The man who talks to Boko Haram
One year after the kidnaping of 232 Nigerian girls, Australian Stephen Davis still says his contacts indicate government complicity.
A year ago April 14, Boko Haram kidnapped 275 girls from the government secondary school in the Christian-dominated town of Chibok, Borno State.
Students reported to the Chibok Government Secondary Boarding School on Sunday, April 13, to take an exam on Tuesday morning, April 15, despite the fact that the government had closed schools across the state because it could not offer protection. At about 11pm armed Boko Haram insurgents broke into the school. They burned the administration block and classrooms. Dressed in military uniforms, they told the girls that Chibok was under attack but that they were there to protect them. The girls believed them and obeyed their orders to mount the vehicles outside. Forty three girls escaped, some during the attack at the school; others during the journey to a camp in the Sambisa forest, where the captive girls were initially kept.
One year on, the 232 girls taken that night from Chibok remain in rebel custody. It is not clear where they are being held or what circumstances they had been facing this past year. The first of the babies born to the girls since their captivity arrived in mid-February this year. Four girls who managed to escape after their arrival at the Boko Haram camp reported that they were raped almost on a daily basis. They said those who did not cooperate with the rebels faced severe punishment. Some other girls who were captured before the Chibok girls, and who managed to escape after varying time in captivity, said some girls were killed because they would not renounce their Christian faith.
The Nigerian Government has been under harsh criticism for its handling of the crisis. Critics say it has not done enough to secure the girls’ release or to support their families.
In May last year, news surfaced that an Australian, Stephen Davis, had been negotiating behind the scenes for the release of the girls. Although he secured an agreement to win the release of about 60 girls, the exchange was compromised. In October, there was another glimmer of hope when the government announced it had reached an agreement for the release of the girls. But just as the news broke, fighting intensified and a person claiming to be the leader of the group, Abubakar Shekau, whom the military previously had announced was dead, declared in a video released to media there was no deal. “War is what we want,” the speaker said.
Dr Stephen Davis, the Australian who had been involved in the negotiations for the release of the Chibok girls, served as Director at the International Centre for Peace and Reconciliation at Coventry Cathedral in the U.K. in 2005 and 2006. Davis also served as an advisor to two Nigerian presidents: Olusegun Obasanjo, and Umaru Musa Yar’Adua.
Davis became involved in the negotiations because of his recent history of interaction with the forerunner of Boko Haram, Jama’atu Ahlul Sunnah Lih Da’awa Wal Jihad. He was confident from telephone conversations he had with contacts in the group soon after the kidnapping that there was a good chance of securing the release of some, if not all, the kidnapped girls. “I arrived in Nigeria on 03 May 2014 for the specific and only purpose of securing the release of the Chibok girls,” he said.
Although he enjoyed logistical support from the Nigerian presidency, he received no payment for his negotiations for the release of the girls and was never formally contracted.
“Soon after arrival in Nigeria and discussions with the Presidency I travelled to Borno State in the north east by military aircraft provided through the Presidency,” Davis said. “As the visit was to be discreet, it was decided that I would be met at the military airbase by a civilian and travel in a private vehicle. Over subsequent days I met with the head of the Maiduguri University Teaching Hospital who was cooperative in providing medical team support for any kidnapped girls who might be handed over.”
Davis learned that the majority of the girls were not held in Nigeria, but in camps in Cameroon, Chad and Niger. A small group was confirmed to be in Nigeria, ready to be handed over.
Around the same time, Davis received a phone call from a young man named Idris, who claimed to have been kidnapped by Boko Haram and forced to drive vehicles during their attacks. “Over subsequent weeks and many interactions by phone, we arranged a vehicle to assist Idris to escape and bring with him four girls who had been kidnapped in Chibok. The girls managed to escape, but Idris, and the driver we sent to pick them up, were apparently killed by Boko Haram,” Davis said.
“The girls escaped (from Cameroon) by walking west to follow the setting sun each evening, knowing that would eventually lead them to Nigeria. After several weeks, they arrived at a village on the Nigerian side of the border and through a local pastor they were reunited with their families.”
When news of his involvement in the negotiations was leaked to the media, Davis expressed disappointment and said it was not helpful to the negotiations. “This noise and clutter slows down the process, and muddies the water.”
Davis said he came close to brokering a release three other times, only to have each handover ruined at the last moment. In one episode, he told World Watch Monitor, “we had set out on a trip to receive a group of Chibok girls who were to be handed over at the village of Kirenowa near the northern border with Niger. At New Marte we picked up a military escort and continued to Kirenowa.”
