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Boko Haram's Shekau out, Barnawi in; could this be the end of an era?

Boko Haram

The Islamic State group on Wednesday named a new leader for its west african affiliate, Boko Haram. The announcement comes at a time when there are uncertainties surrounding the whereabouts of its long-time leader Abubakar Shekau. Africanews’ Nii Akrofi Smart-Abbey has been finding out from counter terrorism expert, Martin Ewi what this announcement means for the fight against Boko Haram.

It appears Nigeria will have to return to the drawing board to come up with a more formidable plan to defeat the jihadist group Boko Haram, which has become an albatross around its neck for some seven years now.

The Islamic State group on Wednesday announced that its west African affiliate has a new leader in the person of the group’s spokesperson, Abu Musab al-Barnawi. The IS referred to him as the new “Wali” of its west African province – a title until recently was used to describe the group’s long-time leader, Abubakar Shekau.

And whereas the announcement may have served as a sort of confirmation of Boko Haram’s continued existence, it begs one key question – where is Abubakar Shekau?

That question, Martin Ewi, a counter terrorism expert with the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) believes can be answered in three scenarios.

“One could be, which I think could be far from reality … that he’s dead.”

This hypothesis does not seem far fetched considering the fact that Shekau has not made any public appearances for almost a year now. In fact, his last public appearance was to dispel rumours of his death sometime in August 2015. But much has not been heard from him since.

“Then the second could be the fact that probably he’s been given a new role within the Islamic State and he’s probably not in Nigeria so he could be somewhere in Libya or Syria where he’s representing the IS,” Ewi propounded .

This could also be true and could possibly explain why he has been silent for sometime now. After all, he was the one who pledged Boko Haram’s allegiance to the Islamic State and it is just befitting that he be rewarded by probably being put in charge of a much larger force?

Which delves straight into Ewi’s third theory.

“The third scenario for me would be one that probably because of the splintering and division within the group, the IS decided to put him apart in order to safeguard the integrity of the group. ” Ewi was however quick to add to my dismay that “this also for me is an unlikely scenario to happen.”

“I don’t think that Shekau can be in Nigeria or in the Boko Haram area of influence and then not have that leadership role. It will be very difficult seeing a scenario like that working because for Abubakar Shekau, Boko Haram is his life. He can’t do anything without it. The only way he can keep his integrity, his personality is if he is given a different role which could be something for him, more special than working with Boko Haram. So he would have gotten something more in the hierarchy of the Islamic State. That would be for me, the most possible scenario,” Ewi explained.

With these theories, Martin Ewi does not foresee a showdown between Abu Musab al-Barnawi and Abubakar Shekau for the top job of leading Nigeria’s militant group which is believed to have killed more people than the group it has pledged allegiance to.

“If it were a matter of fighting back, I think he would have fought back during this past year because what this new appointment – if I can call it so – really signifies, is really a confirmation of the status quo that has been within Boko Haram for the past year or so.”

But what does the appointment of al-Barnawi mean for Boko Haram?

For starters, it could be a way of announcing the sturdiness of the group which has in recent times suffered some setbacks from a better equipped Nigerian army.

Boko Haram had hitherto controlled large swathes of northern Nigeria for years, terrorizing its residents, capturing schoolgirls, killing and driving many away from their homes and carrying out suicide attacks.

Since Muhammadu Buhari came into office however, the Nigeria army’s attempt at waging an offensive against the militant group appears to have improved. This however, has not stopped the group from staging attacks and expanding their activities into neighbouring Cameroon and Chad.

In December last year, he told the BBC that the militant group could no longer mount “conventional attacks” against security forces or population centers and gave the military until the end of 2015 to defeat the group – a deadline that is yet to met.

Earlier in June this year, Boko Haram retook the town of Bosso in southeastern Niger after an overnight exchange of gunfire which reports say killed as many as 30 soldiers from Niger and 3 others from Nigeria.

So if Wednesday’s announcement was anything to go by, it was to show the “rejuvenation” of a group about which a lot of rumour exist.

“You have heard of recent allegations especially coming from Nigerians that the group has been seriously weakened … and then there have also been rumours about splintering within the group and so on and so forth. I think the confirmation of Abu Musab al-Barnawi is really to show that the group is still a group to reckon with, it is still a strong group, it really is also to debunk the rumours that are going round to say nothing is wrong with this group,” Ewi opined.

Why Abu Musab al-Barnawi?

Al-Barnawi is considered to be the opposite of Shekau. Whereas the latter is a firebrand who always shouts and issues threats in his videos, the former appears to be more composed and soft spoken.

“I think that if the Islamic State chose Barnawi, he seems more to them like someone they can support,” explains Ewi who believes Barnawi’s demeanor puts him in a position to turn around the image of the militant group.

Of course, they would stick to their hardline ideology but their approach Ewi believes will be more civil.

“From the way I see Barnawi conducting himself, the new trend of attacks we’re going to see from Boko Haram is going to be more strategic. We’re not going to be seeing this kind of wanton attacks and things like that. We’re going to see more strategic attacks, attacks that are really to promote or consolidate (the) Islamic State philosophy. I think attacks or wanton attacks on civilians is going to reduce. You’re going to have a much more professional group, a group with some form of demeanor that will appeal to people, that this is an organised group,” he said.

But with the alliance between Boko Haram and the so-called Islamic State consolidated, Ewi says “we could actually see more foreign fighters within Boko Haram. And that could mean more danger, more strength for the group but (also) more danger for Nigerians because the group is going to up its activities, its violence is going to rise”.

He contends that IS’ support for its west African wing will “make it extremely difficult for Nigeria and other actors in the region to defeat Boko Haram”.

This he says will only be possible if Barnawi is able to transform the group from being “that terrifying and very fearful group even among its membership” and gives some form of stability and hope to the group and its members.

But even as the group’s apparent leadership crisis takes shape, more lives and livelihoods are being lost as a result of the attacks by the militants in the northern parts of Nigeria and Cameroon where the economy has been badly affected.

Traders in the bustling trade hub of Maroua in northern Cameroon for instance say they are unable to carry out any trading activities because of attacks from Boko Haram and the establishment of a military base by the Cameroonian army to counter the attacks of the militants.

The United Nations has also said some 568,000 children in the Lake Chad basin, (400,000 in northern Nigeria alone) are malnourished as a result of the frequent attacks by Boko Haram.

The collapse of the economies and famine in the Lake Chad basin looks set to continue for as long as Boko Haram exists, irrespective of who leads the group.