TACOMA, Washington — Several credible sources recently reported the death of Boko Haram leader, Abubakar Shekau. Though the terrorist leader’s death has been falsely reported several times over the years, his death on May 19, 2021, has been proven and confirmed. On June 6, 2021, Reuters heard an audio recording of Abu Musab al-Barnawi, the leader of the Islamic State West African Province (ISWAP) rival militant group. Al-Barnawi announced Shekau’s death in the recording. A Nigerian intelligence along with five Nigerian officials have reported and Boko Haram researchers have confirmed Shekau’s death. As one of the world’s most brutal terrorists, Shekau’s death will surely impact Boko Haram’s operations, bringing some relief to the millions of Nigerian people whom the group has terrorized over the years.
The State of Nigeria Today
Among the factors contributing to Boko Haram’s rise and staying power are political corruption, persistent economic and development challenges, military brutality and the Nigerian government’s deficient security apparatus. The weak Nigerian state has consistently failed to address the needs of its people. Its poor governance has allowed Boko Haram to gain power, smuggle arms into the country and foment unrest.
The people of Nigeria face several challenges including severe poverty and rising unemployment. Currently, slightly more than 40% of the population lives in poverty. The pandemic has only worsened and complicated this situation. Meanwhile, Nigeria’s economic growth lags behind its sub-Saharan African neighbors while inflated food prices have dramatically increased food insecurity.
The Boko Haram Group
Mohammed Yusuf founded Boko Haram to resist the influence of Western civilization and modernity. It is an Islamist terrorist and insurgent group in northern Nigeria. In particular, the group opposes Western-style education, politics and dress. Boko Haram’s goals include establishing an extremely conservative version of Sharia law in order to cleanse Nigerian society of moral bankruptcy and corruption. This has escalated ethnoreligious conflict and violence in Nigeria.
Boko Haram’s Terrorist Activity
Boko Haram has executed deadly terrorist attacks against civilians, places of worship, public institutions and government officials. These attacks usually take the form of bombings, including suicide bombings and roadside shootings. Additionally, the group works to radicalize and indoctrinate young Nigerians into its ideology through its construction of fundamentalist Islamic schools. Boko Haram gained worldwide notoriety in 2014 when the group kidnapped more than 270 schoolgirls from Chibok, Nigeria.
This terrorist act prompted a global media campaign, #BringBackOurGirls, which received global support. Nevertheless, about 100 of the girls are still missing. Though other kidnappings have not received the same media attention, Boko Haram has kidnapped tens of thousands of children over the years, forcing children into marriage or battle. The scale of Boko Haram’s insurgency is unprecedented in Nigeria. Overall, the terrorist group has forcibly displaced approximately two million people and has killed more than 40,000. The group’s actions have caused one of the worst humanitarian crises around the world.
The Death of Abubakar Shekau
According to Reuters, the Boko Haram leader is believed to have died by suicide by “detonating an explosive device when he was pursued by ISWAP fighters following a battle.” ISWAP split from Boko Haram five years ago due to religious and ideological objections to Boko Haram’s killing of civilians. ISWAP subsequently pledged allegiance to Islamic State. ISWAP militants pursued Shekau in the Sambisa forest, Shekau’s strategically important base located in northeast Nigeria. The pursuit was a direct order from the new leader of ISIS, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi.
The Downfall of a Brutal Terrorist
The death of Shekau “removes one the world’s most brutal and effective terrorists,” as the Wall Street Journal puts it. Over the course of a decade, Shekau transformed Boko Haram from an underground group of Islamist radicals to a powerful insurgency. Under Shekau’s leadership, the terrorist group has destabilized Nigeria and embroiled Nigeria and three other nations into an armed religious conflict. With millions of viewers on YouTube, the Boko Haram leader spread his hateful messages far and wide and incited violence against civilians.
His death presents a clear opportunity to weaken Boko Haram. After the terrorist leader’s death, activists in Nigeria have called for Nigerians to support efforts by security officials to combat Boko Haram. On the other hand, Shekau’s death is also likely to lead to ISWAP absorbing many Boko Haram fighters. Those who remain loyal to Shekau, however, may seek revenge against ISWAP. This means increased violence between the terrorist sects, which negatively affects the Nigerian people as a whole. Another downside of his death during a confrontation with ISWAP is that it may trigger Nigerian people’s distrust in the power of the military and state security forces to end the conflict.
Moving Forward to Peace
Regardless of how much Shekau’s death will change things on the ground in northern Nigeria, what is clear is that people living in the region are experiencing a violent insurgency amid a host of other problems. Fortunately, Nigerians are finding solutions to their problems. Notably, as the U.S. Institute of Peace explains, a few Nigerian states — Plateau, Kaduna and Adamawa — have established peacebuilding agencies. Through a state-level approach, these agencies take some of the burdens off of an overwhelmed national government.
By using local and community-level approaches, these peace committees can better address the roots of the violence in Nigeria and offer viable solutions. Such solutions include establishing peace education and mechanisms to monitor threats and prevent violence. Likewise, peacebuilding commissions can mediate conflicts and promote restorative justice.
The people of Nigeria have welcomed news of Shekau’s death as “a new beginning” and an opportunity for them to live “more peaceful lives.” Despite continued challenges, Nigerians are hopeful for a future of good governance and lasting peace.
– Sarah Frazer