A Nigerian military claim that Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau was dead was dismissed as propaganda on Thursday by analysts, who said that even if true it was unlikely to undermine the rebels.
The defence ministry said on Wednesday that Shekau was dead and that one Bashir Mohammed, killed during recent clashes with troops, was a lookalike who had been impersonating him in videos.
The announcement was the first time that the military high command had said Shekau was dead, after refusing to confirm two previous claims from police and a regional task force in 2009 and 2013.
Ordinarily, news of the wanted terrorist group leader’s demise would make headlines but reaction was muted.
“Military kills Abubakar Shekau ‘again’,” The Punch, one of only a few Nigerian newspapers to give the announcement prominence, said in a front-page headline.
The defence ministry did not disclose how or when the “original” Shekau died and security experts said they had not provided any concrete proof.
A photograph purporting to show Mohammed and put forward by the military to the media as evidence on Wednesday was the same as one circulating on social media for days, they added.
They also pointed to a precedent for videos featuring Shekau mocking claims of his death to emerge after the previous claims.
Ahmad Salkida, a Nigerian journalist who has previously been involved in peace talks with Boko Haram, dismissed the new claim out of hand.
“Mark my words: I have it on authority that Shekau is well & alive, the picture going round is NOT the person who torments us with his group,” he wrote on Twitter on September 22.
Alkasim Abdulkadir, from the Nigeria Security Network of analysts, said Shekau, as spiritual and military commander, would not be anywhere near the front line of fighting.
“I doubt the veracity of the death of Shekau and the claims by the army,” he told AFP by email.
“However, Bashir, whose pictures have gone viral, is indeed a BH (Boko Haram) commander but he is not in any way Abubakar Shekau.”
Another analyst with close links to security services claimed the military had seized on online speculation about the photograph and concocted its theory of a Shekau impersonator.
Nigeria’s government last year demanded Boko Haram provide “proof of life” for its commander before holding any discussion about the possible release of more than 200 schoolgirls kidnapped in April, he added.
“Acceptable proof” was provided and seen by Nigeria’s intelligence services and President Goodluck Jonathan, he indicated, adding: “There is no elaborate deception going on at BH’s end.
“The Abubakar Shekau who was (Boko Haram founder) Mohammed Yusuf’s right-hand man is the very same person who has appeared in all the videos BH has put out.”
Ryan Cummings, of Red24 risk consultants, said the claims were likely part of military propaganda.
Top brass have recently been trumpeting their apparent success in recapturing territory lost to the rebels, including uncorroborated claims that 135 Boko Haram fighters surrendered.
Cummings and others also suggested that even if Shekau were dead, it has had little impact on the five-year insurgency, which has become increasingly deadly.
“Even if he was (killed) on a previous occasion, it is quite evident that Boko Haram has continued to operate with a degree of efficacy, despite the purported loss of their so-called leader,” he said.
Shekau is the head of Boko Haram’s high command or Shura, with several senior commanders thought to be responsible for strategic planning.
“In this regard, the potential loss of Shekau would unlikely transcend into an operational decline of the sect, as there would be a command structure in place to continue Boko Haram’s strategic objectives,” Cummings added.
Jacob Zenn, from the Jamestown Foundation thinktank in the United States, said Shekau may well have been killed previously and that his name had since been adopted by several commanders.
Close attention is sure to be paid to further Boko Haram videos which emerge, particularly if they feature Shekau.
But Zenn said it was Boko Haram practice to use the same name to designate one of its official roles, citing its former spokesman who was reported killed in 2012.
“Like Shekau, there used to be multiple Abu Qaqas,” he said. “This has been part of BH’s organisational structure.” SAPA