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Tunde Leye: What We Can Learn From Maitatsine History, Understanding Boko Haram



I had a conversation with friends in my car on the way to work on Tuesday morning, and was amazed that all four of them, in their late twenties to early thirties had no idea what I was talking about. It dawned on me that many in my generation do not know much of what happened in Nigeria of say, thirty years ago, and we therefore miss the lessons from our history. Hence we repeat the mistakes made a mere generation ago.

The question I asked was “who knows about Maitatsine?” It is interesting that none did, in spite of the obvious similarities between what Maitatsine was in the late seventies to early eighties, and what Boko Haram has been for the past five to six years. Let me elaborate.
Maitatsine, whose real name was Mohammed Marwa was born in a town called Marwa on the hazy border of Nigeria with Cameroun. He started preaching in Kano in 1945 and was exiled by the British Colonial government when he began to foment trouble. While preaching Islam, he claimed to be a prophet and a Mujahid in the mould of the founder of the Sokoto Caliphate, Usman Dan Fodio. He preached against radios, watches, bicycles, cars, and possession of any excess money. His following grew in Kano, drawn from both almajiris and some middle class youths who left home. They refused to mix with other muslims, living in their own enclave, and it did not take long before their practices conflicted with the authorities. His growing following was such that the Islamic religious leaders in the north at first didn’t know what to do with him and his message. Then they accepted him after he went on hajj to Mecca in 1975. But in 1979, they rejected him, after he rejected the prophethood of Mohammed (SAW) and the Hadith and Sunnah.

However, at that time, Abubakar Rimi’s government in Kano State belonged to Aminu Kano‘s People’s Redemption Party, which was in the opposition to Shehu Shagari’s National Party of Nigeria which was at the center. Hence, rather than nip Maitatsine in the bud, the federal government and the state government chose to dilly dally and play politics with the matter, until Maitatsine’s sect grew. He was arrested by the police a couple of times but always managed to be released.

In the late seventies, people began to disappear in Kano. Reports of people entering the sect’s compound and not coming out became rife. The Emir of Kano became very worried, as the sect members, unlike other regular muslims did not respect his authority – they respected only one authority, that of their leader. In the years leading up to 1980, the number of violent confrontations between Maitatsine members and the police increased as the number of sect members increased. The town was saturated with expectations of the inevitable. When it happened, it was on a Friday, after the Jumat prayers. Maitatsine members had been stockpiling weapons and more sect members from outside Kano had come in, but the governments at the state and federal level (represented by the police) had done nothing about this. When the onslaught began, the sect overran the mosques, churches, and police stations. Clearly, the authorities had underestimated the strength and organization of the sect. At the end of the days of violence, over five thousand people were dead. There were reports of sect members being impervious to bullets, of sect members having a gaze that paralyzed people that went out to fight them, leaving the fellow helpless to be finished off.

The army eventually moved in, and overpowered the sect, killing Mohammed Marwa, the leader.

Now, let’s do a little exercise, shall we? Imagine everything as a mathematical equation, where each thing I mention is a mere variable, replaceable with another value. Now, replace Mohammed Marwa with Mohammed Yussuf. Fast forward from late seventies/early eighties to the present. Replace Kano State with Borno State. Replace Shehu Shagari with Goodluck Jonathan and NPN with PDP. Replace Abubakar Rimi with Ali Modu Sherriff and PRP with ANPP. Does Maitatsine increasingly look like Boko Haram? In the way it started, grew, and in how the governments at state and federal level played ruling against opposition politics with them. How they were allowed to create an enclave governed by their own rules? How they had increasing confrontations with the police as the sect members grew? How they held themselves separate from other muslims and the general condemnation by other muslims? How they attacked and killed other muslims? The anti-government, anti-tech message? How they were allowed to stockpile weapons? The explosive confrontation that led to many deaths? The killing of their leader?

Now, let’s see how Maitatsine grew after their leader’s death. Did they end? You guessed right, they didn’t. The same way a Shekkau led the Boko Haram insurgency after Mohammed Yusuf was killed in Maiduguri, after 1980, a certain Musa Makaniki fled to Yola with other Maitatsine members and in 1984, Kano was repeated in Yola, with one thousand people dying and half of the sixty thousand population of Yola ending up homeless. That was after the 1982 riots in Bulumkuttu near Maiduguri by Maitatsine members who had fled Kano, and in Kaduna, leaving three thousand dead. After Musa Makaniki’s Yola riots were quelled by the military under Buhari, he fled to Gombe where, a year later, sect members again killed hundreds. He was then pursued into Cameroun. He was finally arrested in 2004.

If we observe the way the sect fragmented after Mohammed Marwa was killed in Kano in 1980, and how the killings followed them to all the places they fled to, we will do well to take the lessons from these incidents in dealing with Boko Haram today. There’s a State Of Emergency plus military onslaught against them in Borno, Adamawa and Yobe today, and a bounty on Shekau’s head. As the military crushes the sect in those places, they must not lose sight of the fact that fragments of the sect can and will attempt to flee to other parts of Nigeria. They will attempt to do exactly what they have done before in the new places they flee to. Already, we are seeing a prelude to this with the attack on Daura, in the North West, an area where there had never been a Boko Haram incursion until the full scale military action against them in their former haunts. We must learn from history, and use the lessons to prevent this from happening, and save future thousands from dying at the sect’s hands. The way the two sects rose, plus Kalo Kata (read that up, dear reader) between them in the nineties shows that the emergence of each sect is symptomatic of some deeper seated issues in the north that need to be dealt with, otherwise, after Boko Haram is crushed, in another decade, we’ll be dealing with another insurgency. Finally, our politicians need to stop irresponsible politicking with issues like insurgencies. The same way NPN/PRP allowed Maitatsine to fester due to politics, PDP/ANPP politics contributed to Boko Haram’s ability to grow into the monster it has become. The knee jerk reactions from the yet to be fully formed APC to the state of emergency is another example of playing opposition politics rather than contributing to dealing decisively with an insurgency. This has to stop.
Tunde Leye @tundeleye is a fiction writer. He believes that the stories written form a priceless resource that is the basis of society, all the other arts (film, music, theatre, visual arts) and hence he is committed to telling stories out of Africa that show it as it was, is, and is going to be. Article originally published on Demolare Waju’s blog


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