Chadian President Idriss Deby’s August 11 comments that Abubakar Shekau has been replaced by Mahamat Daoud and that the latter is open to negotiations with Nigeria’s Buhari government, has predictably stirred the Western media. (As of August 12, the story is not yet featured by the Nigerian media.) As is usual with stories about potential negotiations, Western media ties this story to hopes for freedom for the more than 200 Chibok school girls.
There have been many previous stories of potential negotiations between Boko Haram and the Nigerian government. None have occurred. How credible is this one?
The sole source for the story is President Deby, who, as a Nigerian blogger comments, “isn’t exactly a paragon of honesty when it comes to claims he has made regarding Boko Haram and Shekau in the past.” At the same press conference where he commented on Shekau, Deby also predicted that Boko Haram would be “wrapped up” by the end of the year. That same day, a Boko Haram suicide bomber killed forty-seven in northern Nigeria.
On the other hand, Shekau has issued no videos or any other public communication since his March 14 pledge of fealty to the Islamic State. There are many rumors that he is dead. He might have been killed by Nigerian, Nigerien, or Chadian military forces, or he might have been the victim of a bloody, internal Boko Haram leadership struggle. This is speculation: we just don’t know.
Deby also said: “Boko Haram is decapitated. There are little groups scattered throughout northeast Nigeria, on the border with Cameroon. It is within our power to definitively overcome Boko Haram.”
Maybe. But, Boko Haram has always appeared to be highly decentralized in its operations. It now shows little interest in occupying territory or state building such as that of the Islamic State. The carnage since President Buhari’s inauguration as president would indicate that it is resurgent, and there is no evidence that it has abandoned its goal of destroying the Nigerian secular state. If Boko Haram resembles more of a decentralized movement than an organization, then Shekau’s replacement as its “face” by another may not matter very much. Further, the more decentralized it is, the more difficult negotiations with it would be.