Saturday, December 28, 2013


This piece is written in honour of and dedicated to the memory of hardworking, innocent and defenceless Nigerian citizens who lost their lives in the spate of senseless religious killings in the country. It is my prayer and hope that their deaths will never be in vain and that one day, we will all come back to our senses, work together for peace and realize that after everything, we end up buried in the same soil of the same earth and consumed by the same worms that know no religion. 

It was 33 years ago, the 18th of December, 1980 to be precise. A Fulani teacher named Shehu Shagari was the first civilian executive Nigerian President but the nation he was leading was in flames, set alight by an energetic man who spoke high-pitched Fulani. The security forces were helpless and even the Commander-in-Chief of the Nigerian Armed Forces seemed confused blaming external forces that he said were ‘jealous of Nigeria’s growing international influence’. The violence, the horror and the terror that ensued from the wild ideas of one old man who was not even a Nigerian was about to consume the nation. Sheer madness was mixed with agonizing destruction as major cities burned. Untamed hordes of insurgents brandishing all sorts of primitive weapons like catapults, stones, swords, clubs, bows and arrows, dane guns, leopard skins to serve as bulletproof vests and powdered charms went from house to house in Kano State looting, maiming, burning, raping and killing as they wished. But despite the low sophistication of their weapons, their pattern of destruction was so brutal and complete that in a matter of just days, over 4,100 Nigerians lay dead, most of them, Maitatsine’s followers.

Identifying many of the corpses was however not easy. Their eyes, noses, ears and tongue had already been removed. They were deliberately mutilated by their angry attackers.

Considering the fact that Boko Haram’s activities have claimed the lives of over 3,000 Nigerians since 2009, you will appreciate the scope and degree of violence of this red-faced sect that killed so many Nigerians in just 12 days. Maitatsine had become a terror and a fast-growing one, with 6,000 followers ready to march to the death on the vehement orders of their much-revered spiritual leader. For the first time in the history of Nigeria, religious differences would lead to the loss of thousands of lives.

 The founder of the Maitatsine sect, Alhaji Mohammed (Muhammadu) Marwa was not a Nigerian even if his activities would later lead to the loss of thousands of precious Nigerian lives. He migrated from the town of Marwa (Maroua) in northern Cameroon to Kano State in 1945. Marwa, which is a center of cotton industry is also the capital of the Far North Region of Cameroon and the predominant religion there is Sufi Islam. Maitatsine settled in the warm and hospitable city of Kano, acclimatized and adapted to their ways of life.

Fulfulde, the language of the Fulanis, was the common language in Marwa where he came from so it is safe to assume that blending in would not have been a major issue. Not much was known about his activities in the ancient city of Kano up until the early 1960s when the story changed all of a sudden.

Before then, Maitatsine had gained a reputation in Kano as a noble scholar and an expert in the interpretation and commentary of the Holy Qu’ran. He was so good at it that he was named Mai Tafsiri. Tafsir is the exegesis, in-depth explanation or critical interpretation of the Qu’ran.  In 1960, Nigeria became an independent nation but the politics that would follow in Kano State was far from peaceful. The senseless jostling for power by the politicians led to an entropy in the society, and Maitatsine, who was already gaining some followership, took advantage and rode on this resultant wave of disorder initially generated by the power-hungry politicians.

Unemployment soared, crime rate increased, poverty was not abating, people were disgruntled and the citizens were already tired of the fumbling and corrupt politicians. It was at that time that Maitatsine decided to launch his own movement. His message was simple but brutally efficient: to oppose the government and even orthodox Islam itself. He had transformed himself into another creature, one that would terrorize the world’s most populous black nation.


A charismatic preacher, Maitatsine met women and fell in love with them. He was described as a loving father. According to one of his wives (who were Nigerians), he declared himself a prophet in 1979. Another wife, Zainab still had nice words for him as at 2006 when she was interviewed. She said:
“I don’t believe I was what people thought about me. You see, Malam was such a nice person who made both his family and his followers’ part of him and that because I was immediately responsible for most of the house chores in his family, I became so much well known not because I was something special.

“I cannot say but I believed it was a deliberate action to stop somebody from performing his rights. To the best of our knowledge Malam was an embodiment of scholarship, a father and a religious reformer that was misunderstood. He preached tolerance, peace, harmony and religious revival.

“As his most immediate families, we knew that he was never what people were made to believe of him. To the best our understanding of him, he was a man of humility and we are sure he was framed, misunderstood and castigated for preaching.”
Then she went ahead to plead with the government to probe the killing of her husband who she said was innocent. However, victims of the massacre brushed her words aside as outdated nonsense.

