The United States Government has launched a probe into the report that Boko Haram leader, Abubakar Shekau, is dead in a bid to authenticate the claim by the Joint Task Force (JTF), which had on Monday announced his possible death following gunshot injuries he sustained in a clash with Nigerian troops.
The announcement that "Shekau might have died between July 25 to 3 August" in Amitchide, Cameroun, after being "mortally wounded" in an encounter with JTF at the Sambisa Forest on June 30, has been greeted with disbelief as the task force did not produce any proof beyond relying on intelligence report to back up its claim.
But the federal government, worried by the cynicism that has greeted the announcement of Shekau's death, which some defence officials have described as being hasty, yesterday pleaded with Nigerians to resolve their doubts about the demise of the nation's chief terrorist in favour of the military.
US State Department Deputy spokesperson, Ms. Marie Harf, while responding to a question in Washington DC on Tuesday on whether US had any information about the possible death of Shekau, said: "We have seen these reports and (we) are working to ascertain the facts."
US last year had labelled Shekau and two other key figures in Boko Haram as "specially designated global terrorists" and followed up in June by announcing a $23 million reward for anyone who could help track down five leaders of deadly militant groups spreading terror in West Africa with the highest sum of $7 million placed on Shekau's head.
Commenting on his reported death, Harf described Shekau as the most visible leader of Boko Haram, adding, "if his death - it turns out to be true, the loss of such a central and well known figure would set back Boko Haram's operations and remove a key voice from its efforts to mobilise violent extremists in Nigeria and around the world."
She however added that that was not the first time the Boko Haram leader would be declared dead, adding, "as many of you know, he was also falsely reported dead in 2009."
Noting that US would continue to support Nigeria as it works to reach a comprehensive and lasting peace in the North, the US official recalled that as recent as August 15, Under Secretary Wendy Sherman was in Nigeria where she held discussions about regional security, including how both countries could further partner to develop and implement effective counterterrorism measures.
However, in an apparent response to the wave of criticisms that had trailed the reported death of Shekau, the federal government yesterday pleaded with Nigerians to give the military the benefit of the doubt.
It explained that instead of the controversy over whether or not he might have been killed in a shootout, as revealed by the military, people should believe the claim.
Minister of Information, Mr Labaran Maku, made the plea at the close of the weekly Federal Executive Council (FEC) meeting while briefing journalists on its deliberations.
According to Maku, the supposed killing of Shekau is a logical progression of events since the onslaught against the insurgents started with the proclamation of emergency rule in Adamawa, Borno and Yobe States three months ago.
Maku reasoned that if the military was successfully prosecuting its operations against the Islamist militant group, then there should be no reason to doubt its claim on Shekau's death.
"Relating to the story that we have read, I think it is better we leave it at that. These people are on the run and we will allow the military to tell the story," he said.
He added that the death claim should not cause any anxiety or crisis of confidence.
"It should give us more confidence. What it means is that the security forces are closing up on some of the kingpins of this murderous group that has denied thousands of Nigerians their lives. Some of the key leaders have been pronounced dead. I think that rather than losing confidence, we should continue to pray for the military to hope that in the end they succeed and they are succeeding," he said.
He urged the media to support the military in the fight against terror, adding that the military should be given ample backing because that is "the most important thing we need in Nigeria because if there is no peace in the northern part of the country, there won't be peace in Nigeria."
"You will notice that since the president proclaimed the state of emergency three months ago, we have kept political comments out of it. We decided that it is better for the military to tell their story; that is why I have not spoken on it. We want to remove this security operation from any misunderstanding, especially from politicians. As a government, it is our operation, but the most important thing is to allow the military tell the story of what is happening," he added.
Applauding the military and security services for the way they have taken the fight to the terrorists, Maku said their efforts had started paying out with the resumption of annual festivities and economic activities in many parts of the North that were prior to the declaration of emergency rule, held incommunicado.
"Today, leaders of the insurgents are running from pillar to post because the area is no longer conducive for them as it used to be," he said.
He urged Nigerians to know that "since a guerrilla styled insurgency is not something that can be contained over night," and the government is regaining territories, regaining confidence and stability, "we must be proud of our security forces."
"As we clock three months of the state of emergency, the military has just announced the creation of a new division, which means that the operation would further go up from what it is. It will be more orderly and the military will gain further control, which was shared with other security services. This also shows the emphasis by the military to ensure complete success," he added.
He listed the benefits of the state of emergency as international support for the military, condemnation of the criminality of the insurgents and accusation of the insurgents by the International Criminal Court (ICC).
"One of the gains of the declaration of state of emergency is the increase confidence by members of the public to come out clearly to interface with the security forces in identifying some of the hideouts of the criminals and murderers involved in the terrorist attacks on innocent Nigerians. You have seen very crucial roles being played by youths in the area," Maku stressed.