Nigeria’s military is investigating reports that the leader of the armed group Boko Haram may have been killed or seriously injured following clashes with a rival group, an army spokesman has said.
Abubakar Shekau has been the figurehead of the organisation that has since 2009 killed more than 30,000 people, forced about two million people to flee their homes and spawned one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises.
A number of reports published on Thursday in Nigerian media, citing intelligence sources, said Shekau was seriously hurt or killed after his fighters clashed with members of the Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP), which broke away from his group in 2016.
Reuters news agency said it has been unable to independently verify the claims.
A Nigerian Army spokesman, Mohammed Yerima, on Friday said the military was investigating.
“It’s a rumour. We are investigating it. We can only say something if we confirm it,” said the spokesman.
Shekau was said to have been killed on several occasions over the last 12 years, including in announcements by the military, only to later appear in a video post.
ISWAP was previously part of Shekau’s group before its split five years ago, pledging allegiance to ISIL (ISIS). The schism was due to religious ideological disagreements over the killing of civilians by Boko Haram, to which ISWAP objected.
According to local intelligence sources, a new round of fighting erupted in April.
Boko Haram fighters ambushed an ISWAP brigade as they transported weapons to one of their main camps, sources said. Several ISWAP men were killed.
In retaliation, in May, ISWAP launched an attack on a Boko Haram camp. Both sides suffered losses. But, the sources said, ISWAP took the fight to Boko Haram directly in the Sambisa Forest further south.
“ISWAP’s invasion of Sambisa was not to make Shekau surrender but to kill him for his unprovoked attack on its fighters in recent weeks,” one local intelligence source said, according to the AFP news agency.
Shekau’s death, if confirmed, could potentially end of fighting between the two groups, enabling either to absorb the others’ fighters and consolidate its hold on northeast Nigerian territory.
More than 40,000 people have been killed and more than two million displaced from their homes by the conflict in northeast Nigeria since 2009, and fighting has spread to parts of neighbouring Chad, Cameroon and Niger.