HOW many times can one man die? At least four, in the case of Abubakar Shekau, the slippery leader of Boko Haram. Nigerian security forces celebrated his demise in 2009, 2013 and 2014, only for him to pop up again, disconcertingly animate, on camera. When Chad’s president said in August that his troops had killed Mr Shekau, the jihadist was resurrected once again, this time with a voice recording. “Woe unto liars that had claimed I am dead,” said the voice. “Nobody can kill me.”
This relatively mild-mannered dispatch raised questions of its own. Most of what is known about Africa’s most notorious terrorist derives from his gun-wielding, slave-touting videos. If he were still at large, would he not release a film in his usual more robust style? Most probably, he is indeed alive. Whether he is injured is impossible to say. Experts dispute how old he is, or how religiously scholarly. Perhaps he is not one man at all. The army accused Boko Haram of using body doubles after he was “killed” last year.
The organisation Mr Shekau presides over is shrouded in more mystery still. Nigeria’s insurgency has grown a lot bloodier since Mr Shekau took over from Mohammed Yusuf, who was (verifiably) shot dead by police in 2009. In theory a more conciliatory leader might offer some hope for compromise and peace. But what if many of Boko Haram’s bomb-blasting ideologues answer to different bosses altogether? Even the most knowledgeable experts cannot agree on whether the organisation consists of one army or several.
This is a worry, to say the least. Nigeria has spent six years and billions of dollars battling the terrorists, who have killed over 15,000 people in their bid to establish a caliphate in the north-east. As attacks spill across borders, Chad, Cameroon and Niger have been drawn in. A regional army is set to deploy soon. Without basic intelligence, they are shooting in the dark.
One explanation for the sect’s opacity is geography. Boko Haram’s fighters hole up in the forests and mountains near the border with Cameroon, or along the desert fringes of Lake Chad. Telephone lines are often cut. Members communicate vital information in person. Fulan Nasrullah, a Nigerian security analyst, says Boko Haram conscripts only from families known to its spies, so it is not easily infiltrated.
A second view is that those who could solve the enigma do not try hard to do so. America designated Boko Haram as a terrorist organisation only in 2013. With a bounty of $7m on his head, Mr Shekau is worth more to the Americans than any other outlaw in Africa. Yet there have been only modest efforts to train local soldiers and gather intelligence. Western governments do not view Nigeria’s Islamists as a threat to their interests. Compared with Islamic State, Boko Haram is not a priority.
Within Nigeria, meanwhile, the war has made some generals and security agents very rich. They would perhaps rather not see it end. The official line seems to be that questions about what Boko Haram wants and how its forces are structured are peripheral. “Even if there is a split [between factions], we are not looking at it that way,” says Mike Omeri, a government spokesman.
It had better start. The stringent new president, Muhammadu Buhari, recently gave the army three months to snuff out Boko Haram. Before they stand a chance of doing that, they will need to work out what they are fighting.