Maitatsine was particularly close to his eldest son, Tijjani aka Kana’ana. Although Tijjani did not toe his father’s line, he was cavorting with notorious gangs in the city until he was killed in a shootout under very mysterious circumstances at Sabon Gari by a suspected rival group. Maitatsine was devastated upon hearing the news and from that moment on, he became increasingly vicious. When he set his eyes upon the lifeless body of his son, Maitatsine knelt down before his corpse, broke into tears and wept uncontrollably, they could not just console him. Through the steamy salty tears and his voice choked with thick saliva, he cried out:

‘Is this what you will do to me, oh, Kano people?!”

There and then, he vowed that every father in Kano will know what it means to lose a child. And believe me, he was not blabbing. He carried out his threat to his last day on earth. One of his neighbours ran away the day 12 almajiris (beggars) were corralled into the enclave and slaughtered.


At this point, a little background information will be helpful. Maitatsine was just one of the many sects of Islam in northern Nigeria as at that time. Others included the Shiites (as at the time of writing this piece, the home of the Shiite leader, Sheikh Ibraheem Zakzaky was reportedly attacked by hired youths in Zaria and left many dangerously wounded with machete cuts), Izala (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”) and the Tariqa. These other sects are still active and there is a precarious swing of harmony and violence. It has been like that for a while with occasional but very turbulent clashes.

However, out of these four main sects Maitatsine stood out as the most radical. While other sects still cooperated to a reasonable extent with the government, Maitatsine was absolutely against the government and anything that represent constituted authority. Even the Emir of Kano was not safe from his wrath. He would later be known for his fierce and curse-filled speeches against the Nigerian government. It was this practice that earned him the nickname Mai Tatsine. That was because he would mount the pulpit and lash out in his red-hot speeches in a not-too-perfect Hausa:

Allah ya tsine maka albarka!

Meaning: May God deprive you of His blessings!

He would continue thus: Whoever uses wristwatches, radios or ride bicycles, Allah ya tsine maka albarka!

In no time, the people of Kano quickly labelled him Mai Tatsine which can be loosely translated to mean ‘he who curses‘, ‘the one with curses’ or ‘the one who curses’.

But that was not all. There was another dimension to Maitatsine’s teachings that alarmed millions all over northern Nigeria: he preached clearly against the conventional form of Islam. He came with his own brand of puritanical Islam and condemned everything else. The Emir of Kano, Muhammadu Sanusi (who incidentally was the grandfather of the current Central Bank Governor, Mallam Sanusi Lamido Sanusi) was shocked at Maitatsine’s audacity. A majority of the city’s clerics were also appalled and outraged at Maitatsine’s teachings and the challenge that he would pose as an obstacle to constituted authority, both in the religious and political spheres. But the man from Cameroon did not even send anyone of them, including the all-powerful Emir. He continued his fiery preachings and scary sermons to his amused followers, who obviously lapped up and enjoyed everything he said.

Maitatsine’s teachings were quite interesting indeed. Although many may see Boko Haram as a new creation or novel development, the truth of the matter is that this is not the first time in the history of Nigeria that a fundamentalist religious sect would challenge the state with their audacious teachings and unleash maximum destruction in a bid to establish their own version of how a society should operate. A forceful and persuasive speaker, Maitatsine spoke with anger and instructed his followers that:
  • Any form of Western influence is a sin and that westernization has corrupted Islam.
  • The use of money is not important and even accumulating too much money is a grave sin.
  • They should do away with all tools of modernity such as wristwatches, radios, television sets, cars, bicycles, tobacco, must not wear buttons and the rest stating that none of these things were mentioned in the Qur’an. Considering the fact that many of his followers were even already too poor to afford such luxuries, the teaching was quite easy to follow and enforce. Even those of his followers who had these items gladly smashed their black-white Philips television sets.
  • Later, he preached that he was on a mission to save the world, condemned the Holy Prophet Muhammad, and had his own customized copies of the Holy Qu’ran.
  • Anyone who reads any other book apart from the Holy Qu’ran was a pagan irretrievably destined for the blazing flames of Hell.


As he spoke with considerable rage from his pulpit, his gleeful supporters and frenzied followers nodded in agreement to everything Maitatsine said. To them, he was nothing but an angel, God’s own manifestation on the face of the earth. Many swore they would lay down their lives for him, and they were not joking. At the height of his power and influence, Mohammed Marwa was the toast of the high and mighty. Influential personalities paid him visits in his Kano powerhouse seeking his services as a marabout.

