July 31, 2009

Mohammed Yusuf: Life and times of new ‘Maitatsine’ leader

By Uduma Kalu

Death of Yusuf

The leader of an Islamic sect blamed for days of deadly violence in Nigeria was killed in police custody, police officials say last Thursday. The news came just hours after security forces said they had captured Mohammed Yusuf in the city of Maiduguri.

Yusuf leads Boko Haram, which wants to overthrow the government and impose a strict version of Islamic law.
Hundreds of people have died in five days of clashes between his followers and security forces.

 Mohammed-Yusuf and troop making an arrest of the emebers of Boko Haram in Maiduguri

Mohammed Yusuf leader of an Islamic sect, Boko Haram and troop making an arrest of the emebers of Boko Haram in Maiduguri

“He has been killed. You can come and see his body at the state police command headquarters,” Isa Azare, spokesman for the Maiduguri police command, told Reuters news agency. His bullet-riddled body was shown on state television, AFP news agency said.

Troops had stormed Boko Haram’s stronghold on Wednesday night, killing many of the militants and forcing others to flee. Yusuf was arrested earlier on Thursday, after reportedly being found hiding in a goat pen at his parents-in-law’s house.

BBC News Website Africa Editor Joseph Winter says Nigeria’s security forces have a terrible reputation for brutality and human rights groups accuse them of frequent extra-judicial killings.

Troops shelled on Tuesday the home of ‘Nigerian Taliban’ leader on the third day of fierce clashes that have left more than 250 people dead, witnesses said.

Last Tuesday, sporadic mortar fire and gunshots were heard as soldiers shelled the home of Mohammed Yusuf in Maiduguri, sending plumes of smoke rising over the capital of northern Borno state.

President Umaru Yar’Adua, speaking in the capital Abuja, said the situation in northern Nigeria was ‘under control’ and indicated that a final assault was underway.

‘We have the situation under control now and I believe that by the end of the day, everything would have been taken care of,’ Yar’Adua told reporters as he boarded a flight at Abuja airport for Brazil.

Will Yusuf’s death end Boko Haram?

Boko Haram launched co-ordinated attacks across Northern Nigeria, with a vow to overthrow the government and impose strict Islamic law. But who are they?

Since the group emerged in 2004, they have become known as “Taliban”, although they appear to have no links to the Taliban in Afghanistan. Some analysts believe they took inspiration from the radical Afghans, others say the name is more a term used by people in Maiduguri, the area where they were founded.

The group’s other name, Boko Haram, means “Western education is a sin” and is another title used by local people to refer to the group.

However, it is also said that the group has no specific name for itself, just many names attributed to it by local people. If their name is uncertain, however, their mission appears clear enough – to overthrow the Nigerian state, impose an extreme interpretation of Islamic law and abolish what they term as “Western-style education”.

Yusuf’s Ideology

In an interview with the BBC, the group’s leader, Mohammed Yusuf, said such education “spoils the belief in one God”.

“There are prominent Islamic preachers who have seen and understood that the present Western-style education is mixed with issues that run contrary to our beliefs in Islam,” he said.

“Like rain. We believe it is a creation of God rather than an evaporation caused by the sun that condenses and becomes rain. Like saying the world is a sphere. If it runs contrary to the teachings of Allah, we reject it. We also reject the theory of Darwinism.”

Women, children released from the sect’s enclave

Women, children released from the sect’s enclave

Yusuf himself was something of an enigma. He was believed to be in his mid-thirties, and analysts say he was extremely wealthy and highly educated.

“He is well educated and very proficient in English. He lives lavishly – people say he drives a Mercedes Benz. ” says Nigerian academic Hussain Zakaria.

Future of Boko Haram and govt connection

Despite the secrecy surrounding the group, many in Nigeria say the attacks were far from surprising.
Mannir Dan Ali, a journalist in Abuja, says there was a minor incident in early June which appeared to spark a series of statements from the group threatening reprisals.

Another journalist says ,”Now it is becoming a monster, the government has realised it has made a mistake The whole situation seems to be a failure of intelligence, a failure of the security forces to act before matters reached the point that they have now reached,” he says. “We could literally see it coming over the past few weeks.”

There has been widespread criticism of the security forces for their perceived laxness in monitoring the group.


Boko Haram’s members are largely drawn from disaffected youth -university students and jobless graduates among them.

Aminu Abubakar, a journalist covering the area for the AFP news agency, says it is widely believed that the authorities have been reluctant to deal with the militants because some of them come from rich families with connections to the government.

Upsurge in violence

More than 100 people were killed as a wave of unrest spread from the city of Bauchi on Sunday through Borno, Yobe and Kano states the following day. And no-one seems to know just how big a threat the so-called Taliban pose, how big their membership is, or what their next move could be.