Chadian President Idriss Déby declared on Tuesday that Boko Haram has been "decapitated," with a new chief replacing Abubakar Shekau, the group's previous leader.Déby also said that efforts to combat the Nigerian militant group would conclude "before the end of the year."
Déby's remarks came just a few hours after a bombing in northeastern Nigeria that killed around 50 people. The bomb detonated in a crowded market in the village of Sabon Gari, in Borno state. No group has claimed responsibility for the explosion, but it bears all the hallmarks of Boko Haram, which has stepped up attacks in the area in recent weeks.
A local source told Reuters the blast killed 47 people and injured 52. A member of a local vigilante group that combats the insurgents alongside local armed forces told AFP that the bomb was concealed in "a knapsack used for spraying herbicides," and apparently abandoned in the crowd.
Déby made the claim that Boko Haram has appointed a new leader while he addressed reporters during a celebration of the 55th anniversary of Chad's independence from France.
"There is someone apparently called Mahamat Daoud who is said to have replaced Abubakar Shekau," Déby said. Shekau — who has been declared dead on more than one occasion — has been conspicuously absent from the group's recent propaganda videos.
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Little is known about Daoud, the man touted as Shekau's successor. He does not appear to be part of the group's "shura" council, but, according to Deby, he has communicated that he is open to peace talks.
Boko Haram pledged allegiance to the so-called Islamic State in March, officially renaming itself the Islamic State West Africa Province.
"Boko Haram is not necessarily an organization that has only one leader," William Assanvo, a senior researcher in the Dakar office of the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), told VICE News. The expert noted that even if Shekau is no longer heading up the insurgency, his downfall will have limited influence on the group's operations. "Despite Shekau not having shown up in weeks, the group is still carrying out attacks," he said.
In an effort to put an end to Boko Haram's six-year insurgency, the countries around Lake Chad have set up a cross-regional force comprised of 8,700 troops from Cameroon, Nigeria, Chad, Niger, and Benin.
'Boko Haram is not necessarily an organization that has only one leader.'
Déby said the regional force would be "operational in a few days," and that the war against Boko Haram would be "short."
In July, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari appointed GeneralIliya Abbahto lead the Multi-National Joint Task Force (MNJTF), which was supposed to be operational by July 30.
"They now have to appoint their army chiefs," Assanvo said, explaining that each of the five countries involved in the force "need to agree to designate the officers that will staff it." The researcher also noted that the countries still need to iron out "the logistics for deploying troops."
In late July, Buhari traveled to neighboring Cameroon on an official visit to strengthen cooperation in the fight against Boko Haram. According to Assanvo, the trip highlighted the need for "political discussions around the procedures [to be adopted] by this joint multinational force."
The new military operation will focus mainly on border security, and troops posted along the border are expected to make regular incursions into Nigeria to hunt militants.
Assanvo described the MNJTF as a "conventional response" to the Boko Haram insurgency, which up until this winter, was mostly concerned with expanding its territory. But in the past few months the terror group has seemingly fallen back on its previous modus operandi of deadly raids and bombings. Assanvo explained that after being pushed back by troops from Chad and Niger, the group had lost its ability to control entire towns.
Assanvo warned that the new force would be "unable to secure all the borders," since many of them are incredibly long and "not clearly marked." The researcher also highlighted the need for intelligence missions to "dismantle [terror] cells and secure towns."
A key element in the war against the insurgents, he added, would be to win back control of Boko Haram's stronghold in northeastern Nigeria. The sprawling 27,000 square-mile territory of Borno state has been the group's fiefdom ever since it was formed in 2002.
Follow Pierre Longeray on Twitter: @PLongeray