Boko Haram Threatens Nigeria Even If Leader Has Died

The Nigerian Islamist militant group Boko Haram will probably maintain its insurgency in Africa’s biggest oil producer even if army claims of its leader’s death are true, said analysts including Shehu Sani, president of the Civil Rights Congress of Nigeria.

Nigeria’s military spokesman in the northeast, Sagir Musa, said in an Aug. 19 statement that Abubakar Shekau may have died from injuries sustained in a June 30 clash in the Sambisa Forest. Other than citing intelligence reports, he provided no evidence to back up the claim.

“If Shekau is dead, it is a victory on the side of the government, but it does not mean it will end the insurgency,” Sani said in an Aug. 20 phone interview from the northern city of Kaduna. “It’s a well organized group and someone else will take over.”

Boko Haram, whose name means “Western education is a sin” in the Hausa language, started in the northeastern town of Maiduguri. It has grown in sophistication under Shekau’s leadership, expanding its reach and spawning at least one splinter group believed to have close ties to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM. The militants have killed thousands of people in the past four years in a bid to impose Shariah law in Nigeria, a nation of more than 160 million almost equally split between Christians, predominant in the south, and Muslims.

“Shekau’s personality was a major factor in the degree of the escalation” of the violence, Freedom Onuoha, a research fellow at the National Defence College in Abuja, the capital, said by phone.

Video Appearance

On Aug. 13, a man said to be Shekau appeared in a video claiming responsibility for attacks in the states of Borno and Yobe and promising further assaults.

“A lot has been said against us: that we are finished, they have finished with us. All these are lies,” he said. “We are alive. Nobody killed us, and we shall continue to kill until Boko Haram is accepted by the people.”

Nigeria’s army called the video a fake.

Boko Haram was founded by Mohammed Yusuf as a religious sect that rejected Western influence and sought the strict implementation of Islam across northern states. Yusuf died in police custody in July 2009 after he was arrested during clashes between militants and security forces.

The group then went underground, re-emerging a year later and escalating its attacks. Under Shekau’s leadership, it soon started hitting targets far away from its Maiduguri base, bombing the United Nations building in Abuja in August 2011, and attacking mosques that do not share its fundamentalist ideology.

Northern Violence

Three days before Christmas, two suspected Islamist militants killed themselves in separate bombings that rocked offices of Bharti Airtel Ltd. and MTN Group Ltd. in northern Nigeria. The group said in February last year it would attack mobile phone-service providers for helping authorities track them.

The violence has been contained in the north, far from the commercial capital, Lagos, and southern oilfields where Exxon Mobil Corp., Royal Dutch Shell Plc, Chevron Corp., Total SA and Eni SpA run joint ventures with state-owned Nigerian National Petroleum Corp.

If Shekau has been killed, “this will place Boko Haram on the defensive and threaten their command and control capabilities in the short term,” Philippe de Pontet, director of sub-Saharan Africa at New York-based Eurasia Group, said in an e-mailed response to questions. “This would not qualify as a frontal decapitation; others will fill the leadership void even though a splintering of Boko Haram may ensue.”

Borno Attacks

Gunmen suspected to be members of Boko Haram killed 13 people, including two policemen, in Gamboru Ngala, a town in Borno state yesterday, Vanguard newspaper reported, citing a local government official.

Shekau arranged teleconferences with the media and released sporadic videos to deliver a list of demands, including asking Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan to convert to Islam. He rejected talks with the Nigerian government.

“If he is dead, they will announce his death and replacement, just as they did after Yusuf died,” Sani said. “Until that happens, the military’s statement is not credible.”

Poverty, Unemployment

In May, Jonathan declared a state of emergency in the northeastern states most affected by the campaign of killings. Security forces started an air and ground offensive in the outlawed group’s stronghold and appealed to the Islamist fighters “to lay down their arms and embrace the federal government’s offer for dialogue.”

Even if Boko Haram is eventually weakened to the point that it is ready to negotiate under a new and more compromising leadership, peace may not return to the north soon because of the radicalizing impact of unemployment, poverty and inequality.

“The menace of Boko Haram or another organization like it is likely to remain in northern Nigeria for the foreseeable future as the material socio-economic conditions which led to its rise and sustains it are still there,” Sebastian Spio-Garbrah, managing director of New York-based DaMina Advisors LLP, a frontier-market risk adviser, said in an e-mailed response to questions.

Shekau’s fate will probably be known by one of his trademark videos, Onuoha said.

“I expect to see a video within the next three months. That video will show his face clearly, he will make reference to very current events, and he will gesticulate,” he said. “If that doesn’t happen, then he’s dead.”

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