Boko Haram has a record of factionalism and one of the latest breakaway groups might be open to dialogue.
During an address on the 55th anniversary of Chad’s Independence Day last month, President Idriss Deby boldly stated that “Boko Haram is decapitated”, claiming that that the group’s firebrand leader, Abubakar Shekau, had been replaced. His alleged successor, he said, was a militant commander by the name of Mahamat Daoud – a previously unknown figure within the group’s already shadowy leadership structure – who, according to Deby, was open to negotiations with member states of the Lake Chad Basin Commission.
A day after Deby’s musings, African Arguments published a piece by Nigerian analyst Fulan Nusrullah. According to Nasrullah, who has been blogging about Boko Haram since 2014, Mahamt Daoud (or more correctly Muhammed Duad) is a Shuwa Arab native to the city of Maiduguri – long considered to be the birthplace of Boko Haram.
In addition to being a former serviceman, Nasrullah claims Daud to be one of the earliest students of slain Boko Haram founder, Muhammed Yusuf, and a member of the sect’s hierarchy who rejected Shekau’s recent oath of allegiance to the Islamic State – a pledge of fidelity which, Nasrullah says, Boko Haram’s new leader viewed as a rejection of Yusuf’s teachings.
Apart from providing a detailed account of Daud, Nasrullah delves into the possibility of Boko Haram entering into negotiations with regional governments. In doing so, he clarifies that Boko Haram’s presumed willingness to seek conciliation does not substantiate Deby’s claims that Daud has replaced Shekau. Instead, the author claims that the former may merely be representing a different faction.
According to Nasrullah, Boko Haram is not a monolithic movement but rather an umbrella organisation comprising various factions unified only by the shared origins in Yusuf and their associated ideological disposition. While perhaps contentious, the author is not the only analyst to have questioned the homogeneity (or lack thereof) of the group. In their briefing “˜Curbing the Violence in Nigeria: The Boko Haram insurgency‘, the International Crisis Group notes the existence of at least six Boko Haram factions – the largest and most violent of which is headed by Shekau – each of which operates independently within its respective area of influence.
Perhaps the clearest example of factionalism within Boko Haram was the formation in 2012 of an alleged splinter movement known as Ansaru. Although the exact origins of Ansaru remain subject to contention, it is believed that the militant group was formed following a leadership struggle between Shekau and Boko Haram commander and former al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) operative Khalid al-Barnawi.
Although it appears that a large number of Ansaru militants have been reintegrated into Boko Haram amid speculation that al-Barnawi and Shekau reconciled, the breakaway Ansaru faction is still believed to exist, as noted by a February 2015 video which details allegations of human rights abuses by the Nigerian army.
While all this suggests factionalism does indeed exist within Boko Haram and could explain the simultaneous leadership roles of Shekau and Daud, the next question is: what benefit would a Boko Haram faction derive from negotiating with regional governments?
One issue in this is the faction’s objectives. For instance, a Boko Haram faction that is driven more by financial reward than dogma may see negotiation as an opportunity to be compensated and given access to state patronage in exchange for laying down arms. This kind of strategy of reconciliation has eased conflict in Nigeria’s once insurgent-embattled Niger Delta region and enriched many former rebels at the same time.
Alternatively, we may also have to look at the relative strength of the faction involved. Conciliation may be an attractive option for a weaker group, especially in the face of an imminent UN-backed multinational counterinsurgency force which has been mandated to put a decisive end to Boko Haram’s armed insurrection.
Although levels of Boko Haram violence remain relatively high in Nigeria, it is important to note that counterinsurgency operations launched jointly between the militaries of Chad and Nigeria have dislodged the sect from areas in Borno, Yobe and Adamawa states. In addition, important logistical supply networks have been similarly dismantled, while areas where militants previously had freedom of movement have since been fortified. If the factionalism hypothesis is to be believed, a Boko Haram contingent which has been particularly debilitated by such operations may lack the resolve to face off a renewed and likely intensified round of counter-offensives.
Despite their combative stance, regional governments may also view negotiation with a Boko Haram faction as a salient counter-terrorism strategy. By entering into conciliatory dialogue with dissenters, regional governments could effectively weaken the group whilst also gaining valuable insights to the inner workings of the sect.
Furthermore, it would also provide regional governments with an opportunity to develop a ‘soft-approach’ in addressing Africa’s deadliest insurgency. Although the newly-elected Nigerian government has remained coy on its willingness to enter into negotiations with Boko Haram fighters, President Muhammadu Buhari has not discounted the possibility. Speaking to the BBC, presidential adviser Femi Adesina responded “if they are willing, why not – you cannot rule that out” when asked whether the Nigerian government would consider negotiating with sect.
However, there is also the very plausible possibility that talks of Boko Haram leadership changes, factionalism and negotiations may be one of many episodes of misinformation related to the insurgency. Less than a week after Deby claimed Shekau had been deposed from the Boko Haram throne, the militant leader released an audio recording confirming both his longevity and ongoing leadership of the militant group. The communique, if verified to be authentic, would be the third separate occasion Shekau has confirmed his leadership of Boko Haram amid official claims to the contrary.
Ryan Cummings is Chief Analyst on Africa at red24.