The 28 January ceasefire declaration by purported Boko Haram commander Muhammed Abdulazeez Ibn Idris, on behalf of Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau, led to mixed reactions from security analysts in Nigeria. While some welcomed it as a good step towards peace others dismissed it as a ruse.
Since 28 January there have been several kidnapping attempts, an attempted suicide bombing in the northeastern city of Maiduguri, and the killing of polio immunization workers in Kano.
Idris claimed the ceasefire was the outcome of meetings with Borno State government officials at which Boko Haram (BH) demanded the release of hundreds of its members who had been detained by the authorities since June 2009. He linked the call to the level of humanitarian suffering the four-year violence has wrought on women and children.
However, on 20 February, leaflets linked to Shekau were distributed in Maiduguri disassociating him from the ceasefire declaration and vowing to continue deadly attacks, according to military spokesman in Maiduguri Lt-Col Sagir Musa, as well as residents.
Idris had previously made a ceasefire offer to the government on 1 November 2012, based on conditions, including the arrest and prosecution of former Borno governor Ali Modu Sheriff over the killing of sect leader Mohammed Yusuf and sect members during the 2009 BH uprising in Maiduguri when Sheriff was governor.
Idris requested that retired military general and presidential candidate for the All Nigeria’ People’s Party Muhammadu Buhari serve as a negotiator in the talks but Buhari and his party dismissed the request, accusing the ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP) of deliberately using Idris to portray Buhari as a BH sponsor to discredit him politically.
Sources close to BH said Idris was a close ally of Shekau and tried to talk him into accepting dialogue with the government as he became increasingly concerned about the mounting death toll. According to the same sources, Shekau rebuffed him and Idris decided to approach the government unilaterally, hoping that a good deal - including the release of hundreds of detained sect members - might change Shekau’s mind.
"I don't think Abdulazeez [Idris] is representing BH," said Maiduguri-based lawyer Mustapha Zannah, who stood as defence counsel to BH members arrested during the 2009 insurgency. "The group attaches much importance to leadership and a declaration as monumental as a ceasefire would not come from anybody other than Shekau," he said.
BH has consistently called for the implementation of Sharia in email statements to the media as its condition for a ceasefire. "BH always bases its stance on dialogue on Islamic precepts and not on such humanitarian sentiments," Zannah said.
A dozen states in northern Nigeria have adopted Sharia law since 1999, establishing Sharia courts, Sharia police (`Hisbah’), and other Sharia-related agencies. However, the secular national constitution largely overrides Sharia provisions that run contrary to it. Thus BH dismisses Sharia in its current form in the north as cosmetic, insisting Sharia can only be fully implemented under an Islamic state.
On 28 January 2013 Lt Col Sagir Musa, a spokesman for the Joint Task Force (JTF) , a special military unit deployed in Maiduguri to end BH violence, described the ceasefire as a welcome development but said the military would continue to carry out its operations against the Islamist group.
On 30 and 31 January soldiers raided two BH training camps outside Maiduguri, killing 17 sect members and recovering a large cache of weapons. Since then, violence has continued.
On 29 January 2013 Nigeria's Chief of Defence Staff Admiral Ola Sa'id demanded a one month peace guarantee from BH for the government to take the ceasefire seriously.
Sarkin-Yaki Bello, a retired general and head of Nigerian's National Centre for Counter-Terrorism, told a delegation of US military personnel at the Nigerian War College on 18 February that Abubakar Shekau would have to publicly announce a ceasefire for the government to take it seriously. "If Shekau can come out, using his usual medium (YouTube), to renounce violence, the government will be ready for the dialogue."
Kyari Mohammed, a political science professor at Modibbo Adama University of Science and Technology in northeastern city of Yola, who is currently writing a book about the group, argues that a pronouncement by Shekau cannot end the violence. "Even if Shekau comes out and declares a ceasefire there will still be some cells that will not respect it and will continue to fight. It is just a monster that has been created."
BH operates in cells and thus negotiation has to be "piece by piece", said the professor, starting with local cells and extending eventually to the main leaders. Shekau controls the main BH cell but there are others that are semi-autonomous and operate independently in most cases, although they maintain loose ties and carry out joint operations, according to security analysts.
The group has been responsible for deadly bomb and shooting attacks that have killed hundreds since 2009, but criminal gangs have also hidden under the guise of the sect to carry out assassinations, raid banks, bomb police formations and steal weapons.
Previous negotiation attempts have not gone well, with parties on both sides accusing one another of insincerity.
On 17 March 2012 Datti Ahmed, a respected medical doctor-turn-Muslim cleric pulled out of mediation between the sect and the government, citing the government's insincerity after officials leaked details of meetings to the media.
On 22 August 2012 the group pulled out of talks with government representatives in Kaduna following the arrest of one of its senior commanders, Abu Dardaa, whom it had sent for talks. Since August 2011 the government had undertaken “back-channel” talks with the Islamists, according to President Goodluck Jonathan’s spokesman, Reuben Abati.
Kyari Mohammed told IRIN the ceasefire declared by Idris in Maiduguri is "genuine". "It was a local arrangement brokered by the Borno State government which has been working since June 2012," he told IRIN.
Isa Gusau, a spokesman for the Borno State governor, said the government was engaged in talks with Idris's faction of BH that had resulted in the ceasefire declaration. "We are in a desperate situation and an end to the cycle of violence is our priority. We know that we are dealing with a faction of the group [BH] which provides an avenue for broader negotiations and ceasefire with all the other factions within the group to end the violence."
However, some analysts believe the French action in Mali may incline the government to push for a military solution in the north, rather than pursue dialogue.
Splinter group Ansaru
The emergence of Jama'atu Ansarul Muslimina fi Biladissudan, commonly referred to as Ansaru, further complicates potential dialogue with BH.
Ansaru, which is led by Khalid Barnawi, one of three BH leaders on the US government “Global Terror Watchlist”, split off from BH in June 2012.
Security officials are most concerned about Ansaru due to its alleged alliance with Al Qaeda-linked Islamist groups in Mali and north Africa, such as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
Rather than bombings and killings, Ansaru focuses on hostage-taking of foreign nationals, a similar tactic used by AQIM. It allegedly split off from BH because it opposed the number of civilians killed in bombings, calling for more targeted attacks against Westerners.
The group has most recently been implicated in the hostage-taking of a French family of seven in northern Cameroon on 19 February 2013.
Unlike BH, which has domestic grievances, Ansaru has a more global Jihadist agenda, which makes it difficult to dialogue with them on a national level, said Shehu Sani, a civil rights activist who was involved in botched peace talks with BH in September 2011. The group cited France's push for military intervention in Mali and the West's "atrocities against Muslims" as reasons for the 19 December 2012 kidnap of a French national in Katsina State, and the 16 February 2013 kidnap of seven foreigners, including three Westerners, in Bauchi State.
But others argue BH and Ansaru have more or less the same objective of establishing an Islamic state.
The government must pick its battles: it must try to tackle BH first, before facing Ansaru, says Sani. "We can't be fighting many armed groups at the same time."