By Dipesh Gadher and Miles Amoore –
A FRIEND of the Archbishop of Canterbury has been working secretly to help to free the Nigerian schoolgirls who have been kidnapped by Boko Haram extremists.
Stephen Davis, a former canon at Coventry Cathedral, is said to have held face-to-face talks with a senior commander of the group after travelling to its stronghold and sleeping out in the bush.
Davis told The Sunday Times that he has been in Nigeria for almost a month after being recruited by the country’s president for his hostage negotiation expertise.
He previously worked in Nigeria with Justin Welby, head of the Anglican Church, to broker a truce between violent rebels and the government. The pair were frequently blindfolded and held at gunpoint during their work.
Davis’s latest efforts as an intermediary follow calls by Welby for discussions with Boko Haram despite the “utterly merciless” tactics of the group, which is linked to al-Qaeda.
The plight of the schoolgirls will be highlighted next week at an international summit in London on rape in war zones. It will be hosted by the actress Angelina Jolie and William Hague, the foreign secretary.
President Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria is one of the most senior delegates to be invited to the four-day conference which boldly aims to end sexual violence in conflicts across the globe.
More than 200 girls, aged 16 to 18, were abducted from their secondary school in the northern Nigerian town of Chibok in mid-April.
Abubakar Shekau, Boko Haram’s leader, has described the girls as “slaves” and threatened to marry them off or to “sell them in the markets”.
Davis — who is thought to be reporting directly to the president’s office — confirmed this weekend that the girls have been split into several groups, making any military rescue “highly improbable”. He indicated, however, that they all remain in Nigeria — most likely in the remote Sambisa forest — contrary to reports saying they had been smuggled into neighbouring countries.
Davis’s disclosures suggest the girls’ freedom may depend on a swap with Boko Haram prisoners, a move that Jonathan has publicly ruled out.
“This is a long process of building trust on both sides,” said Davis in an email exchange. “There are several groups to deal with as the girls are held in several camps. This makes any thought of a rescue highly improbable.”
Davis added: “I have been to forward military positions in the northeast of Nigeria and believe [government] troops and their field commanders are doing all that can be done at this point.
“The wellbeing of the girls is constantly on our minds and we want to see their release as soon as possible. But we must not endanger their lives any further.”
Davis said he was “not sure” if Welby was aware of his negotiating role, adding: “He retains a strong interest in Nigeria and I understand he has been following this matter.”
Davis’s contacts include Aisha Wakil, a Nigerian lawyer and convert to Islam who is said to have a “maternal influence” over Boko Haram’s leadership.
Wakil said she and Davis met a senior commander of the group last month after going in search of the girls: “We slept in the bush. It’s very dangerous work but someone has to do it.”
She said Davis has managed to win the extremists’ trust: “They are very free with him. He knows how to talk to them. I am just asking them to release the girls. I am appealing to their conscience. I do not know what they want exactly. They say different things. The main thing they say is a prisoner swap.”
Welby’s friendship with Davis, who lives in Australia, goes back to 2002 when they were both canons at Coventry Cathedral and worked together on an international reconciliation initiative.
They spent two years in the Niger Delta negotiating an amnesty between the Nigerian government and armed rebels who frequently kidnapped staff at western oil giants.
Welby, who worked as an oil executive before joining the church, said last month that negotiating with Boko Haram “is extremely complicated, though it needs to be tried”.
Footage released by the group showed many of the abducted schoolgirls dressed in Islamic robes and reciting the Koran, suggesting they may have been forced to convert to the religion.
Nigeria recently signed a United Nations declaration — launched by Hague in 2013 — which commits countries to end the use of rape and sexual violence as a “weapon of war”.
Almost 150 nations have signed the declaration, although notable exceptions include China, India and Sudan. Non-signatories have been barred from the London summit, which will run at the Excel centre in east London from June 10-13.
The conference will place special emphasis on child victims, with a full day devoted to youth engagement.
The summit will be chaired by Hague and Jolie, who has six children with Brad Pitt, the actor. It will propose new guidelines for evidence gathering and investigation to help bring more perpetrators to justice. Countries will sign up to a protocol to adopt the measures and pledge more support for victims.
Additional reporting: Grant Hodgson