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Nigeria hopes 'deal' with Boko Haram improves image

21 October 2014, 15:09

Lagos - Nigeria's disputed claim to have brokered a ceasefire agreement with Boko Haram and release deal for more than 200 kidnapped schoolgirls was aimed at improving the country's tarnished reputation abroad and little to do with domestic politics, analysts say.

The surprise announcement on Friday created a sliver of hope that the brutal five-year Islamist uprising could be nearing an end and that the girls seized from the northeast town of Chibok of April 14 might rejoin their families.

There are already strong signs that the deal will prove hollow: violence raged through the weekend and the credentials of the so-called Boko Haram negotiator have been widely questioned.

But even before cracks emerged in the purported ceasefire, many saw a clear political motive in the timing of the announcement.

A common theory ran that President Goodluck Jonathan would use the development to proclaim himself a tireless pursuer of peace, then swiftly declare his re-election plans for polls next February.

But that misreads the realities of Nigerian politics, a nation of 170 million people where a government's record on major issues often seems irrelevant on election day, analysts said.

"I really wonder if ending the Chibok crisis helps Jonathan politically," said John Campbell, a former US ambassador to Nigeria now with the Council on Foreign Relations think-tank.

The Chibok crisis is "a much bigger issue outside Nigeria than inside Nigeria" he told AFP.

For Osisioma Nwolise, a political science professor at the southern University of Ibadan, the Boko Haram conflict is a marginal campaign issue at best.

Nwolise said the numbers voting on the issue of Boko Haram is likely to be small, despite the several million people in the mainly Muslim north who have been directly affected by the violence.

Residents of the embattled northeast for example have been frequently left defenceless by the military against horrific Boko Haram raids.

Jonathan's popularity in region, which was never high, is now likely to be at an all-time low.

But Campbell agreed that the conflict and the fate of the schoolgirls is unlikely to impact the president's re-election prospects.

Elections in Nigeria are not issue-based but determined by factors including the ability of the ruling Peoples Democratic Party to use the money and power of incumbency to steer the vote in its favour, he added.

The ceasefire and hostage release announcement came with a massive risk of failure, largely because all past negotiations with Boko Haram have collapsed.

Read also: Nigeria declared Ebola-free; 'spectacular success'

Campbell suggested that those wondering why Nigeria would "go down this road", might do well to look to the international oil market.

"When I was ambassador, the United States imported a million barrels of Nigerian oil a day. Now it is zero," he said.

Increased US oil production is the main reason for this and Nigeria, Africa's top oil producer, still has willing buyers for its crude.

But Campbell argued that Abuja may be anxious to make Jonathan "a more attractive figure" to ensure that Nigeria remains a viable trading partner for the West.

Jonathan's handling of Boko Haram and the Chibok crisis in particular has been pilloried abroad.

He hardly said a word about the kidnappings in the weeks following the attack and critics say his response showed a lack of compassion from the outset.

The government only moved to respond after a global social media campaign calling for the girls' release went viral, attracting the support of celebrities and US First Lady Michelle Obama.

Making dramatic moves now to secure the girls' freedom -- possibly including a swap for Boko Haram detainees -- could be in Nigeria's long-term financial interest, the ex-ambassador said.

For Adewale Maja-Pearce, who writes a Nigeria column for the New York Times, Jonathan has clearly become increasingly pre-occupied with his reputation abroad.

He pointed to the $1.2-million (940,000-euro) contract with the US public relations firm Levick signed when outrage over the Chibok crisis was at its height.

And, Maja-Pearce argued, if despite the announced deal the girls still do not return home, Jonathan will be no worse off.

"I think he believes that bringing back the Chibok girls will help him internationally but not bringing back the Chibok girls won't hurt him," he said.

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