A man claiming to be a commander of the Nigerian Islamist sect Boko Haram, blamed for more than 700 deaths last year, has said a ceasefire by the group was imminent. His announcement is being treated with caution.
Sheikh Mohammed Abdulaziz described himself to journalists in Maiduguri in northern Nigeria on Monday as second-in-command to Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau and said there would be a ceasefire as the local government had promised to release some sect members.
Abdulaziz said he and his men had met twice with government officials from Borno state and had agreed that "government security officials can go ahead and arrest whoever they find carrying arms or killing under our name."
Then came the reference to the ceasefire. "We therefore call on all those that identify themselves with us and our course to lay down their arms from today," Abdulaziz said.
He spoke to the press for ten minutes but refused to be photographed or filmed. Borno state spokesman Isa Gusau, speaking later with journalists, did not say whether Abdulaziz had held any talks with government officials. Gusau said merely the government had been "exploring different ways to establish some means of negotiation."
It was unclear if Abdulaziz really was speaking on behalf of Shekau, or whether he represents a rival faction within Boko Haram. Shekau has neither confirmed nor denounced the remarks made by Abdulaziz.
Shekau denied claims by the Nigerian government that behind-the-scenes talks were being held in October of last year, but has remained silent since Abdulaziz allegedly made contact with the press in November. A man with a voice similar to Abdulaziz told journalists in a telephone conference Boko Haram was willing to enter into peace talks if they were held in Saudi Arabia and involved the former Nigerian military ruler Muhammadu Buhari. But Buhari refused to take part and no talks took place. Abdulaziz declined to answer questions on Monday as whether he was the same man who had spoken to journalists in the past.
Warning to French citizens
The timing of the alleged ceasefire would seem odd because Nigeria is engaged in military efforts to dislodge Islamists in Mali with whom Boko Haram are known to have links. Nigeria's participation in Mali was expected to provoke a violent backlash from Boko Haram.
In a related development, the French consulate in Nigeria has warned its citizens against travelling to the north of the country. An advisory referring to the intervention in Mali, in which French troops are involved, spoke of "Nigerian terrorist groups" that had issued "direct threats against France and French citizens."
On Tuesday security forces in northern Nigeria welcomed the announcement of a ceasefire, but said they would not lower their guard. Lieutenant Colonel Sagir Musa, spokesman for the joint military and police forces (JFT) in Borno state, said conflicts were resolved through dialogue. "Hence the declaration of a ceasefire by the sect's leader is a welcome development," he said.
Boko Haram has been attacking government buildings and security forces heavily over the last year and a half. In 2012 the group was blamed for killing 792 people, despite an increased security presence ordered by the Nigerian central government.
A Human Rights Watch report in October 2012 accused the Nigerian security forces and Boko Haram of probably having committed crimes against humanity during their fighting. Amnesty International made a similar claim in a report released on Thursday and alleged that the Nigerian government is holding hundreds of suspects illegally in inhumane conditions.