Is This the Downfall of Boko Haram?
My last visit to Maiduguri and Chibok was eight months ago, on Easter Sunday. Since then a lot has happened, including the negotiated release of 21 Chibok schoolgirls in October. Before then, one Chibok girl, Amina Ali Nkeki, was discovered wandering in Sambisa Forest with her child on May 17. Amina was the first to be released from captivity since the night more than 200 schoolgirls were abducted by the terrorist group Boko Haram in 2014. Another girl, Maryam Ali Maiyanga, was discovered almost by accident on November 5 in an internally-displaced-person camp by soldiers routinely screening escapees from Boko Haram's base in the Sambisa Forest. She was carrying a 10-month-old baby boy. According to her, the boy’s father was a Boko Haram fighter and had been killed in battle.
That’s 23 girls out of 218, a mere trickle. But could this trickle soon turn into a flood? Would we soon see the return of all the remaining Chibok schoolgirls? Everyone hopes so, but no one knows if it will ever happen. The administration of Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari is holding its cards close its chest.
Governments usually don’t want to be seen to be negotiating with terrorists. The release of the 21 girls was made through a convoluted process that included the Swiss government and the Red Cross as go-betweens. Some reports say the girls were released in exchange for four imprisoned Boko Haram commanders and money amounting to millions of dollars. The Buhari administration has however denied giving anything in exchange for the girls, even though common sense would suggest Boko Haram would never release the girls for free. In August, Abubakar Shekau, the group’s leader, released a video in which his spokesman, Abu Zinnira, indicated their willingness to swap the girls for imprisoned Boko Haram fighters. The video showed some of the Chibok girls in custody, while he said that others had died in military bombardments, a claim later corroborated by Amina Ali Nkeki. Zinnira also listed certain trusted journalists and individuals the government could use as intermediaries if they wanted to negotiate with Boko Haram.
Why was Boko Haram keen to negotiate with the government? There have been attempts at deals in the past, but most of them have proved fruitless, as Boko Haram certainly recognizes the schoolgirls’ practical worth as hostages and symbolic value as propaganda. The reason for this change of mind is most likely traceable to an ongoing rift in the ranks of the terror group. In 2015, Shekau had publicly declared allegiance to ISIS. In August, in its propaganda magazine al-Nabā, ISIS announced that it had ousted Shekau as leader of Boko Haram and named as his replacement Abu Musab al-Barnawi, who is believed to be the son of Boko Haram’s charismatic founder, the late Mohammed Yusuf. In a spat that played out in the media, al-Barnawi accused Shekau of being a psychopathic killer, and went on to list names of comrades Shekau had slaughtered for various flimsy reasons. He painted a picture of a demented Shekau, holed up in his stronghold, surrounded by luxuries and women, while al-Barnawi sent his fighters to die for him.
Another reason for the split is over doctrine. Whereas Shekau still believes in takfir—denouncing and killing non-Muslims as well as Muslims who disagree with his principles—al-Barnawi rejects the killing of Muslims and the bombing of mosques, preferring to focus his jihad on Christians and foreigners. Currently al-Barnawi controls most of the border regions in northern Borno, while Shekau and his faction control the central regions around Sambisa Forest.
Violent clashes between the two factions have been reported in remote villages near the border between Nigeria and Niger. This is an opportunity for Nigerian authorities to infiltrate and escalate the conflict between the two sides, and hope for their mutual destruction. Boko Haram is weakening. Government forces have degraded its ranks, pushing it further and further towards the borders and deeper into Sambisa Forest. But still the group remains dangerous, particularly now that its back is against the wall. Daily the newspapers report considerable casualties on the side of the Nigerian forces, but nevertheless the government must keep up the offensive and push for the release of the rest of the hostages—not just the Chibok girls, but over 10,000 hostages said to be stuck in remote villages and towns still under Boko Haram control. It took nearly a decade for Boko Haram to become the terrible force it is today, and defeating it will take time. But clearly the momentum is on the side of the government forces, and they must do all they can to sustain it.
Helon Habila is the author of The Chibok Girls: The Boko Haram Kidnappings and Islamist Militancy in Nigeria and three novels, including Oil on Water, and is currently an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at George Mason University.