ABUJA - Signaling an apparent shift in their relations with the radical Islamist group Boko Haram, Nigerian security services said they were considering direct contact with moderate members of the group via back channels to end years of bloodshed.
"Even if government has a policy saying that there's no negotiation, that you can't reach out to Boko Haram, intelligence must find a way," National Security Adviser General Owoye Andrew Azazi told Reuters on Friday, December 30.
"I don't think it's everybody (in Boko Haram) who believes in the level of violence ... That's why you could have other channels for discussion ... It's something we could pursue."
The new decision was announced a day after emergency meetings with Goodluck Jonathan and top security officials in response to a spate of deadly Christmas Day bombings.
The responsibility of the attacks, which killed 37 victims and wounded 57, was claimed by Boko Haram.
Azazi said that officials were looking at broadening efforts beyond pure security measures, including addressing northern economic grievances.
His comments signal an apparent shift from treating Boko Haram purely as a security issue that needs to be tackled militarily.
Jonathan has been criticized for ignoring political avenues that might heal the north-south rift partly underpinning the conflict.
Yet, Azazi declined to comment on whether contact with moderate members of Boko Haram had already been made.
"From our perspective, you try back channels,'" he said.
And when you are trying back channels, that's not when the president will come and announce to the whole of Nigeria that 'I'm talking to mister A or mister B.
Nigeria, one of the world's most religiously committed nations, is divided between a Muslim north and a Christian south.
Muslims and Christians, who constitute 55 and 40 percent of Nigeria's 140 million population respectively, have lived in peace for the most part.
But ethnic and religious tensions have bubbled for years, fuelled by decades of resentment between indigenous groups, mostly Christian or animist, who are vying for control of fertile farmlands with migrants and settlers from the Hausa-speaking Muslim north.
The tensions are rooted in decades of resentment between indigenous groups, mostly Christian or animist, who are vying for control of fertile farmlands and for economic and political power with mostly Muslim migrants and settlers from the north.
No Direct Talks
The National Security Adviser ruled out explicit negotiations with Boko Haram of the type that ended the conflict in the oil-rich Niger Delta last year.
"For now, Boko Haram is an invisible enemy. You don't have an identifiable person you can talk to," he said.
By contrast, in the Niger Delta conflict, "at any time the government wanted a meeting, he rang them and said we'll come and talk. But nobody has come out openly and said 'we're Boko Haram'."
Boko Haram, whose name means "Western education is sinful" in the northern Hausa language, has been blamed for a campaign of shootings and bombings against security forces and authorities in the north since 2009.
The radical group has been blamed for dozens of bombings and shootings in the north, and has claimed responsibility for two bombings in Abuja this year.
Last Christmas Eve, a series of bomb blasts in ethnically and religiously mixed central Nigeria killed 32 people, and other people died in attacks on two churches in the northeast of Africa's most populous nation.
Though firmly rooted in radical ideology, analysts say the anger on which it draws, especially amongst unemployed youths, has a lot to do with northern grievances about perceived alienation from oil riches concentrated in the south.
Azazi said other measures discussed with the president on Thursday included efforts to address those grievances.
"The president strongly believes that his economic plans will bring productivity to (northern) areas, especially focusing on agriculture. In the north, most people are farmers," he said.
"Someone who is gainfully employed is less likely to join (Boko Haram). They say Western education is taboo.
If you go to school and you can't get employed, you'll not see the value in education.