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Abubakar Shekau: Is Boko Haram’s leader dead or alive? Does it matter?

Deceased Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau (pictured) had long been interested in expanding the faction's base beyond Nigeria’s north-east. Islamic State has the potential to consolodate its power in West Africa, with Cameroon being a prime target. (Photo: Simon Allison) Simon-Allison-Abubakar-Shekau.jpg

We weren’t sure if he was dead. We’re not entirely sure he ever existed in the first place. And we can’t tell, beyond reasonable doubt, if that is really him speaking in another bombastic audio message released this week. All we know is that after months of silence, Abubakar Shekau is back, and that the reappearance of the enigmatic Boko Haram leader raises more questions than answers. By SIMON ALLISON.

Reports of Abubakar Shekau’s death have been greatly exaggerated, according to a new audio file supposedly released by the man himself. “It is indeed all over the global media of infidels that I am dead or that I am sick and incapacitated and have lost influence in the affairs of religion. It should be understood that this is false. This is indeed a lie. If it were true, my voice wouldn’t have been heard, now that I am speaking,” said the Boko Haram leader.

While no one can be definitively sure that the voice in the audio file does indeed belong to Shekau, analysts agree that the tone and speech patterns match previous samples. And it’s not an old recording, either: the message is in direct response to insinuations by Chadian President Idriss Déby that Shekau was either dead or severely wounded, and no longer in charge of Boko Haram (Déby went so far as to say someone else was now speaking on Boko Haram’s behalf). It mentions Déby by name, describing him as a “hypocrite” and a “tyrant”. As insults go, these are not entirely inaccurate, although it’s a bit rich coming from Shekau.

But onlookers, including Déby, can hardly be blamed for questioning Shekau’s survival. For a man who seemed to relish the limelight – remember those creepy, gloating video messages in which he boasted about the abduction of the Chibok girls – he has been suspiciously silent since February this year, and throughout Boko Haram’s metamorphosis into an emirate of the Islamic State.

The reason for (Shekau’s silence) is the subject, like most things Shekau, of much speculation. However, considering the number of videos released by the ‘Islamic State West Africa Province’ entity, it appears the strategy was to prioritise their exposure as representatives of Boko Haram, to officialise the shift between the old and new guards, which meant limiting Shekau’s PR prominence,” said Modern Security Consulting Group director Yan St-Pierre.

At the same time, however, it’s always a mistake to write off Shekau – he’s been declared dead four or five times, and has always managed to return, Lazarus-like, to torment his enemies.

With the new Multinational Joint Task Force beginning its operations on July 30, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari’s three-month ultimatum to defeat Boko Haram, and Déby’s claim that Muhammad Daoud is now speaking for the organisation, a strong message was needed to galvanise the loyalty and will of all those linked to Boko Haram – old and new – for what could be a very difficult fight in the upcoming months. The organisation also need to send a message that would attempt to discredit its enemies and act as a show of strength. As such, the audio clip is very significant for internal and external propaganda,” said St-Pierre.

The propaganda significance of the clip is also underscored by the fact that the message is delivered in Hausa, rather than his native Kanuri or Arabic. Hausa is the most popular language in northern Nigeria, indicating that Shekau – if it’s really him – is aiming for the mass market.

In some respects, questions around whether the Boko Haram leader is really dead or alive are a red herring. Nigerian authorities have long suspected Shekau may actually be a composite of several people, a kind of sculpted super-terrorist designed to inspire and intimidate in equal measure (think, if you will, of Darth Vader, the ultimate villain, whose on-screen persona is the work of not one actor, but three – James Earl Jones on vocals, David Prowse working the costume, and Sebastian Shaw’s withered visage under the mask).

While this seems unlikely, it’s almost certainly true that the real-life Shekau is but a shadow of his carefully stage-managed reputation. “Within the mythology of Boko Haram, the myth of the ‘invincible leader’ plays a big role and this is why the organisation needs Shekau alive, regardless of his real status. But because his role at the planning and operational levels is very limited, it will not affect the current internal dynamics of the group, especially because Boko Haram is anything but an homogenous organisation,” said St-Pierre.

This is where Boko Haram differs from its brethren in the Islamist militant movement. Unlike Al-Shabaab or Al-Qaeda, both relatively centralised organisations which were damaged by the deaths of Ahmed Abdi Godane and Osama bin Laden respectively, Boko Haram is a diffuse and disparate organisation. It is united not by a handful of individuals, but by a mixed-bag of causes, principles and ideologies – by ideas. And until someone kills off the idea of Shekau, rather than his physical body, he will live to make another video, and fight another day. DM

Photo: Abubakar Shekau (A still image from Boko Haram video)

Read more

  • Cameroon’s Extreme Northern Region: Fertile ground for Boko Haram on Daily Maverick
  • Cameroon and Nigeria join forces to tackle Boko Haram, but are they doing enough? on Daily Maverick
  • Boko Haram mystery: Where – or who – is African terrorist group’s leader? On LA Times
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