Fifteen minutes before the exchange was to happen, another group kidnapped the girls to try and cash in on the several million Naira reward the police had announced just 24 hours before. Shortly afterward, Boko Haram attacked Kirenowa, wiping out the military barracks. They also took New Marte and Dikwa, both large towns with substantial military presence.
Taking on the sponsors
Davis became aware that powerful figures with “vested interests” were sabotaging his efforts to reach a deal. “While I was making efforts to secure the release of the girls, I realised that if I got 30 or 40 girls out, the political backers of the group would have the militants kidnap another 60 to replace them and a further 100 villagers would likely die in the process. I became very frustrated. The backers threatened that any commander of the group who agreed to participate in any peace dialogue or handover of girls would be slaughtered by other commanders.”
Davis implicated former Borno State Governor, Modu Sheriff in funding the group for political gains. In addition, he accused former National Security Adviser Andrew Azazi of pocketing money from generous defence budgets designed to fight the insurgency. He also said a senior Central Bank of Nigeria official has provided an official channel by which to supply a Boko Haram agent in Egypt with funds to buy weapons and military uniforms.
“In short, the sponsors of Boko Haram clearly want to show that a Christian President cannot overcome the current insecurity caused by Muslim extremists,” Davis said.
Davis has concluded that the first step in defeating the highly radicalised and increasingly organised Boko Haram is to arrest the sponsors, cut off arms supplies and communications, and isolate them geographically. In a previous interview with World Watch Monitor, he had said commanders of the political arm of Boko Haram were tired of the ritualistic bloodletting, and that once the sponsors’ influence has been removed, these leaders would be ready to negotiate an end to the insurgency. As long as the sponsors are in the picture, he said, no negotiation would take place.
Observers have described Nigeria as a country with one of the most complex political landscapes in the world. Members of the same political parties fight each other in partisan wars that are fuelled by a culture of extreme corruption. The country ranks as the 38th most corrupt nation among the 136 listed on the 2014 world corruption index. Though Davis was not the first to accuse Nigerian politicians of supporting Boko Haram, his detailed allegations created enormous media attention.
In Nigeria there was a chorus of support for Davis including calls for formal investigations into Sheriff.
And in January, the UK-based news website Nigerian Watch reported that Davis’ allegations regarding Sheriff had prompted the People’s Democratic Party, or PDP, to drop him as its senatorial. “Apparently concerned by the implications of fielding Alhaji Sheriff as a candidate, the PDP has removed his name from the list of candidates submitted to the Independent National Electoral Commission,” Nigerian Watch reported. “He has been replaced with the little-known Muhammad Baba Kachalla, 49, who is the official PDP candidate for the Borno Central senatorial district.”
At the same time, corners of Nigeria’s media speculated Davis was somehow plotting with Boko Haram and that his revelations were an attempt to discredit President Goodluck Jonathan.
Although State Security Services, or SSS, said Sept. 5 it would investigate the fresh accusation against Sheriff, having already invited him for questioning in the past, it instead started arresting people associated with Davis.
The SSS have arrested workers of a charity called the Shehuri North Community Development and Youth Empowerment Association in the Borno state capital, Maiduguri, and have been holding them without formal charges since October. This group has been locating girls who have escaped from Boko Haram camps, providing them food, connecting them to medical care and verifying their stories in order that the President’s Victim Support Fund might provide ongoing support and trauma counselling.
The SSS also arrested Junaidu Idris, a resident of Maiduguri and a Kanuri speaker, who had previously helped Davis in peace discussions. Needing a Kanuri speaker, Davis asked Idris to accompany him on the trip to Borno for the planned hand-over of the girls. “The SSS has arrested Junaidu for providing such support to efforts to return kidnapped girls to their families,” Davis said.
“He, too, has been held without charge and without access to legal counsel.”
Davis said the arrests are an “expected strong response from powerful and wealthy people who have a lot to lose.” Davis also asserted that any confessions made by those arrested have been made under threat.
Now almost a year after making his allegations public, Davis told WWM that, despite the media criticism and the arrest and extrajudicial detention of people associated with him, he stands by his assertion.
“I have learned years ago as an expert witness that the guy on the other side’s job is to destroy your credibility,” he said. “They spend all their time destroying your credibility, so they do not have to contend with your evidence… They will marshal all of their forces to try to discredit you because they will not address the issue, the facts, the evidence.
“If you worry about defending your reputation you are back fighting where they are comfortable and they have strength,” he said. “Jesus didn’t do this. The New Testament is not full of Jesus walking around justifying himself. He carried on with the work.”
Have the difficulties caused him to rethink the wisdom of taking on the politicians?
“For me it is a non-question,” he said, “because if you have sought the Lord before you have gone into it, it is irrelevant whether you see or don’t see a result. You do it in good faith that this is what the Lord wanted you to do and that He will provide the ways, the means and the strength to do it.”
