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Two deaths that could strengthen the insurgents

In their different ways, the loss of the Army Chief in a plane crash and the death of the Boko Haram leader create new problems for the government

The crash that killed Chief of Army Staff Lieutenant General Ibrahim Attahiru, three brigadiers and seven other officers, as their air force plane tried to land at Kaduna airport on 21 May is a psychological and organisational blow to the government's revamped campaign against the insurgents (AC Vol 62 No 10, A country at war with itself).

The death of Attahiru, with his extensive experience of operations against the insurgents in north-east Nigeria and banditry in the north-west, follows the appointment of the four new service chiefs in January. Attahiru's role was central to the success of the new strategy, as was his close relationship with Chief of Defence Staff, Gen Leo Irabor, as both men had shadowed each other in the top military positions.

Gen Irabor now has to decide how extensive the military reshuffle should be in the wake of Attahiru's demise. The plane crash and its aftermath triggered widespread criticism with calls for a detailed investigation into the causes of the third fatal crash of an air force aircraft this year.

Commentators and political opponents have lambasted as disrespectful the failure of President Muhammadu Buhari to attend the funeral of Attahiru and his fellow officers on 22 May. The stumbling peroration given by Defence Minister Bashir Salihi Magashi was also the butt of much negative comment.

Adding to the sense of the government failing to pay proper tribute to the dead officers were the widely distributed photographs of several state governors, including Kano's Abdullahi Ganduje, Zamfara's Bello Matawalle and Kebbi's Abubakar Atiku Bagudu, conspicuously enjoying themselves at the wedding of the son of Attorney General Abubakar Malami on the same day as Attahiru's funeral.

All the state governors at the wedding face a deepening security crisis which they have been relying on the military to tackle (AC Vol 62 No 10, The northern nexus & Vol 62 No 8, States rethink security). 

A day before Attahiru's plane crash, reports emerged of a clash between Abubakar Shekau, leader of Boko Haram and fighters loyal to the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) and its leader, Abu Musab al Barnawi.

Police intelligence officers, quoted in local media, said that Shekau had blown himself up after his camp in the Sambisa forest had been surrounded by fighters from ISWAP. Other sources said Shekau had been injured in the fighting but had escaped.

To date there has been no confirmation of the current situation in Sambisa forest. Officials have reported Shekau's death many times over the past 12 years since the launch of Boko Haram's insurgency.

Shekau fell out with Al Barnawi, the son of Boko Haram founder Mohammed Yusuf, in a leadership feud over both tactics and doctrine.

If it proves to be true, Shekau's death could strengthen the Islamist insurgents by encouraging the two main factions, Boko Haram and ISWAP, to work together.

Of the two, ISWAP, which claims an affiliation with the various franchises of Islamic State or Da'ish in the Sahel, the Maghreb and the Levant, has been the most adept at securing cooperation from local communities as it targets police and army officers.

ISWAP's regional networks have delivered more weapons and trainers in sabotage operations and roadside bombs against military patrols.

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