If Boko Haram’s leader is dead, what will happen to northeastern Nigeria?

Editor’s Note: Rival jihadists may have killed longtime Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau, ending his years of chaos and brutality. Alexander Thurston of the University of Cincinnati describes the effects of Shekau over the years, explains why many fighters have remained loyal to him, and notes how many uncertainties affect observers’ understanding of jihadism in Nigeria.

Daniel Byman


Two deaths, one of which took some time, show how relentless and opaque the Boko Haram crisis has become in Nigeria. On May 20, the Nigerian outlet HumAngle and other sources reported that longtime Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau had been killed by members of the Boko Haram faction of the Islamic Province of West Africa (ISWAP). On May 21, the Nigerian Army Chief of Staff, General Ibrahim Attahiru, died along with ten other officers in a non-combat aircraft crash. The two events are milestones in and of themselves; Any story by Boko Haram should give Shekau in particular a prominent place in the narrative. Ultimately, however, the death of these people is unlikely to affect the balance in what will ultimately be a year-long stalemate between the Nigerian military and the jihadists, with no victory in sight for either side.

Initially, not everyone was convinced that Shekau was indeed dead, as they had a penchant for reappearing after being pronounced killed in the past. The Wall Street Journal, which cites “officials, intermediaries, phone calls intercepted by a West African spy agency, and internal intelligence notices,” considers his death confirmed; Although the New York Times noted that “feels different this time,” it was a little more cautious.

A messed up ending goes very well with Shekau, who has been in the spotlight for a decade but whose entire biography is obscure. Even Shekau’s year of birth is difficult to determine – various sources cite data from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s. He comes from the village of Shekau in the rural northeastern Nigerian state of Yobe and moved to Maiduguri, the capital of the neighboring state of Borno, as a boy. When journalist Chika Oduah interviewed his mother in 2018, who was still in the village of Shekau, she gave little information about his biography or motivations and said she had not seen him for 15 years. His former followers in ISWAP, now his enemies, also seemed to know relatively little about his origins. In the 2018 ISWAP chronicle “Removal of the Tumor” (a reference to Shekau and his followers, who until then ISWAP considered dangerous deviants), the authors write about Shekau’s “rough upbringing” and “hard, rural life”. An early follower of Boko Haram’s founder Muhammad Yusuf in the early 2000s, ISWAP chroniclers said that Shekau’s lectures were characterized by “fervor, simplicity, joke and copious parables” – making him an entertaining draw for the emerging movement’s youth made. Shekau looked bombastic in videos from the late 2000s to the late 2010s, but this was likely a cultured person. “The warlord was personally more sober than the barking figure on YouTube,” says a detailed report in the Wall Street Journal of the mediators’ efforts to free the Chibok girls, Shekau’s most famous victims.

It wasn’t all an act, however. Shekau’s critics within the jihadist group regularly complained of deadly arbitrariness on his part, a tendency to combat both internal and external disagreements. Shekau has profoundly shaped the development of Boko Haram from 2009, the year of an unfortunate mass uprising by Boko Haram against Nigerian authorities. After police unceremoniously executed Muhammad Yusuf after the clashes, Shekau rallied the remaining members, who still had an appetite for fighting, and took the movement underground. Shekau often sabotaged all peace efforts with the Nigerian government; For example, he likely ordered the assassination of one of Yusuf’s in-laws who attempted a dialogue with former President Olusegun Obasanjo in 2011, and Shekau showed little interest in negotiating anything other than hostage payments. Meanwhile, Shekau built connections to other jihadist movements, particularly Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Al-Qaeda, on the connections of some global jihadists within the orbit of Boko Haram. AQIM provided money and training, but the relationship tumbled in late 2011 when Shekau disregarded AQIM’s advice and angered some of AQIM’s key interlocutors within Boko Haram. Shekau’s later relationship with the Islamic State (which officially ran from March 2015 to August 2016) would suffer similar tensions, leading to the creation of the ISWAP in 2016. Education, funding and input from the Islamic State may have strengthened the ISWAP somewhat and refined its calculations on how to deal with civilians, but ISWAP is ultimately, like Shekau’s faction, a parish group whose main achievement is survival in distant areas to whom the state is weak.

