Kano — A Boko Haram faction led by the son of the group’s founder is trying to win over civilians by shunning the indiscriminate violence of its longtime figurehead that has alienated locals.
Eyewitnesses to a spate of recent raids attributed to Islamist fighters loyal to Abu Musab Al-Barnawi in northeast Nigeria have said they repeatedly told villagers they would not be harmed.
Others say mass violence has been reduced in parts of the northern Borno state around Lake Chad now controlled by Barnawi and Mamman Nur, his right-hand man who is seen by some as the real leader.
But experts tracking the eight-year conflict said it might be a calculated tactic purely to win support.
Herdsman Jabbi Sambo said jihadists loyal to the elusive Boko Haram chief, Abubakar Shekau, repeatedly stole or killed their prized cattle, abducted women and children, and razed their homes.
“Things changed dramatically” when Nur took over control of the Lake Chad area, Sambo, from the town of Shuwaram, he said. “The raids and the killings stopped and we were free to move with our herds for grazing.”
Nur, the alleged mastermind behind the 2011 bombing of a UN building in Abuja that killed 24, told them in person that he “wanted to build trust and confidence between his group and people in the area”.
The only proviso was that they did not cooperate with the military, he added.
Balaraba Abdullahi was abducted from Baga in January 2014 and was held for three years by the group, whose insurgency has killed at least 20 000 people and made more than 2.6 million homeless.
She said conditions were “extreme” in the bush, with a lack of food and widespread disease, while “executions and amputations” for crimes such as adultery, spying or theft were commonplace.
“A little offence would attract death. All of these happened under Shekau but things changed under Mamman Nur,” said the 20-year-old, who was eventually released.