Two curious events took place last week. In one, the leadership of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) announced their choice of Abu Musab al-Barnawi as the new head of Boko Haram, the Islamist group that for seven years has rendered Nigeria’s northeast one of the world’s most dangerous locations. It was ISIS’ first public intervention in the affairs of Boko Haram since the Nigerian Islamist group last year declared fealty to ISIS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
ISIS’ announcement triggered a swift, defiant statement by Abubakar Shekau, declaring himself still captain of Boko Haram, a jihadist group that abjures western education and values—and seeks to turn Nigeria and a swath of territory in West Africa into a caliphate.
The second event was a reported split within the Niger Delta Avengers, the militant group that has claimed responsibility for bombing crude oil facilities in the Niger Delta, forcing numerous oil firms to significantly scale back their operations. Christening themselves Reformed Niger Delta Avengers, the splinter group said they were renouncing the deployment of violence and endorsing ongoing negotiations between President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration and the Movement for the Emancipation of the Nigeria Delta (MEND).
I was fascinated by the sheer coincidence of the two developments, but coincidence was hardly the most intriguing dimension of the fissuring that took place within a neo-sectarian group, Boko Haram, and a neo-political enterprise, the Niger Delta Avengers.
On the face of it, what we witnessed was a veritable divorce within two organizations whose goals may be different, but whose violent deeds represent two versions of Nigeria’s greatest nightmares.
For me, then, what was even more interesting than the ordinary facts of the splits themselves was to witness the playing out of a sort of theological argument (within Boko Haram) and a species of ideological debate (within the Niger Delta Avengers). The situation in the Niger Delta seems to me to be in its early stages of evolution. In the coming weeks, it will become clearer whether the splinter group—which renamed itself Reformed Niger Delta Avengers (RNDA)—is truly motivated by ideas (a desire to end the ecological blight in the oil-rich region and to curb the climate of insecurity), or is actuated by the prospect of securing a share of a government-provided largesse that is in the offing.
For now, I propose to turn my attention solely to the interesting divorce that took place last week between two factions of Boko Haram.
The mercurial Abubakar Shekau had for several years functioned as the voice and face of Boko Haram. Nigerians and others had become familiar with his dark, bearded face, his military-style fatigues, and his jabbing, jeering words, a machine gun draped across his chest. His speeches established his fame and notoriety. He comes across as a man with an acute, if diabolical, sense of drama and moment. Whatever the occasion—whether to show off the more than 200 Chibok schoolgirls his group captured and threatened to auction off for a few dollars a person, to gloat over the capture of a major town or the routing of a military barracks—he mixed taunts, quotes from the Quran and sweeping hand gestures. And he often punctuated his verbal antics by releasing a cackle of gunfire into the air.
His blood-soaked career as a jihadist has sometimes transported him to the realm of legend. On at least three occasions, the Nigerian army had announced that he had been killed in combat. Once, the report was that Cameroonian troops had got him. Photos of his supposedly dead body were splashed online. Each time, however, Shekau had posted another video to declare himself alive, to mock his ostensible killers, and to promise more mayhem.
Yet, soon after Boko Haram’s announcement last year that it was affiliating with ISIS, Shekau’s videotaped appearances became rare. Perhaps ISIS had iced the antics for strategic reasons, the better not to give away telltale clues about the location of Boko Haram insurgents. Then came last week’s bombshell, terse announcement that ISIS had chosen al-Barnawi as Boko Haram’s new leader.
For the first time in months, Shekau released an audiotaped message. He reaffirmed himself as the incumbent leader of the Islamist sect. But there was something noticeably different in his voice, a telling absence of exuberance and glee. In clipped, cryptic phrases, he declared that he and his followers had been deceived, had been duped in a clandestine plot. Despite the absence of his signature bounciness of tone, the import of his speech was unmistakable. He was repudiating his group’s loyalty to ISIS.
A day later, the ISIS-backed al-Barnawi issued a lengthy taped retort to his sulking erstwhile compatriot and leader. According to a translated transcript, he declared that Shekau “was boasting that if we attempt to escape from his empire his men would kill us. He is a liar. I am not the only one that left, but eight of us left, all kitchen cabinet members.” He cautioned Shekau against attempting an armed attack on his splinter group, claiming ominously that his group had moles planted deep within Shekau’s circles. He accused his estranged former leader of numerous acts of self-centeredness and grave impulsiveness. He stated that Shekau basked in luxury but was callously indifferent to the agony of starving children. He said Shekau frequently failed to provide Islamist fighters with food and weapons. And then he declared that Shekau had secretly killed numerous Boko Haram members, often on account of unproven or false accusations.
But the most remarkable part of al-Barnawi’s response was its articulation of a theological indictment of Shekau. At the heart of the “theological” dispute was the splinter group’s sense that Shekau had betrayed Islamic tenets by being an equal opportunity killer—dealing death to Muslims and Christians alike.
The ISIS-supported al-Barnawi is so repelled by the killing of fellow Muslims—when there are more than enough infidels to slaughter—that he makes the point again and again: “Just like Allah gave us power to kill infidels, there are those he said we shouldn’t kill without reason.
“In the Quran, Allah forbade Muslims from killing one another…Almighty Allah is against killings of Muslims. Allah is saying better heaven and earth fall than innocent soul of a Muslim, but you have Shekau who likes killing our own people…There are several verses that forbid killing of a fellow Muslim unjustifiably…Shekau is ignorant of the fact that it is forbidden for a Muslim to be killed after being chased out of Islamic Caliphate to a strange land and [when the Muslim] has not taken part in any conspiracy against Muslims. [Shekau] is ignorant and needs to be taught the rudiments of Islam.”
The split between Shekau and al-Barnawi portends potentially significant shifts. Is there a chance that the two sides would fall on each other in a fierce, internecine feud? Or is one side going to quickly vanquish the other—and institute its own modus operandi?
There’s a great challenge and opportunity for mainstream Muslims, those who have declared no overt fatwa on western education. These adherents often stipulate that Islam is founded on peace. It behooves them, then, to make their voices heard in this theological debate between Shekau and al-Barnawi. They must restate that the so-called infidel is every bit as human as any Muslim—and that the taking of any life without just cause is unwarranted and an affront.
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