Dead or alive: the seven lives of Boko Haram's leader

2015-09-02

Early in August 2015, the President of Chad, Idriss Deby, announced the death of Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau and a possible change in the militant group’s leadership. A purported picture of Shekau’s corpse was circulated in the media, but the Nigerian military neither denied nor confirmed the story.

That was not the first announcement of its kind. Army officers in Cameroon and Nigeria had made similar claims about Shekau in the past. But a few days after Deby’s pronouncements, in an audio recording, Shekau thanked Allah for still being alive and promised to continue his orgy of violence. It looks as if, like Saddam Hussein, Shekau has seven lives.

The Nigerian government and its regional allies would welcome the incapacitation of Shekau who was relatively unknown until he assumed the leadership of the Islamist group in July 2009. His rise to power produced one of the most brutal and deadly forms of terror ever witnessed in Africa. Before Shekau took over, the sect was largely involved in ‘hit and run’ tactics like throwing petrol bombs into police stations and attacking police checkpoints. 

In six years, Shekau turned a group of ragtag ‘shoeless’ civilians into an effective radical entity
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Under Shekau, Boko Haram transformed into a formidable terror group with a well organised propaganda machinery, networks across the region, and consolidated financial resources and weaponry.

In six years, Shekau turned a group of ragtag ‘shoeless’ civilians into a radical entity capable of seizing territories, operating rocket-propelled grenades, taking hostages and hitting back at the armies of Nigeria and other states in the region. Ineffective government responses to Boko Haram, fuelled by corruption and a lack of attention from neighbouring countries contributed to the group’s reign of terror under Shekau.

Reports of his death have been received with scepticism for several reasons. Firstly, in his announcement, Deby failed to specify who had killed Shekau or how the leadership changes came about. Secondly, the long absence of what had become Shekau’s regular video appearances – which fuelled speculations that he was dead – may be linked to the group’s pledge of allegiance to the Islamic State (IS) in March. In doing so, Shekau sought to yield leadership and control of Boko Haram to the global terrorist network. Thirdly, the Nigerian government and its military leadership want to avoid repeating past embarrassments by rushing to pronounce on his death. Lastly, it is not certain that Shekau’s death or a change in Boko Haram’s leadership will mean an end to the violence.

Since February the tide has started to turn against Boko Haram
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Empirical evidence demonstrates that removing leaders can weaken non-state armed groups, but it can also lead to the proliferation of independent units that are even more dangerous than the main body. Shekau’s death could also trigger feelings of revenge that unite Boko Haram members as happened with al-Qaeda after the demise of Osama Bin Laden.

Boko Haram remains extremely violent and active, but since February the tide has started to turn. The sect has been defeated in some areas; territories have been regained and the group has been dispersed and is now largely confined to the Sambisa Forest in northeast Nigeria. It has also resorted to attacking soft targets rather than confronting the military.

Although Boko Haram remains a serious threat after recent attacks in Cameroon, Chad and Nigeria, the scale of its activities does not resemble that experienced in 2013 and 2014 when swathes of territories across northeast Nigeria were seized and controlled. Even the so-called allegiance with IS does not appear to be working in its favour. The combined bombardments by armed forces from Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria flushed out the sect, and it may well be that Shekau pledged support to IS as a survival strategy in response to the intense military pressure on Boko Haram.

Even its allegiance with IS doesn’t appear to be working in Boko Haram’s favour
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The success of Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari’s campaign against Boko Haram will be a key indicator of his performance during his first 100 days in office. Eradicating the group was one of his election promises, and Buhari has undertaken a number of reforms to improve Nigeria’s counter-terrorism strategy. He relocated the army command centre to Maiduguri (the birth place of Boko Haram and the epicentre of the crisis), brought about key changes in the military hierarchy, and instructed security forces to destroy Boko Haram within 90 days. This is an ambitious timeframe but displays Nigerian authorities’ resolve to end the reign of terror.

Regional efforts to set up a Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) of 8 700 troops from Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon, Niger and Benin present an opportunity for an effective offensive against Boko Haram. Headquartered in N’Djamena in Chad and under Nigeria’s command, the MNJTF will complete the operation launched in February and enable a regional response to terrorism.

This is welcome, but other measures are also needed. Rumours about Shekau’s death could deal a blow to the morale of the militant group and give armed forces fighting Boko Haram a confidence boost, but it may not diminish Boko Haram’s effectiveness as a terror group.

Achieving that requires a coherent and comprehensive approach by all stakeholders and security agencies, along with better laws and intelligence, well-equipped and trained armed forces, and unwavering political commitment. Border control needs to be more effective, and the flow of funds and weapons to Boko Haram must be stopped. A multi-pronged approach is needed and Nigeria must display leadership in this regard.

David Zounmenou, Senior Research Fellow, ISS Pretoria and Segun Rotimi Adeyemon, post-graduate student, UNISA

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