Nigerian police have shot dead the leader of the Islamist sect responsible for the spate of deadly violence across the north of the country this week. According to police Mohammed Yusuf was killed on Thursday as he attempted to escape from a compound in the city of Maiduguri which had been attacked for 48 hours. Reuters and local journalists say he had been captured alive and unhurt which suggest it was probably an execution style killing.
These claims are backed up by Colonel Ben Ahanotu, commander of the military operation against the compound who said he personally captured Yusuf who was unarmed and had given himself up willingly. “All I know is that in the attack, I was able to pick him up from his hideout and hand him over to police,” he told the BBC. “I asked him why he did what he has done and his response was that he would explain to me later. But he was OK. As I got him alive, I handed him over to the authorities.”
While the Nigerian government has promised to investigate the killing,they are happy to see Yusuf removed from the picture. What is less clear is whether his death will end the violence in the north. At least 300 people have died and another 4,000 have fled the area. The violence started in Bauchi before spreading to the neighbouring states of Yobe and Borno. It began on Sunday when Boko Haram, a group often called the Nigerian Taliban, attacked police stations across the north. In retaliation, the army shelled Yusuf’s compound in Maiduguri, Borno state, on Tuesday. Yusuf escaped with 300 followers but his deputy Bukar Shekau was killed in the attack.
Mohammed Yusuf was 39 years old with four wives and 12 children. He had considerable wealth with Western-style schooling before completing his education in Iran. Yusuf, a self-proclaimed Islamic scholar, formed the group in 2002 to impose Shari’a law across Nigeria and removing Western influences. Based in Maiduguri, capital of Borno, his followers are a mix of former university lecturers and students and illiterate, jobless youths. The name Boko Haram means “western education is a sin” in the Hausa language of the north.
Roughly half of Nigeria’s 140 million are Muslim. 19 states in the north are predominately Muslim with the remaining 15 states in the south Christian. In 2000 and 2001, 12 Northern states re-Islamised their legal system which added new Koranic offences related to theft, sex, robbery, defamation and alcohol. Shari’a law also brought in the concept of retaliation or monetary compensation. The move alienated Christian minorities and sparked sectarian clashes killing thousands. Meanwhile Boko Haram wanted to spread Shari’a to the other 24 states.
There is no evidence from the fighting that Boko Haram or the other fundamentalist Islamist groups owe allegiance to al-Qaeda. Nigeria’s Muslim president Umaru Yar’Adua has been trying to play down the violence. But he is aware Yusuf tapped into widespread disaffection and the perception liberal economic policies have benefited the south while entrenching poverty in the north. Unemployment, official corruption and injustice have alienated many in the north. American Africa expert and author Douglas Farah says there is now a large and radical Muslim population in the north. “The radicalisation is mixed with a deep sense of grievance against the south and the central government, as well as antagonism towards the sizeable Christian minority,” said Farah. “Not all Muslims in the north are…seeking a violent change. But those in the lead of the new Taliban want to push Shari’a law to a more extreme form.”