Boko Haram warlord and public face, Abubakar Shekau, was last heard from in March, when he pledged allegiance to the so-called Islamic State. His silence since then led to speculation that he was dead or had been replaced. Chad’s president, Idriss Deby, recently claimed that Shekau had been replaced as Boko Haram’s leader with a figure unknown to observers. (See Africa in Transition, August 12, 2015.) Deby’s comment led to Shekau issuing an eight minute audio message in Hausa on August 16 in which he said he was still in command. The SITE Intelligence Group, Agence France-Presse, and the BBC have stated that “there is no doubt that the voice is that of Abubakar Shekau.” So, at least we know he is not dead.
Because so little is known about Shekau and the inner workings of Boko Haram, it is tempting to over-read his audio message in much the same way as 1950’s Kremlinologists approached the words of Stalin and the actions of the Soviet Union’s Central Committee. Nevertheless, it is striking that Shekau, in effect, reaffirmed his allegiance to the Islamic State and its “caliph,” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. He dismissed Nigeria’s new president, Muhammadu Buhari, who had earlier ordered the military service chiefs to defeat Boko Haram in three months: “This ostentatious person, a liar – I mean Buhari, who raised arms to crush us in three months. You Buhari, why didn’t you say in three years?” (The quotation is from Nigerian media.)
Conventional wisdom has been that Boko Haram has been focused on the destruction of the Nigerian state rather than the broader agenda of the Islamic State. Other than the attack on the UN headquarters in Abuja in 2011, Boko Haram has attacked no foreign facility, though it has been involved in the kidnapping of foreigners. However, there may be a hint in Shekau’s latest audio that Boko Haram is moving closer to the Islamic State. He said, with reference to Buhari, “We will certainly fight you by the grace of Allah until we establish Allah’s law everywhere on Earth.” This may imply a Boko Haram area of operations broader that Nigeria and its border regions. On the other hand, Shekau’s public utterances have usually lacked precision, and that may be the case here.