By Blake Gutberlet, CIB Africa Desk
Analytical question: Has Boko Haram grown stronger in 2016?
Abubakar Shekau, leader of the Nigerian insurgency group Boko Haram, has resurfaced in a YouTube video insisting on the release of the Chibok schoolgirls only if the Nigerian government agrees to a prisoner swap. I believe with high confidence that, due to a faction war currently taking place within Boko Haram and now the willingness to negotiate with the Nigerian government, Boko Haram is not growing stronger.
On the night of April 15, 2014, 276 female students were kidnapped from the Government Secondary School in the town of Chibok in Borno State, Nigeria. Responsibility for the kidnappings were claimed by Boko Haram shortly after. Fifty-seven of the schoolgirls managed to escape over the next few months following the kidnapping, and negotiations for the release of the girls have been underway since July 2015, shortly after Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari took office. Though the negotiations between the Nigerian government and Boko Haram have been taking place for some time, the two parties have failed to come to an agreement on three separate occasions. Trying to increase the likelihood of an agreement between the two parties, President Buhari has invited the United Nations to mediate any further negotiations over the release of the Chibok schoolgirls.
In what is clear defiance toward the Nigerian government, Shekau has vowed not to release the abducted Chibok schoolgirls unless his captured Boko Haram members are also released by the Nigerian government. Shekau made this vow in a 39-minute video posted on YouTube on September 24, 2016. In this video, Shekau, who spoke for 27 minutes in Arabic reading from a prepared script, called President Buhari a “cow worshiper” and a “liar”. He then called on him to repent and follow the ways of Boko Haram. In the speech, Shekau criticized the use of the Nigerian national anthem and national pledge in schools, claiming they are ways of making children unbelievers. Shekau also accuses the West of introducing secular education, sports, and music as ways to deny Muslims time to read their Quran. During the other 12 minutes of the video, Shekau spoke in Hausa and addressed the most recent unconfirmed report of his death, claiming that he was healthy, safe, and that only God could kill him.
It is believed that Shekau is willing to negotiate the release of the Chibok schoolgirls in exchange for captured Boko Haram fighters due to the leadership struggle currently taking place within the insurgency group. On August 3, 2016, ISIL released a video in which it named Abu Musab al-Barnawi, a former Boko Haram spokesman, as the new spiritual leader of the group. This announcement has led to the effective separation of Boko Haram into two camps, members who back Shekau and members who back Barnawi. Therefore, Shekau is more willing to negotiate due to the fact that the number of fighters willing to fight in support of him are now more important than the abducted Chibok girls. These recent developments are worthy of attention because it shows that Boko Haram currently has a new agenda when dealing with the Nigerian government.
I believe that the reports on this development are accurate due to the fact that many sources had Shekau’s YouTube video available to watch and had a transcript of everything Shekau said during the 39-minute video. Again, I believe with high confidence that, due to a faction war currently taking place within Boko Haram and now the willingness to negotiate with the Nigerian government, Boko Haram is not growing stronger. Therefore, these developments have not changed my original forecast.
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