October 12, 2006 | World Defense Review

In Nigeria False Prophets Are Real Problems

Last week a judge in Yola in the Nigerian state of Adamawa sentenced Musa Ali Suleiman (aka Musa Makaniki) to death by hanging. As his nom de guerre hints, Musa Makaniki is a mechanic who gave up his trade to become a self-appointed mallam (as Islamic clerics are known in the region).

The court convicted the man of one count each of criminal conspiracy, inciting a public disturbance, and culpable homicide for his role in the so-called “Maitatsine Uprisings,” which led to the deaths of thousands of Nigerians in the early 1980s. Since most non-Nigerians have never heard of this important chapter in the history of that strategically vital country, Musa Makaniki's sentencing is an opportunity to review an episode that is likely to be far more significant than merely as another case of long-delayed justice.

The chain of events began half a century ago with another mallam, Muhammadu Marwa, a native of northern Cameroon who, after completing his training, moved to Kano in northern Nigeria sometime around 1945. His polemical sermons – ostensibly based on the Quran and aimed at both religious and political authorities – earned Marwa the sobriquet by which he was generally known, “Maitatsine” (in the Hausa lingua franca of northern Nigeria, “he who curses others”), as well as the ire of the British colonial authorities who had him deported. Maitatsine eventually returned to Nigeria sometime after its independence and, by the early 1970s, had gathered a large and increasingly militant following, the “Yan Tatsine” (“followers of Maitatsine”).

Maitatsine's doctrine was rather idiosyncratic, to say the least. Although presenting himself as a Quranic teacher – in fact, he condemned the reading of anything other than the holy book as “paganism” – he rejected the hadîth (traditions relating to the words and deeds of Muhammad) and the sunna (the consequent practices accepted by the consensus of his companions), both which are revered in orthodox Islam. He also denounced the use of watches, radios, bicycles, and cars. In 1979, he apparently went so far as to reject the prophethood of Muhammad and proclaimed himself an annạbi (Hausa for “prophet,” usually used in reference to the founder of Islam).

Fired by his preaching, Maitatsine's students, thought to number several thousand, ratcheted up their verbal and, increasingly, physical assaults on what they saw as the corruption of within the Muslim community of Kano. Things came to a head in December 1980 when Yan Tatsine attacks on other religious figures as well as the police led the Nigerian army to intervene directly against the mallam. The subsequent armed clashes – the students proved to be remarkably well armed – resulted in the deaths of around five thousand people, including Maitatsine himself.

Things did not end there, however.

In October 1982, riots broke out near Maiduguri and Kaduna, two other northern cities to which Yan Tatsine members had moved after the military crackdown, killing over three thousand people.

Later still, in February and March 1984, more violence took place in Yola, where the survivors of the Maiduguri riots had found refuge. This time, the uprising was led by Musa Makaniki, a close disciple who laid claim to the mantle of the slain “prophet.”

More than a thousand people died as the city was convulsed by a rampage that ultimately left half of its 60,000 inhabitants homeless. Mallam Makaniki then took shelter in his hometown of Gombe, bringing with him the violent ways of the Yan Tatsine. Rioting broke out in April 1985, killing several hundred more people, after which the cleric fled to Cameroon where he remained until two years ago when he slipped back into Nigeria, was identified, and arrested.

Undoubtedly, Nigerian officials should be applauded for dealing firmly with the Yan Tatsine sectarians, then and now. However, it would be rather shortsighted to dismiss the significance of this episode as somehow exceptional or, as Nigerian officials have been wont to do, an incident that only happened because of the presence of a foreign interloper, Maitatsine. For one thing, borders in Africa are colonial constructs whose origins have very little to do with social and historical realities. Northern Cameroon was very much part of the historical Fulani Empire under the suzerainty of the Sultan of Sokoto in northern Nigeria. The fact that Maitatsine had little trouble living most of his adult life in Kano and was a rather influential, if not particularly orthodox, mallam is quite telling. Furthermore, the underlying dynamics that enabled Maitatsine and Musa Makaniki to wreck their havoc remain unchanged.

First, many of the Yan Tatsine members were urban poor, often newly arrived from the countryside, with whom the heated attacks against the affluence and Westernizing ways of Nigeria's elites resonated. If anything, the gap between the haves and the have-nots has widened in the last two decades, despite the estimated $300 billion in oil revenue that have flowed into the country during that time.

Second, many of those who carried out the violence were students, some as young as ten or twelve years old, who had been entrusted by their parents to an Islamic teacher as almajirai (from the Arabic “traveling student” – which, incidentally, is roughly what Taliban also translates as). It just happened that the teacher in question here, Maitatsine, turned out to be doctrinally sui generis. Young boys are still being apprenticed in this manner – observers do not know for certain, but estimate that there are currently over one million almajirai in northern Nigeria. And while many, if not most, of the mallams who take on pupils are peaceful men of religion, there is perhaps even less oversight of their Quranic schools (known in Hausa as makarantan) than there has been of the problematic Central Asian madrassahs who gave us the Taliban and continue to graduate Pakistani and other Islamist radicals.

Third, the Maitatsine episodes took place against the backdrop of bitter acrimony between Muslims and Christians over the introduction in the 1979 Nigerian federal constitution of explicit recognition of an individual's right to change his or her religion. Northern Muslim representatives actually walked out of the constituent assembly and the religious liberty article was passed only because the military ruler of the day, General Olusegun Obasanjo, pushed it through. That Obasanjo is a born-again Christian Yoruba from southwestern Nigeria hardly made things more palatable for many Muslim Fulani and Hausa in the north. Religious tensions have resurfaced in recent years during the tenure of Obasanjo, this time Nigeria's democratically elected civilian president, as twelve predominantly Muslim northern states have introduced sharî‘a since 1999.

Fourth, as eccentric as Maitatsine's beliefs were, the modus operandi of the Yan Tatsine did not differ significantly from those of followers of other mallams, for example, Sheikh Abubakar Gumi's Jamaat Izalat al-Bida wa Iqamat al-Sunna (“the Society for the Eradication of Evil Innovation and the Establishment of the Sunna”), also known as “Yan Izala,” who reject the secular underpinnings of Nigerian democracy and agitate for the establishment of an Islamic state. Yan Izala alumni, in particular, have gone on to found other radical movements, which are active in Nigeria today. In fact, the doctrinal orthodoxy of these groups gives them far greater appeal among the masses than the bizarre Yan Tatsine creed could ever hope to achieve. Furthermore, theologically orthodox radicals have the advantage of tapping into a historical legacy of violent jihad in the region reaching back to the 14th century.

Finally, while Maitatsine and his successor Musa Makaniki were two relatively resource-poor West Africans with neither outside sponsorship nor grand political ambitions, their activities resulted in more than ten thousand deaths and untold millions of dollars in damage, exposing the fragility of the Nigerian state. Imagine what equally charismatic religious figures with resources and geostrategic ambitions could do.

As Nigerians prepare for their April 21, 2007, national elections, which, as I previously argued, are critical for both them and us, policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic need to be especially solicitous for the country's precarious position and vigilant against anything that might allow false prophets to cause very real problems.

– J. Peter Pham is Director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs and a Research Fellow of the Institute for Infrastructure and Information Assurance at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. He is also an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C.