An End to Boko Haram’s Internal Struggles Might Spell Doom for the Entire Region
While some may rejoice at rumors of Boko Haram head Abubakar Shekau dying in skirmishes with splinter group ISWAP, the sad truth is that such a development would be nothing short of a disaster for the Lake Chad Basin area. If these reports turn out to be true, it would signal a sea change in the region and a boon for ISWAP, who will now be in a position to channel more resources towards destabilizing the already fragile governments of Lake Chad basin.
This comes at an extremely delicate time for Chad, a country still reeling from the unexpected death of its long-time leader Idriss Déby in April. Destabilization of the country, which is currently fighting against extremist groups and rebel fighters on several fronts, could cause the region to spiral out of control.
Factions and Allegiances
Boko Haram was founded in Nigeria in 2002 by Mohammed Yusuf under the moniker Jamā'at Ahl as-Sunnah lid-Da'wah wa'l-Jihād (JAS), but it was Abubakar Shekau who made the group a household name after he took over in 2009. It was under his leadership that Boko Haram, a name meaning "Western education is forbidden", became notorious for a campaign of ruthless killings, suicide bombings, and kidnappings in the Lake Chad Basin, the most high-profile of which is the 2014 kidnapping of almost 300 schoolgirls in the Nigerian town of Chibok.
A significant development in the group's history came in 2015, when Shekau pledged allegiance to ISIS, becoming its main affiliate in Africa. But this marriage of convenience meant to shore up the embattled group turned out to be quite inconvenient for Shekau. Just one year later, tensions between him and ISIS leadership led to his replacement at the head of the faction and the split of Boko Haram into two distinct cells: one under the leadership of Shekau under the original name of JAS, and one loyal to ISIS that took the name ISWAP. For the first few years after the split, the two factions were not directly opposed to one another, even occasionally collaborating during attacks and terror operations. Relations soon deteriorated to the point where the bulk of the two groups' efforts were directed at each other.
This brings us to May 20th, when both the Nigerian government and international media outlets began reporting that Shekau had blown himself up (or shot himself) in the Sambisa forest in order to avoid capture. It would be the fourth time Shekau's death is announced, but a swathe of intelligence reports coming out of Nigeria in recent days - JAS commanders have begun switching sides to ISWAP - make this more credible.
Regardless of Shekau's status, there is no doubt that ISWAP is winning in the struggle between the two groups. Not only are they better organized, more disciplined, and more prone to mount attacks outside Nigeria, but their treatment of Muslim civilians in the occupied territories has helped them increase fighter numbers to up to 5000, compared to around 2000 for JAS.
ISWAP's supremacy in the region and its ability to operate without challenges from rival groups is likely to make things much harder for the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF), the military task force created in its current form in 2015 by Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and Benin to fight against Islamist threats in the Lake Chad Basin.
Hailed as a significant development in the efforts against Boko Haram at the time of its creation under the auspices of the African Union, the MNJTF has only enjoyed partial success in the region, with most of its gains reversed by later Boko Haram victories. Its lack of efficiency stems from both structural limitations usually associated with multinational chains of command, but also from tensions between participating countries. A possible end of hostilities between JAS and ISWAP could create a renewed surge of Islamist activities at a time when the MNJTF is at its most vulnerable.
Chad in particular has expressed frustrations at the disproportionate role its troops play in the fighting. Chad's army is well-regarded around the Sahel and, since joining the MNJTF, Chadian troops were involved in some of the most successful operations, but also accrued the most severe casualties, leaving the country to feel like they are "shouldering all the burden".
Chad: The Death of a President
The situation was further complicated by the death in April 2021 of president Idriss Déby during clashes with rebels in the country's northern provinces. Déby's death came as a shock to the people of Chad not only because he became one of the very few presidents in history to have died in battle, but also because of uncertainty surrounding the country's future in the wake of his killing.
Under Idriss Déby, who enjoyed strong backing from France since he came to power in 1990, Chad was one of the most stable countries of the Sahel, while his military credentials made him one of Boko Haram's biggest bogeymen. There are fears that without his strong grip on power, Chad might unravel and become another Libya, with both secular and Islamist factions fighting over control of the country. These concerns are further exacerbated by the possibility of renewed Boko Haram activities following Abubakr Shekau's demise.
The person most active in protecting Chad from its northern neighbor's fate is Mahamat Idriss Déby, the late president's son, who was appointed by the military to maintain the country's stability. Less than 24 hours after the announcement of Déby's death, Mahamat convened with Chad's military to form a temporary government. The Transitional Military Council intends to run the country for 18 months before elections can take place and a civilian government is reinstated. With Islamist threats coming from both the country's north and from its south, Mahamat has received French and American support to keep the country on an even keel.
As such, the possible end of hostilities between JAS and ISWAP only adds to the importance of ensuring the stability of Chad, one of the main architects of the MNJTF. The international community should now double down on the MNJTF and ensure the stability of the region – or else, the domino effect sparked by Shekau's death could engulf the entire Sahel in a quagmire of Islamist violence.
(Devdiscourse's journalists were not involved in the production of this article. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of Devdiscourse and Devdiscourse does not claim any responsibility for the same.)