Unsurprisingly, the news of the purported death of fiery arrowhead of dreaded Islamist Insurgent group, Boko Haram, Abubakar Shekau, exploded on the internet and traditional information channels a few days ago with a reverberating crescendo, eliciting mixed reactions from the civil populace and military establishment.
Most accounts of Shekau’s demise concur with the notion that he died from serious injuries sustained from a sneak attack on his camp by elements linked to the rival Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), a breakaway faction of Boko Haram.
In reaction to the trending news, the Nigerian military announced that it had commenced preliminary investigations to validate its authenticity before making any categorical pronouncement on the new development.
From a strategic standpoint, however, the question that should be agitating the minds of concerned Nigerians in the face of the uncertainties surrounding Shekau’s purported demise, is what happens next in the event of the confirmation that he is truly dead? Would his death portend the end of the bloodletting in the country’s North-East or the onset of a more bloody spectrum of violence? Simply put, what would be the wider security implications for Nigeria’s ongoing war on terrorism in the event of the demise of its chief protagonist?
A Note Of Caution
Shekau’s death is yet to be officially confirmed by Nigeria’s military authorities and government, neither has ISWAP, the group said to have orchestrated the attack on his camp, made any formal statement on the matter by way of validating the claim attributed to it. All the available information on Shekau’s demise are largely sketchy, suggestive and therefore unreliable. So, it is advised that the story should not be swallowed hook, line and sinker. It’s certainly too early to celebrate.
It is noteworthy that this is not the first time news of Shekau’s death has filtered out of Sambisa Forest. On several occasions in the past, the world had been led to believe that Shekau had been killed only for him to resurface. There is a possibility that a similar scenario is being recreated again.
Strategically speaking, it can’t be ruled out that this is another gambit by Boko Haram to misdirect the public and military authorities, with a view to regrouping and reinventing itself, by diverting attention from Shekau. Boko Haram could actually be suffering from battle fatigue and is trying to buy time consequent to loses it has suffered lately from the relentless onslaughts by the Nigerian military forces on several of its positions in Sambisa Forest and other turfs it controls.
But What If Shekau Is Truly Dead?
However, if Shekau’s death is finally validated, then all loins must be firmly girded for a completely new dimension to the internecine war of attrition in the country’s North-East; a worst-case scenario that could see the introduction of more deadly elements that have not yet been tried in the ongoing zero-sum game between insurgents and Nigerian security forces.
Nobody should be deceived that killing Shekau will bring an abrupt end to the bloody carnage in the North-East, a hydra- headed monster that transcends just one individual. It is a war driven by an extremist ideology; a struggle that has very deep roots; roots that just can’t be casually uprooted.
The death of Shekau would likely result in ISWAP transforming into the new Medusa in the North-East as it would move to assimilate existing Boko Haram structures and turfs under its control, after successively fending off the resistance of elements still loyal to their master. The recent report that Boko Haram commanders are being rounded up by ISWAP elements, if true, could be a move in that direction.
Next, ISWAP will move to prove itself by establishing a new regime of terror in the North-East. Nigeria might be facing a whole new form of threat from ISWAP when it ultimately gets down to business. More deadly attacks should be expected from a more tactical terrorist force with foreign affiliations.
Window Of Opportunity For The Military?
However, Shekau’s death could actually be a blessing in disguise, if confirmed, as the Nigerian military could immediately exploit the ensuing rivalry between Boko Haram and ISWAP, by boosting its offensive against the insurgents, before the dust settles. The regional security collaboration with Chad, Niger, Cameroon and Nigeria, could be immediately reactivated, strengthened and leveraged upon to gain more ground before the insurgents find their bearing.
Whatever happens, all hands must be on deck to contain whatever is coming next. Ongoing efforts on the military, administrative and diplomatic fronts should continue with a view to finding a viable solution to the bloodletting in the North-East, which has been on since 2009, and has resulted in the death of thousands, injuries to thousands more and displacement of millions from their homes.