August 3, 2009 / 11:07 AM / 11 years ago

Nigerians count cost after uprising by Islamic sect

By Nick Tattersall

MAIDUGURI, Nigeria, Aug 3 (Reuters) - Samuel Yunana’s father, Fayam, was taken from his home, stabbed in the side of the stomach and told to convert to Islam. When he refused, his throat was slit.

Fayam was among more than 700 people killed in the northern Nigerian city of Maiduguri during an uprising last week by a radical Islamic sect which wants sharia (Islamic law) imposed across Africa’s most populous nation.

Followers of Boko Haram, which means "Western education is sinful", attacked government buildings, police stations, prisons, schools and churches during five days of rioting before soldiers and police put the uprising down.

As a prison warder and a Christian living near the sect leader’s compound, Fayam was a particular target.

"He was taken from his house by Boko Haram. They stabbed him and he was losing blood," Yunana told Reuters, pointing to a roundabout in front of a dilapidated railway terminus where his father was dragged.

"They insisted he was to convert to a Muslim. He refused, so on that basis they killed him," he said.

Nigeria is roughly equally divided between Christians and Muslims, and more than 200 ethnic groups generally live peacefully side by side.

Boko Haram treats anybody who does not subscribe to its ideology — Christian or Muslim — as an infidel and its views are rejected by the vast majority of the country’s Muslim population, sub-Saharan Africa’s largest.

Yunana’s father lived in State Low Cost, a residential area of single-storey houses on tree-lined streets originally built for civil servants and inhabited by Christians and Muslims.

Its residents had lived alongside Boko Haram followers, distinguishable by their long beards and headscarves, for years. Few realised its members were being trained to wage a campaign of violence.

The sect’s leader, Mohammed Yusuf, was shot dead in police detention last Thursday after being captured hiding among sheep and goats in his father-in-law’s compound, next to the railway terminus where Yunana’s father was killed.

Piles of broken concrete and twisted pieces of metal roof are all that remain of the compound after bulldozers and tanks brought in by the army to contain the uprising demolished it.

Loudspeakers which once adorned the minarets of Yusuf’s mosque a few hundred metres away lie in the rubble. The smouldering remains of motorbikes and cars had been torched by soldiers, part of a military show of force meant to demonstrate that the authorities have wiped the sect out once and for all.


President Umaru Yar’Adua has said the intelligence agencies had been tracking Boko Haram for years and that the group was procuring arms and learning to make bombs in order to impose its ideology on Nigerians.

The uprising began just over a week ago in Bauchi state, 400 km (250 miles) southwest of Maiduguri, when members of the group — loosely modelled on the Taliban in Afghanistan — were arrested on suspicion of plotting to attack a police station.

Authorities say most of those who died in the violence that followed were members of Boko Haram, killed in clashes with security forces.

Boko Haram followers armed with machetes, knives, home-made hunting rifles and petrol bombs rampaged through several cities across northern Nigeria. Maiduguri, surrounded by savannah scrubland on the southern fringe of the Sahara desert, bore the brunt of the violence.

Taxis and merchants have returned to the main streets, but primary schools, police stations, prisons and local government offices are charred by fire and the army and police are still carrying out joint patrols.

In State Low Cost, some residents who fled the fighting have returned to find their homes in ruins.

"All I’m left with is the shirt I was wearing and the key I locked the door with when I left," said Adamu Musa Zhimani, 54, a civil servant who fled to his brother’s house with his wife and three children.

"This is where I kept my books," he said, fingering ashes piled on the floor in the remains of his home, charred metal coat-hangers the only indication that this was once his bedroom.

Gunshots rang out in front of the house overnight but Zhimani was not afraid. Soldiers firing into the air as they patrolled provided some assurance that Boko Haram would not be back.

The sight of Yusuf’s bullet-riddled body, along with those of other presumed Boko Haram members, displayed for two days outside the police headquarters provided temporary relief.

But residents say Boko Haram members have been shaving their beards to escape detection and like his neighbours — both Christian and Muslim — Zhimani worries what will happen when the security forces leave.

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