A feared Islamic sect responsible for a recent federal prison break and targeted killings in northern Nigeria has demanded an amnesty offer from the government to stop the violence.
The communication from the Boko Haram sect said the group wanted a deal similar to one made to militants in Nigeria's restive and oil-rich southern delta last year that slowed attacks there. However, such a demand could exploit regional and religious tensions that run through Africa's most populous nation and put new pressures on its Christian president.
Boko Haram made its demands via interviews with an anonymous spokesman to the Hausa language radio services of the BBC and the Voice of America late Wednesday night. The group said it wanted the government to release 195 detained sect members and for officials to allow members in hiding to re-emerge.
The group also asked for freedom to practice its form of Islam, the unconditional release of its seized mosques by government forces and "justice and equity" in local government affairs.
"We are law-abiding citizens, even though we do not subscribe with the unjust government of the western orientation that is being used to govern us here in Nigeria," the spokesman said in Hausa, the local language.
Despite that pledge, the spokesman went on to take responsibility for a recent bomb attack on a police station, as well as the targeted killings of local officials by motorcycle taxi-riding assassins. The spokesman said the government brought the attacks on themselves after the death of Boko Haram leader Mohammed Yusuf in July 2009 after the group rioted, leading to a security crackdown that left 700 dead in total.
Human rights groups say Yusuf was executed by police while in their custody, but officials claimed he attempted to escape custody, though his hands were tied behind his back.
"Unless government ensures justice and equity and allow us to practice our religion ... we will continue with these (killings) and we have our targets," the spokesman said.
Followers of Boko Haram, which means "Western education is sacrilege" in the local Hausa language, went into hiding after the July 2009 riots. Recently, the group engineered a massive prison break in nearby Bauchi state, freeing 750 inmates _ among whom were sect members.
In asking for an amnesty deal, Boko Haram has brought into play the regional politics that form Nigeria, a country of 150 million that basically divides into a Christian south and Muslim north. The spokesman said that Boko Haram deserved "similar treatments accorded to the Niger Delta militants by the late president, Alhaji Umaru Musa Yar'Adua, rather than being treated like second class citizens of Nigeria."
Before his death, Yar'Adua persuaded many militants in the creeks of the delta to sign onto a government-sponsored amnesty plan, which promised cash payouts and future job training. The relative peace that followed allowed oil production to boost in the OPEC nation, nearing highs not seen since the insurgency there began in 2006.
However, the delta sits firmly in the Christian south and in a region vital to the country's economy. North Nigeria, on the vestiges of the Sahara Desert, remains a rural area that depends primarily on agriculture. It also relies on President Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian from the delta, to shepherd through what could be a complex and costly deal in the midst of a coming presidential election.
A presidential spokesman did not immediately respond for a request for comment Thursday on Boko Haram's demands.