Attempts by the Nigerian government and the Boko Haram militia to peacefully resolve a three-year-old insurgency by the Islamist group have thus far floundered, dashing hopes of an imminent end to the violence which has claimed hundreds of lives.
Rights groups have accused both sides of violations since 2009. In recent months, Boko Haram has intensified attacks and killings, prompting sometimes draconian responses from security forces. The latest insurgent attack on 25 November in which more than a dozen people were killed targeted a church in an army base outside Kaduna in northern Nigeria.
After a year of negotiation bids between the government and Boko Haram, President Goodluck Jonathan said in a televised interview in November that he was still ready for talks, though there were difficulties. "There is no dialogue with Boko Haram and the government. There is no dialogue that is going on anywhere. There is no face so you don't have anybody to discuss with."
However, Shehu Sani, the director of Civil Rights Congress, a prominent northern Nigerian rights group, doubted Jonathan's suggestion that Boko Haram was faceless. "What about the hundreds of suspected sect members the Nigerian security forces claim to have arrested? Do they also have no face?"
Since August 2011, the government has undertaken "back-channel" talks with the Islamists, according to Jonathan's spokesman, Reuben Abati, based on recommendations by a panel tasked to negotiate with the group and provide amnesty for those who renounce violence.
On 16 September 2011, former president Olusegun Obasanjo held talks with some Boko Haram members in their birthplace and stronghold, the northeastern city of Maiduguri, where they tabled demands for a ceasefire which included an end to arrests and killings of their members, payment of compensation to families of sect members killed by security personnel, and prosecution of policemen responsible for the killing of sect leader Mohammed Yusuf in June 2009.
"Obasanjo submitted these demands to the president who promised to look into them but he has not implemented any of the demands," said Sani, who facilitated and participated in the meeting between Obasanjo and the Boko Haram members.
But since then, trust has not been forged on either side. "The major obstacle to dialogue with Boko Haram is the involvement of scammers," added Sani.
"Most of the proposals for dialogue are targeted at getting money from the government and the president has on a number of occasions been duped and deceived by people in the corridors of power who usually present fictitious peace proposal that ends up as a scam."
Who to deal with?
Boko Haram has splintered into many factions. The major faction is led by Abubakar Shekau and analysts believe that there are chances of ending the violence if the government is able to negotiate with him. Boko Haram is also thought to have links with other Islamist movements such as Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Somalia's Al-Shabab which have further radicalized some members who are now loath to compromise.
Several individuals have also claimed to be speaking on behalf of the group, but they have been disowned by the sect. In August, a purported deputy of Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau gave a radio interview in which he claimed the sect had had preliminary peace talks with Nigerian Vice-President Namadi Sambo in Saudi Arabia, only for the group to issue a statement two days later rejecting the claim and disowning him as an impostor.
In June, a respected Nigerian Muslim cleric Dahiru Usman Bauchi issued a statement saying that Boko Haram and the Nigerian government had chosen him as a peace negotiator. Boko Haram spokesman Abul Qaqa rejected the claim.
Criminal gangs have also been hiding under Boko Haram, said Bawa Abdullahi Wase, a criminologist and rapporteur at the UN Department of Safety and Security (UNDSS).
"Killings and armed robbery are becoming a way of life and more and more unemployed young men are drawn to it. All a criminal needs are a gun and explosives to give his crime a Boko Haram touch," he told IRIN. "If the government doesn't end these Boko Haram attacks by negotiating with the sect, the situation will become too complex for the government to know who to deal with because it will become too difficult to discern between the sect and impostors."
Boko Haram has for its part accused the Nigerian government of insincerity in its call for dialogue. In January, the State Security Service (Nigerian secret police) announced that it had arrested Boko Haram's spokesman in Kaduna and identified him as Abul Qaqa. However, the group, which gave the name of the arrested sect member as Abu Dardaa, denied that Qaqa had been arrested.
“The arrest of Abu Dardaa is an outright deception and betrayal by the Nigerian government and security agents. They proclaimed dialogue and are doing the opposite. His arrest has proven to us that they were waiting for us to avail ourselves so that they can arrest us,” said Qaqa in a statement.
Ibrahim Datti Ahmed, a respected cleric who was acting as intermediary between Boko Haram and the Nigerian government, said in March he was quitting his role, accusing the government of insincerity.
Security services, southerners exploiting situation?
Some observers say the ongoing violence is in the interests both of the security services and of southern politicians who benefit from an unstable north that is unable to prepare ahead of the 2015 elections.
The security budget jumped from 100 billion naira ($634 million) in 2010 to 927 billion naira ($5.8 billion) in 2011, much of it linked to the fight against Boko Haram.
“Some political office holders sent to dialogue with Boko Haram have turned the situation into a goldmine and are themselves involved in fanning the violence,” UNDSS's Wase said.
Lt-Col Sagir Musa, spokesman for the Joint Task Force (JTF), the military unit fighting Boko Haram in Maiduguri, dismissed such allegations.
“This situation does no one any good. We want an end to this insecurity so that we will go back to our barracks and face our primary duty of soldiering. We support dialogue but that doesn't mean we should abdicate our mandate of tackling the terrorist menace and restoring peace. While politicians deal with the issue of dialogue, we carry on with our responsibility.”
While divisions within the sect pose complications, they do not present an obstacle if the government is serious about negotiations, said Wase. “The Niger-Delta militants were split into 32 groups with different commanders but still the government was able to bring them to table and reached peace pact with them which ended militancy in the delta. It can do same with Boko Haram if it wants to.”
The first thing to do is to reach out to the moderates, noted Sani, to either attract or isolate the extremists. He suggested the government should reach out to other Muslim clerics who can engage the Islamists intellectually to deconstruct their radical views about Islam.
"The government should work towards winning the confidence of the sect by implementing some of the demands the sect members presented to the government, including the release of detained sect members and the payment of compensation to the families of those killed in the security crackdowns. This will demonstrate to the sect that the government is sincere about dialogue."