It’s complicated and it all lurches from pillar to post and things don’t get any better for the girls,” said Dr Davis, a former Canon at Coventry Cathedral.
His identity as the President’s unpaid intermediary was revealed by a Nigerian newspaper late last week. This report was picked up by the Sunday Times in the UK and then by the Daily Mail among others.
The Australian cleric, who is a close friend and associate of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Wellby, said the deliberate leaking of his name was “unhelpful” in his efforts to negotiate with rebel commanders.
“The best way to do this is quiet and quick,” Dr Davis told Channel 4 News by telephone on Monday from an undisclosed location in Nigeria. “But this is now loud and long. There are too many players from the two sides. This noise and clutter slows down the process and muddies the water.”
“It has become a very messy affair,” he said.
Dr Davis has been quietly working behind the scenes as the president’s envoy, negotiating with Boko Haram for more than a month. He has undertaken numerous trips to volatile locations in northern Nigeria for face-to-face meetings with Boko Haram commanders. He has been working in conjunction with Aisha Wakil, a Muslim convert with known connections to Boko Haram, who is trusted by senior commanders.
Unlike the soft-spoken Anglican priest, other negotiators have sought the limelight. One, a former Nigerian journalist called Ahmad Salkida, obtained a third video from Boko Haram last week, showing some of the adbucted girls appealing for their release. They reportedly speak about their violent ordeal and one says they have been given insufficient food.
Mr Salkida, who is understood to have shown the video to President Jonathan, is also believed to have tried – unsuccessfully – to sell rights to the footage to international television stations for a substantial, but undisclosed, sum of money. News of this is said to have resulted in his falling out with the Boko Haram commanders with whom he was dealing.
There is little fresh intelligence of the condition of the missing girls, although it appears that the 220 kidnapped from Chibok in mid-April are now being held with possibly hundreds of others abducted from villages across northern Nigeria over many months. “There are many, many, many more than the Chibok girls,” said Dr Davis. “This has been going on for a long time.”
Boko Haram is known to use girls they kidnap as porters and cooks and sex slaves. Those familiar with the group’s practices say that by now the schoolgirls are likely to have been repeatedly raped. Many are likely to be pregnant. It is also thought that many Boko Haram commanders and fighters are HIV-positive.
Antony Goldman, an Africa Analyst and specialist in Nigeria, said: “You have to wonder whether all the international attention focused on the girls’ mass-abduction actually helps or hinders things. You almost get the impression when you see the Daily Mail that it’s ‘girls out, job done.’ The reality is,” he said, “that even if they do get released, Nigeria will be left with just as many problems with Boko Haram as it had before they were lifted.
“This is about systemic failure,” he said. “The problem did not originate with Goodluck Jonathan. It goes way back and there are no easy answers.”
The security crisis created by Boko Haram has escalated rapidly since the extra-judicial killing – in police custody – of the group’s founder, Mohammed Yusuf, in 2009. “Five years ago, no one could ever imagine suicide bombings in Nigeria,” said Mr Goldman.
For Nigeria, he said, this is not just about resolving a kidnap crisis. The sort of atrocities being committed by Boko Haram are not the actions of people who want a way out. These are people who are in too deep.” Mr Goldman is sceptical of those who suggest that factions within the insurgent group want a peace deal.
Last Friday, the Emir of Gwoza, a highly respected traditional ruler was assassinated in eastern Borno state by Boko Haram, while traveling with two other local kings. His killing is thought to have been linked to the President’s declaration on Thursday of “all-out war” on the insurgents.
Borno State Governor Shettima attended the Emir’s funeral on Sunday, travelling in a large convoy, guarded by 150 soldiers and shadowed by a Nigerian air force fighter aircraft