The shadowy leader of what is perhaps the world’s busiest and deadliest terrorist army was reported killed this week. Abubakar Shekau was—or, possibly, still is, since his death is not confirmed—the founder as well as the tactical and spiritual leader of Boko Haram, the Islamist terrorist group which has killed many hundreds of civilians, mostly Christians, in a reign of terror in northern Nigeria over the past few years.
A spokesman for the Nigerian military’s anti-terrorist Joint Task Force (J.T.F.) said August 19th that Shekau—whose full name is Imam Abu Muhammad Ibn Muhammad Abubakar Ash Shekawi—was wounded in a battle with soldiers on June 30th in the Sambisa Forest. This area is in the Boko Haram stronghold of Nigeria’s arid northeast near where Lake Chad forms the point at which Cameroon, Chad, Nigeria, and Niger border one another. According to the J.T.F. statement, he was spirited across the border into the Muslim-dominated far north of the otherwise-predominantly-Christian Republic of Cameroon, where he was given medical treatment but died of his wounds probably between July 25th and August 3rd. None of this could be confirmed.
Boko Haram is a phrase in northern Nigeria’s Hausa language meaning “Western education is sinful”—it could even be translated as “literacy is sinful.” The name reflects the fervent fundamentalist anti-intellectual Islamism of the group, which not only rejects the doctrine of evolution but also condemns “theories” such as rainfall being the result of clouds formed from evaporating water, since this contradicts wording in the Qur’an. (This puts Boko Haram on the same level, intellectually, as most Republican lawmakers in the southern United States.) The group’s full name is Jamā’a Ahl al-Sunnah li-Da’wa wa al-Jihād, which means, in Arabic, “Congregation and People of Tradition for Proselytism and Jihad.” From their founding in 2001, but mostly over the years since 2009, they are responsible for the deaths of perhaps as many as 10,000 civilians. Most have been Christians, with methods including truck-bombings of churches and government buildings and organized massacres of schoolchildren. Recently moderate Muslims have been targeted as well.
Boko Haram’s ostensible aim is the imposition of shari’a (Islamic law) over all of Nigeria. (It is already in force in Nigeria’s northern states, as the map above shows.) Since Nigeria’s population is about evenly divided between a Christian south and a Muslim north, this is in terms of practical politics virtually impossible. Some argue that Boko Haram’s real goal—or at least their most likely effect—is the partition of the country. Ethnolinguistic and sectarian tensions have plagued Nigeria since its independence from the United Kingdom in 1960. The departing British placed a northern, Muslim leader in charge of the new nation, which set off a tit-for-tat of coups d’état and counter-coups between Muslims and Christians, setting the stage for the devastating Biafra War of 1967-1970, in which more than a million died. Southeastern Nigeria’s Igbos, whose nationalist ambitions were the immediate cause of that war, claim today that their people are still bearing the brunt of Muslim pogroms, especially in the religiously mixed “Middle Belt” region which Boko Haram finds so rich in targets.
Little is known about Shekau. He may be in his thirties or forties. He may be a native of Niger or of northeastern Nigeria, though he seems to be of the Kanuri ethnic group. (The Kanuri declared an independent republic of Greater Kanowra on the site of the precolonial Bornu Kingdom in the four-way border region of the Lake Chad basin, but that movement was largely secular in orientation.) He reportedly had, or has, a photographic memory.
Equally unclear is whether he is still alive. If he is, then his quasi-supernatural talent for survival will increase his prestige among Boko Haram’s rank and file. If he is not, then the movement now has a martyr. There seems to be no good path forward, no best-case scenario. The future looks bleak for Nigerians, and for Nigeria.
|Expect many, many more scenes like this one.|