Writer: Seyi Gesinde
The Nigerian military has said that hunting for Shekau is “not the major element” of Nigeria’s collaboration with Chad, which retook Baga from Boko Haram.
Stating this in an interview with Reuters at the weekend, the spokesman for Nigeria’s defence headquarters, Major General Chris Olukolade, said the idea of looking for one man should not distract the military.
“The sensational idea of looking out for one individual should not distract us or hold us down,” Olukolade said.
However, Shekau, or a man claiming to be him, last appeared in a video in January, when Boko Haram claimed a major attack on the town of Baga and threatened Nigeria’s neighbours.
Shekau’s whereabouts remains unknown, though the Nigerian military claimed to have killed him at a time, while Chad early in March said it knew his location.
The Nigerian military, according to Reuters, is confident it has Boko Haram cornered, but a final push to clear the sect from their forest hideouts is being hampered by landmines.
“Everywhere they have their havens, they have mined it all around,” Olukolade, told Reuters in an interview.
The Nigerian army said Boko Haram has now been pushed into the vast Sambisa forest in eastern Borno State.
The group has made no public comment since its last audio clip, in early March, pledging allegiance to the Islamic State group that has seized swathes of Syria and Iraq.
“Sambisa forest is a place that is seriously mined. By intelligence reports, we have many more (militant camps) and they must be destroyed,” Olukolade said.
Boko Haram has been pushed back before but Olukolade said he hoped the military would be able to hold its gains through aggressive patrols and now that neighbours Cameroon, Niger and Chad were combatting the militants.
“The tendency to escape into safe havens out of Nigeria is becoming very remote. The likelihood of them surviving this assault and coming back is low,” Olukolade said.
Unlike in recent months when troops from Niger and Chad were operating inside Nigeria to help the counter-insurgency, Olukolade said there was no significant presence of foreign soldiers on Nigerian soil any more and only the Nigerian military was involved in the Sambisa offensive.
Olukolade added that some of the captives had not been fully identified; giving rise to hope that some of the still-missing Chibok girls may be among them.
“We are screening them to make sure they are not combatants, to extract intelligence,” Olukolade said.
Over the last week, the army has freed three sets of women and children, numbering over 500, who were being held in the Sambisa forest.
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