Violence Continues Despite Claimed Killing of Boko Haram Leader
Dakar — It has been two weeks since the Nigerian military announced that Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau died in Cameroon in early August following injuries sustained in battle. However, there is still no confirmation or proof of his death. Nigerians remain skeptical of the military’s claim, and analysts say killing off Boko Haram commanders won’t stop the violence in northern Nigeria.
It’s been three and a half months since the military launched a large-scale offensive against Boko Haram in northeastern Nigeria.
The military says it’s got Boko Haram on the run. That would hardly be surprising as insurgents, by definition, tend to avoid direct battlefield confrontation. But the military’s claim is nearly impossible to confirm. Security forces have restricted access to the frontline and cell phone communications have been cut in much of the northeast.
In August, the military Joint Task Force in Borno State announced that Boko Haram’s leader and public face, Abubakar Shekau, and his deputy had been killed. It appears that other top members may also have been eliminated.
So, what happens now?
It would seem that the conglomeration of radical militant factions in northern Nigeria, for which Boko Haram has become a kind of umbrella term, is in a bit of a leadership crisis, or at least in need of some major regrouping.
Many in northern Nigeria say they won’t believe Shekau is dead until they see his body. He previously had been declared dead at least twice in the past four years.
It was Shekau who resurrected Boko Haram in 2010 after a heavy-handed military crackdown the previous year that led to the detention and murder of sect founder, Mohammed Yusuf, by police.
Yusuf was a charismatic imam and preacher who founded the group in 2002. The sect was later nicknamed Boko Haram, which means “Western education is forbidden” in the local Hausa language.
Shekau was Yusuf’s deputy. While Yusuf was very much a public figure, analysts say Shekau took the group into the shadows and made it more violent.
Nigeria analyst for the Washington-based Jamestown Foundation, Jacob Zenn, has studied Shekau.
“He really transformed an organization that was sympathetic to the Taliban and al-Qaida to an organization that operated like the Taliban and al-Qaida. Whereas for Yusuf, it was mostly just preaching and preparing for jihad, but he [Shekau] transformed it from a preaching group about jihad to an actual jihadist group,” said Zenn.
Since 2010, Boko Haram’s suicide bombings, drive-by shootings and other attacks in northern Nigeria have killed thousands of people.
Shekau has been in hiding for most of that time, presumably running the group through contact with select commanders. He would re-emerge in the group’s videos.
He is known for his hardline, impassioned discourse. He rattles off demands that include turning northern Nigeria into an Islamic state. He threatens enemies that have ranged from Christians to Nigerian security forces to the United States. He expresses solidarity with jihadists around the world.
Operationally, he has kept Boko Haram focused on Nigeria. That is one thing that could change if he is dead.
Experts say Shekau’s faction is but one of as many as five factions that make up what is commonly referred to as Boko Haram.
The past three years have been wracked by rivalries and internal divisions. Moderates have split off, some claiming to now speak on behalf of the group and others forming new groups.
Analysts, like Zenn, say losing Shekau would not be “game-over” for the militants, who he says likely have enough members and operational experience to continue.
“It might just become more localized, like we might just have more disparate cells and less centrality. But I do think from a propaganda and ideological standpoint, it would be more significant because Shekau is the only leader that was really close to [Mohammed Yusuf], he was the deputy of Mohammed Yusuf who was the founder of Boko Haram and no one else would have that type of ideological legitimacy and the ability to keep the organization as a cohesive unit ideologically,” he said.
So, the videos may stop, but analysts say the violence likely won’t. The Joint Task Force says Shekau was injured in a gun battle June 30 and died about a month later. Since then, at least 100 people have been killed by suspected militants.
Michael Olufemi Sodipo is the founder and coordinator of the Peace Initiative Network in Kano.
“What will matter is tackling the drivers of radicalization, not killing members, killing their leaders. It will just allow others assume office as a new leadership. If you look at what’s on the ground, what’s in the communities, if the root causes of the issue is not tackled, you will have other members who will come and say, hey, I want to join the group. So, it’s not only in killing, killing, killing, killing. It’s in tackling issues,” said Sodipo.
Sodipo says those drivers include a sense of economic injustice fueled by widespread poverty, corruption and unemployment, what he called “young ones with no skills and no hope.”
He and others continue to push for dialogue.
Some are worried that Nigeria’s ongoing military offensive has made it more difficult for moderates to come out and talk.
There have also been reports of abuses by security forces including disappearances, arbitrary illegal detentions and destruction of property of people presumed to be militants or Boko Haram sympathizers.
Human rights activists worry that history may, in fact, repeat itself and that a heavy-handed approach could galvanize the insurgents of tomorrow.
Abdulkareem Haruna contributed reporting from Maiduguri, Nigeria. Ardo Hazzad contributed reporting from Bauchi, Nigeria.