|Abubakar Shekau is considered Boko Haram's most ruthless commander Photo: AFP PHOTO / BOKO HARAM|
Abubakar Shekau, the head of the Boko Haram Islamist group that kidnapped more than 200 Nigerian schoolgirls last year, has been ousted as its leader, it has been claimed.
Shekau, who gained worldwide notoriety after appearing in a series of videos in which he threatened to sell the girls as slaves, has been replaced by another Boko Haram deputy who is said to be open to peace talks, according to Idriss Deby, the president of neighbouring Chad.
Mr Deby, whose forces have been fighting Boko Haram militants around Nigeria's border areas, made the comments in a press conference on Tuesday in which he claimed that the group was now on the back foot militarily and would be finished "by the end of the year".
"There is someone apparently called Mahamat Daoud who is said to have replaced Abubakr Shekau and he wants to negotiate with the Nigerian government," he said. "For my part, I would advise not to negotiate with a terrorist."
It was not clear how Mr Deby had obtained his information, although rumours have been circulating in recent months that Shekau had gone on the run or even fled Nigeria altogether as a result of increased military operations against Boko Haram by both the Nigerian and Chadian governments. Little is known as of yet about the man named by Deby as his successor, whose name may well be a non de guerre.
Mr Deby was speaking to reporters in the Chadian capital, N'Djamena, on the 55th anniversary of Chad's independence from France. His claims that Boko Haram are facing imminent defeat will be questioned by some, however, given the carnage the group has wreaked in recent days across its strongholds in north-east Nigeria.
On Tuesday, a bomb killed at least 47 people and wounded dozens more in the village of Sabon Gari, near the north-east city of Maiduguri. Two days before that, jihadists shot dead four people and abducted five more in the same area.
Nigerian and Chadian commanders maintain that they have at least stopped the group controlling entire towns and neighbourhoods, and that the recent attacks amount to a return to hit-and-run tactics.
While claiming progress in the fight against the jihadists, who have repeatedly hit border areas of Cameroon, Chad and Niger, Mr Deby admitted that suicide bombers still posed a threat. But he added: "Boko Haram is decapitated. There are little groups (of Boko Haram members) scattered throughout east Nigeria, on the border with Cameroon. It is within our power to definitively overcome Boko Haram."
It is not the first time that reports have emerged claiming Shekau's downfall. Reports from the Nigerian military and media have declared him dead on several occasions, although experts also believe that the various videos that have appeared purporting to be him sometimes feature lookalikes.
He is believed to have ruled out all prospect of peace talks with the Nigerian government, allegedly causing rifts with other Boko Haram commanders who favoured negotiations that could also have led to the freeing of the schoolgirls.