The five-year rivalry between Jamā’at Ahl as-Sunnah lid-Da’wah wa’l-Jihād (‘Group of the People of Sunnah for Preaching and Jihad’), also known as Boko Haram, and the Islamic States in West African Province (ISWAP) consumed misguided, obstinate, blood-thirsty, self-elevating and fugitive Abubakar Shekau a fortnight ago. Ironically the end of Shekau, believed to be invincible or a proverbial cat with nine lives, occurred in the hands of fellow so-called jihadists, unlike Al-Qaeda leader, the late Osama bin Laden, who was killed by American forces in 2011, and ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who took his own life when United States forces closed in on him in 2019.
Announcing Shekau’s death, ISWAP leader, Abu Musab al-Barnawi, said in a widely circulated audio recording in May, that “Abubakar Shekau, God has judged him…Shekau preferred to be humiliated in the afterlife than getting humiliated on earth, and he killed himself instantly by detonating an explosive.” Both Boko Haram and ISWAP have been engaged in internecine battles that shrank their ranks in their bid to control ungovernable Lake Chad region and Sambisa Forest. The late Shekau was said to be the only hurdle ISWAP needed to cross to possess the wide space.
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Though Shekau is dead, the battle against terrorists is not over. Rather, his death has opened a new chapter in this battle, which has caused the destruction of the North East’s economy, wasted Nigeria’s human and financial resources, and put the entire population on the edge for over a decade now. It is well-known that ISWAP targets government institutions, infrastructure and security agencies for deadly and devastating attacks. ISIL would want to put together all forces and financial resources available to it to achieve the caliphate dream in the combined Lake Chad and Sambisa Forest region, unless the Nigerian Army overwhelms the sect.
The Islamic State’s design to establish a tentacle in Africa is not hidden, as countries around the Sahel region – Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger Republic, Cameroon, and North-East Nigeria – are now battling extremist groups associated with ISIL. The group’s revenue stream, including ransom from kidnapping, illegal taxation, robbery, illegal business ventures, and donations from sympathisers who operate in the formal economic and political spheres, is not hampered. The media platforms used to propagate ISIL’s doctrines have not been obstructed by government. Having occupied an ungoverned space in the Sahel region, the group has access to thousands of young men who are recruited into their fold, either for the sheer power of the gun or for the financial reward from ISIL. Therefore, the atmosphere seems ripe for ISWAP to expand and re-strategise.
To the new Chief of Army Staff, Major-General Farouk Yahaya, this is a major challenge. It has become imperative for the military to review its strategies in the fight against terrorists whose activities are flowing into the mayhem perpetrated by bandits in the North West and North Central parts of Nigeria. From its history, ISIL does not value negotiation or amnesty. In 2011, Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad granted amnesty to untold number of terrorists of ISIL persuasion; they were freed from prison. However, many of them returned to the battlefront to fight on the side of ISIL. This means, the military must take the fight to the terrorists, using all necessary tactical approaches to ensure they are defeated on all fronts.
We call on President Muhammadu Buhari to demonstrate the political will to crush terrorists, instead of treading on the path of the failed defensive, carrot and stick approaches, which have not yielded the needed results. It is time to revive the Multinational Joint Task Force for the next battle, even if it means their operations being funded by the Nigerian government.
Nigeria should provide the needed leadership to crush ISWAP as it is now clear that the sect does not understand any other language than that of fire-for-fire. The sect does not give up until it is defeated. The army must not give up until it defeats ISWAP. Rivalry has killed Shekau, but the battle against terrorists rages on.