Shekau’s longevity and success convey something about what makes Boko Haram – and even ISWAP – tick. His willingness to punish dissent with murder is a big part of the story, but it can’t be the only one. “Removing the Tumor” and other sources report key moments when great field commanders with a sizeable following of their own chose to remain loyal to Shekau. Another part of the story is the victory: Shekau earned loyalty by rebuilding the movement in 2009 and 2010 and then performing military feats that must have blinded some of his subordinates. The climax of this development was the territorial conquests that Boko Haram undertook in 2014 and 2015 with Shekau as leader, which were only stopped by the military of Chad and Niger. It was only when Boko Haram withdrew that Shekau finally agreed to pledge allegiance to another jihadist organization, the Islamic State, and only when circumstances set in – “removal of the tumor” describes a time of hunger sometime in 2015 and 2016 – That Shekau lost a critical mass of support, which allowed ISWAP to involve the majority of the movement’s fighters in the divorce.

For a while, however, it had been a way to speak to Shekau and obey his orders to survive, attack the hated Nigerian military (revenge is a motive for many common fighters), and gain access to women and booty. Shekau also showed some sort of gross loyalty, sending forces to move Boko Haram fighters and commanders out of jails and even the infamous Giwa Barracks military detention center and put into jail. Even after separating from ISWAP, hundreds of fighters remained in Shekau’s camp.

The initial uncertainty about Shekau’s death is a reminder of how little observers know not only about him but about the activities of Nigerian jihadists in general. The Nigerian military censors information, trumpets its successes while downplaying its setbacks, and sometimes even accuses respected organizations like UNICEF and Amnesty International of hauling water for Boko Haram. In the northeast, Borno Governor Babagana Zulum complained in 2020 of “sabotage in the system that will not allow the uprising to end,” continuing a longstanding tradition of senior Nigerian civil servants who precisely or imprecisely target corrupt interests in the Game alluded to in the crisis. There are now numerous rumors and reports with bad sources in the Nigerian press. Both Nigerian and foreign journalists do not have regular access (due to military restrictions or serious security concerns) to the fronts of the struggle. Nigerian and overseas analysts often share insights they hear from anonymous sources close to the jihadists or within their ranks, but their claims are difficult to verify. And jihadist propaganda gives a selective and often skeletal picture of the events. It is difficult to even determine who is currently running ISWAP: the journalist Ahmad Salkida, one of the leading voices who claims to have sources within the jihadist scene, writes: “ISWAP currently has no substantive leadership.” All these uncertainties are fertile ground for shaky analyzes or conspiracy theories. At the front, many common soldiers believe that “Boko Haram is a conspiracy involving the government and the top military,” said Temitope Oriola, joint editor-in-chief of African Security magazine.

What impact will Shekau’s death have? ISWAP is a formidable force, and killing Shekau could further strengthen ISWAP. However, ISWAP’s activities have an inevitable cap. The status quo of profound instability in and around the rural state of Borno is putting a devastating burden on the millions affected by insecurity, poverty, displacement and hunger, but the Nigerian elite have grimly shown that they will tolerate this status quo. If ISWAP were to dramatically increase its ambitions by attempting to capture Borno’s capital, Maiduguri, the military would likely repel the attack or mobilize quickly to retake the city should it fall. And as with the territorial conquests of Boko Haram in 2015, there is also a tipping point where outsiders will step in, even at the expense of Nigerian sovereignty and pride. The question then arises of how far and how long ISWAP can go before the tense equilibrium is disturbed. ISWAP may be smart enough not to expand too quickly and too far. As long as this status quo is not significantly disrupted, ISWAP retains the impact on millions of lives, the ability to levy taxes on some rural populations, and a considerable degree of autonomy and freedom of movement.

Meanwhile, General Attahiru’s death, although almost certainly a coincidence, has symbolized, for many observers, the inability of the Nigerian military and government to deal with jihadists. Attahiru was one of several new military service chiefs appointed this January. This reshuffle should revive the country’s approach to insecurity not only in the northeast, but also in other theaters of violence such as the northwest, some of which are plagued by bandits and intermunicipal violence. There have been few signs of a new approach in the past four months, other than a multitude of meetings, frontline visits and a new (or novel) National Center for Small Arms and Light Weapons Control. Oriola assessed the importance of Attahira’s death and wrote bluntly: “There is currently no military in the region whose organizational structure, material, routine bureaucratic processes and motivation can defeat terrorism in the Lake Chad area.” As a number of observers have noted, it is telling that it appears that ISWAP, rather than the Nigerian military, killed Shekau. More importantly, the Nigerian military does not appear to be able to profit from the death of the man who has been the number one enemy for the past decade.

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