The Nigerian government is prepared to negotiate for the release of more than 200 Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram last year if the armed group can prove they are still alive, President Muhammadu Buhari told Al Jazeera on Friday.
"They have to prove to us that they are alive, they are well and then we can...negotiate with them," Buhari said in an interview with Al Jazeera’s Mehdi Hasan, the host of UpFront.
Boko Haram, which has led a six-year insurgency in Africa’s most populous country, abducted the girls in April 2014 from a boarding school in the town of Chibok, located in the restive Borno state. The action drew international condemnation and prompted a worldwide social media campaign called #BringBackOurGirls.
Although some of the schoolgirls have since escaped, 219 of them remain missing. Earlier this year, Boko Haram reportedly offered to free the girls in exchange for imprisoned group members. At the time, the Nigerian government said it would "not be averse" to such a deal.
"There are Boko Haram leadership that wanted us to discuss [freeing the girls], but we have to prove they are bona fide," Buhari told Al Jazeera.
When pressed on whether Nigeria would offer money or prisoners to the armed group, which aims to establish a state based on its own extreme interpretation of Islam in the country’s northeast, Buhari said "it depends on negotiations with the leadership of Boko Haram."
Information about the girls has not been made available since last May, when a video surfaced showing about 100 of the mostly-Christian students wearing hijabs and reading the Quran. The video also featured a message from Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, that the girls would not be seen again "unless you release our brothers you have captured."
Since the video’s release there have been a number of unconfirmed reports that some of the girls were taken to neighboring countries, trained as fighters, married off to Boko Haram members or died.
Meanwhile, Buhari says he will make good on his pledge to defeat Boko Haram by the end of the year despite a recent series of coordinated bombing attacks by the group.
"As soon as the rainy season comes, which is by the end of the year…Boko Haram will virtually be out of their main stronghold and that will be the end of it…. Attacks by Boko Haram on townships, on military installations, will certainly stop," Buhari said.
But the situation still appears bleak. At least 34 people were killed overnight in Borno state in a series of attacks. While no one has claimed responsibility, the incidents marked the hallmarks of Boko Haram. Local residents said the death toll may be as high as 60.
To date, Boko Haram's insurgency is estimated to have killed 20,000 Nigerians, including 1,350 people since Buhari came to power in May, according to a count by Agence-France Presse.