Davis said he maintains contact with factions within Boko Haram. Recently he received a message from one of his contacts in the group which read: “Moving a large number of girls across the border from Nigeria into Niger”. When Davis asked why, the source replied: “The contract is almost over”.
Davis said he understands the statement to mean that when the Nigerian presidential election is held March 28, the contract to hold the girls will expire.
“A contract! This proves yet again that politicians are paying money to create this sort of mayhem – paying to have people slaughtered!” Davis exclaimed. “This is terrible! These guys are getting paid to go and slaughter tens of thousands of people.”
Davis continues to call on international authorities to formally investigate Sheriff.
Davis also said the media play into the hands of the terrorists by redistributing videos captured during raids, and called for a campaign to ensure social media platforms and news media do not host or distribute Boko Haram propaganda.
“They took 150 mostly non-Muslim hostages from a village shortly before Christmas,” he said. “Boko Haram decided they no longer wanted these hostages, so they told the hostages to lie face down on the ground, and then executed every one … and they filmed it.”
The footage ended up on some major media outlets.
“Ten years ago, Boko Haram’s minimum expectation was to provoke a reaction by way of notoriety,” Davis said. “This served to attract more recruits and helped to bind the group tighter together. As they became more radical, Boko Haram found the media, and in particular the new opportunities opened up by social media, to be a useful tool. The growing sophistication of their strategy, and their ability to exploit the world’s media, challenges the traditional media in ways that it has not yet found an answer to.
“The world’s media – denied any real access to these conflicts, where Western journalists have been beheaded along with other Westerners — are starved of dramatic footage. In the world’s media the terrorists have the most efficient distribution network for their propaganda.
“The terrorists are delighted that the world’s media show these terrorist ‘victories,’ which intimidates the general population and attracts more recruits. We should not give them the notoriety they crave. The media can responsibly report without the need for publicising the shocking acts of murder, rape and genocide. This is a matter that needs our urgent attention,” he said.
A critical part of the strategy to defeat terrorist groups like Boko Haram and the self-proclaimed Islamic State, Davis said, should be to isolate them from media outlets and to take down all content that could sustain and perpetuate terrorist activities. Media who resist should be punished, he said.
“People should write to their members of parliament to ask for terrorist-generated propaganda to be banned from the internet. It is very clear from research and from history that if you close down the channel, you close down the organization. The correlations are very high. We should be simply choking off terrorist access to media, and politicians have the power to do this. It should be handled the same way as paedophilia is handled,” he told World Watch Monitor.
Even as he advocates for a media blackout on Boko Haram atrocities, Davis said the worldwide Church must make more noise about it.
“I have visited many villages and towns attacked by Boko Haram. I have seen first-hand the devastation and talked to families in the attacks. These are tragic stories of loss of life, slaughter, rape and the worst abuses of human life one can imagine,” he said.
“The Christian churches and congregations around Gwoza on the Cameroon-Nigeria border have been decimated, with many congregations killed in their churches.” Davis said he asked the local Bishop how many people were killed in the most recent attack on Gwoza, and the bishop replied, “We have yet to see any living.” And there have been several other attacks on Gwoza.
In a recent report about the impact of the violence on the Anglican Church in Nigeria’s northeast, Archbishop Benjamin Kwashi said the effects of the displacement, attacks, destruction and violence perpetrated on the Church is unquantifiable. Archbishop Kwashi says one of the groups that has suffered severely is the EYN Church of the Brethren, whose “entire denomination of nearly 2 million membership has been uprooted.”
By the count of the Archbishop, the Anglican Church in Nigeria has lost 60 churches in its province covering the northeast. In one area, 36 of 42 churches have been lost.
Davis pointed out that “the report relates to the Anglican Church only. Keep in mind that there are at least as many Catholic Churches in that area and at least three or four times the number of Pentecostal Churches that would be affected in similar ways.”
“People in the north of Nigeria face unbelievable hardship. Some women walk all day to get a bucket of muddy water. People are thin as rakes because there is not enough food. You wonder what the future holds for a child born there. But they go on. There is hope and a desire to live. They don’t despair. Those who have the least in Nigeria are not the ones who despair over their general living conditions, the lack of water and the lack of food… It is the war and terror that causes them despair,” Davis said.
“These Christians feel abandoned by their brothers and sisters and the rest of the world. They are asking, ‘Why aren’t we hearing from them? Why aren’t they trying to help us? Why aren’t they trying to stop this?’ When word seeps through that congregations in the West are praying for the situation of Christians under attack in Nigeria’s northeast, they weep to know they are being held up in prayer.”
“More must be done to support the Church in the northeast,” he said, “and to get word to these Christians that they are being prayed for.”