ABUJA — Nigeria's government has reached out to members of Islamist militant group Boko Haram through back-channel talks in a bid to end an insurgency that has killed hundreds, the president's spokesman said Sunday.
"The form of the dialogue is that backroom channels are being used to reach across with the sole objective of understanding what exactly the grievances of these persons are, what exactly can be done to resolve the crises," Reuben Abati told journalists.
He said the effort was being made "in the overall best interest of ensuring peace and stability in Nigeria and the security of life and property."
Abati's comments were the first official government confirmation of back-channel talks with the Islamists, though the information minister has previously signaled some form of dialogue was underway.
They also came on the one-year anniversary of a suicide attack on UN headquarters in the capital Abuja, which killed at least 25 people and marked a sharp escalation in Boko Haram's insurgency.
What is believed to be the main branch of Boko Haram has however repeatedly ruled out dialogue, though the group is believed to have a number of factions with differing aims -- something Abati also spoke about.
Boko Haram is accused of killing more than 1,400 people in northern and central Nigeria since 2010.
The group has continually widened its targets, moving from assassinations to increasingly sophisticated bombings. Boko Haram members are believed to have received training from Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in northern Mali.
While Muslims have often been its victims, it has recently specifically targeted churches, and President Goodluck Jonathan has accused the group of seeking to incite a religious crisis in a country roughly divided between a mainly Muslim north and predominately Christian south.
The group has pressed for the creation of an Islamic state in Africa's most populous country and biggest oil producer, though its demands have repeatedly shifted.
A previous attempt at dialogue earlier this year collapsed when a mediator quit over leaks to the media and a purported Boko Haram spokesman said the government could not be trusted.
Nigeria's recently appointed National Security Adviser Sambo Dasuki, a prominent figure in the country's north, has spoken of dialogue through local institutions, including religious leaders.
Heavy-handed military raids have so far failed to stop the Islamist attacks, and in some cases have provoked anger and fear among the civilian population, with the army accused of major abuses.
Abati said the president intended to employ other options in addition to the use of the military and police.
Describing the strategy, he said, "there would be leaders in these communities, in these villages, in these towns, who may have an idea and such persons needed to be carried along to assist in addressing the Boko Haram issue.
"When government adopts this approach, it does not mean government is abdicating its responsibility to ensure that persons who go against the law are sanctioned."
Photo AFP/File, Pius Utomi Ekpei