The Osama bin Laden of Northern Nigeria, Sheikh Abubakar Shekau, has apparently been deposed by members of his own terrorist group, Boko Haram, as prelude to peace negotiations with the government of President Goodluck Jonathan.
The ouster is believed to have happened as the group -- whose full name is Jama'atu Ahlul Sunnah Lih Da'awa Wal Jihad -- entered into a back-channel dialogue with the government in the search for an elusive peace to a conflict that has seen multiple suicide bombings, attacks on government buildings and churches, and has claimed thousands of lives since 2011.
Reports from the group that has been tasked to liaise with emissaries from the government indicate that the man who was leading the talks, Abu Zamira Mohammed, has been appointed the new leader by the organization's Shura Council. This has raised hopes for the moderation of a group that has close ties to al Qaeda and has fought alongside al Qaeda in the Maghreb.
Though their centre of operations is in the northeast of the country, remote from the country's more prosperous southern cities and oil-producing regions, Boko Haram has had a profound impact on Nigeria, a country of 160-million people divided roughly evenly between Muslims and Christians. There have been fears that a worsening of the insurrection and religious conflict between Christians and Muslims would impact the entire West African region.
Shekau was deputy leader under Boko Haram founder Imam Mohammed Yusuf who was captured in July 2009 in fighting in the northeast of Nigeria and executed by Nigeria's Police force in what appears to have been an extrajudicial killing. The interrogation and Yusuf's bullet-riddled body were filmed on video.
Yusuf's death radicalized the Boko Haram leaders and led them to move underground and identify more closely with Al Qaeda. Following the founder's killing, Shekau emerged as the new leader of a revitalised Boko Haram in 2010 and he and other commanders refocused the group towards global jihad.
Shekau launched a series of well-planned assassinations and suicide bombings that targeted Nigerian police headquarters and the UN offices in Abuja among many other locations. Through a series of video appearances on television stations, notably Al Jazeera, Shekau emerged as the face of Boko Haram. Earlier this year, the U.S. placed a $7-million bounty on his head.
However, Shekau has been noticeably absent from recent public statements and is not one of the leaders who have engaged with government emissaries. It had been presumed that Shekau chose to voluntarily leave peace discussions in the hands of Boko Haram's leadership group.
It has now come to light that Boko Haram's leadership group sent representatives to the capital Abuja on 25 June 2013 where they revealed to the government that Shekau was no longer their leader.
Imam Liman Ibrahim, the spiritual leader of Boko Haram, explained that the teaching of Shekau was becoming increasingly harsh and began to depart from the Holy Qu'ran. "It was harsh, harsh, harsh", Imam Liman said when explaining the reasons for the change of leadership. "The beheadings, the killings, the recent death of students ... this is not the way of the Holy Qu'ran. We could tolerate it no longer."
Imam Liman explained that Shekau was given a choice of joining the peace dialogue with the Nigerian Government, forming his own sect or being killed. Several senior Boko Haram commanders including Shekau's Chief of Security and personal bodyguard, Abdullahi Hassan, have claimed that Shekau has since been shot in the lower leg, thigh and shoulder.
Shekau's exact fate is not known. A video clip recovered from a Boko Haram camp in the Sambisa Forest Reserve in the northeast Nigeria, raided by the military on May 16, shows Shekau limping, providing confirmation of reports he had been shot.
Boko Haram has been in preliminary discussions with government emissaries since the organization declared a ceasefire across all states of Nigeria on June 26. Abu Zamira Mohammed said they were still waiting for the Federal Government of Nigeria's response to the ceasefire declaration. The contacts are still at an early, fragile stage, and there is no guarantee that the talks will achieve a breakthrough.
The JAS leadership cites the Qu'ran as their inspiration for seeking peace. "In the Holy Qu'ran, Sura At Tauba: Wa-injanahuu-Lisalmi Faji Nahlahaa, we are encouraged to seek peace. The Holy Qu'ran also tells us it is good to negotiate. Sura At Nisa Ayih: Wa-sulhu Haira."
In June, the Boko Haram leadership demanded that women held by the military under the state of the emergency in the north be released. President Jonathan authorised the release, which opened the door to the ceasefire and the peace dialogue.
The Boko Haram leadership has appointed Abubakar Babasani Ibn Yusuf as spokesman to replace Zamirah. Babasani says the leadership has been consulting all senior commanders to assure compliance with the ceasefire. He said commanders as far afield as Niger, Chad, Sudan and Cameroon have agreed to the ceasefire and discussions with the Nigerian government on the subject of a peace deal.
The June 26 ceasefire announcement has been accompanied by an absence of suicide bombings, giving credibility to the new leadership and their intention of signing a peace accord. However, the administration's tardiness in responding to the group's ceasefire announcement is believed to have precipitated three car bomb attacks in the northern city of Kano this week that left at least 15 people dead.
Other attacks have persisted including the recent horrific killings of students in Yobe where about 40 students were incinerated in their school building. The latest Boko Haram statement is highly critical of the Yobe deaths and denies responsibility for the attacks.
The leadership blames such atrocities on politicians in the northeast whom they accuse of arming gangs and committing crimes in the name of Boko Haram.
The military's Joint Task Force has recently arrested Alhaji Mala Othman, Chairman of the opposition All Nigeria People's Party in Borno state, the epicentre of the insurrection, on terrorism charges.
Jonathan declared a state of emergency on May 14 and launched a military offensive that has seen some successes. But reprisal attacks by Boko Haram, including the freeing of 105 of their members from prison, indicate that without a peace deal, Boko Haram has the resources to continue the fight.