High-ranking clerics also visited his sprawling quarters. That the high political class and the religious elite have worked hand in hand to unleash terror upon the populace for their selfish gains is an unfortunate recurring decimal in Nigeria’s history. But what is even more unfortunate is the desperate attempts by some Nigerians (who are already bearing the brunt of the stupidity of the ruling class) to either justify the actions or even shift blames.

At a point, Marwa had become so powerful to the extent that he operated his own autonomous enclave. Because his followers regarded other Muslims as heretics, they avoided the general population and lived in an isolated section of the city. You know, in the Reverend Jim Jones style. Like the Hamaliyya sect of the Tijanniya order, the Maitatsine preferred to live in their own hermit kingdom, creating a minuscule North Korea in the heart of Kano. Interestingly, one of the fastest and most efficient ways to indoctrinate anyone is to isolate them or cut them off from relatives and friends and then subject them to a constant stream of sweet propaganda. Maitatsine and his followers lived in an area of Kano called Yan Awaki. In this enclave, he was the absolute ruler and the king that no one dared question. He was clearly, a power unto himself.

From within the comfort provided by the confines of his Yan Awaki residence, he launched scathing verbal assaults against the city’s imperial ruler, Emir Sanusi who was the traditional leader of all Muslims in the city. With thousands of eager youths at his beck and call, flanking him on all sides and ready to carry out his even his flimsiest instructions to the last, Maitatsine felt he had the height of it all. He became bolder, more confrontational and even more daring as the sun rose and set.

But the Emir, the government and the security agents were not finding his astronomical rise and popularity funny at all. The royal institution in collabo with the religious establishment and with the tacit support of the state government, decided to act fast before this volcano blew up on their turbaned heads. So in the year 1962, the Emir released a royal edict indicting Marwa of various crimes. He was accused of preaching illegally and for engaging in what is called shatimati or abusive speech in fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence). An obstinate Maitatsine was then brought before a qadi (Muslim judge) to face proper judgment. It was not funny at all. The qadi sentenced him to 90 days in jail and after serving out his sentence, he was promptly deported to Cameroon. Many thought that was the end but the battle had just started. Maitatsine would return, full of renewed vigour, hate and anger. The Nigerian populace would suddenly be rudely woken up to the latest brand of terror in town.

Towards the late 1960s, Maitatsine managed to slip back into Nigeria. Not only that, he made his way back to Kano where he properly settled in his Yan Awaki area. But the authorities would also make life hell for him and between the years 1972 and 1979, he was in and out of prison under the military regimes that could not just keep up with the nonsense anymore. In 1973 for example, he was arrested for preaching without a permit and locked up in Makurdi Prison until 1975. However, when the civilians came with the election of Shehu Shagari in 1979, tensions were doused, things became better and Maitatsine took full advantage of the newly-found freedom.

Bitter and enraged, he would once again worm his way into the hearts of his followers who believed that he was unjustly victimized by the Kano elite and monarchy. It must be pointed out that a vast majority of Maitatsine’s followers were street beggars and destitute, called almajiris or gardawas in the local dialect. Many of these people learnt the Qur’an from him and got high on his bold and eloquent teachings. To them, the state was nothing but a sheer representation of evil and oppression, as exemplified by the imprisonment and deportation of their highly-revered leader.

A very clever and intelligent man, Maitatsine was not blind to all these developments and in time, he would make his boldest claim ever. He told his enthusiastic followers that he was the forerunner of the much-awaited Mahdi (Saviour or Messiah) who would wipe away all their tropical tears and take them to the much-desired Promised Land. He said he was the saviour to rescue them from the tyranny of the establishment. He would banish the infidels, bring peace to the land, erase all their wheelbarrow-pushing suffering and water-hawking stress. For centuries, West African Muslims believe and still believe that a Mahdi would eventually emerge to get rid of all the injustices of this world. Maitatsine cashed in on this age-long belief of the people and kukuma declared himself as the one they’ve been waiting for, the one to come before the Mahdi himself.

He even compared himself to the late Fulani scholar-warrior, Uthman Dan Fodio. The other Kano clerics could not get their heads over Maitatsine’s latest pronouncements, which many of them regarded as nothing but heresy. It was the beginning of the Islamic calendar 1400AH and Maitatsine seriously believed that he was the long-awaited mujaddid (reformer or renewer) for the century.

But while they were trying to grapple with what Maitatsine was saying, he fired another shot. He declared all the hadiths and sunnah (recorded actions, sayings and traditions of Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam) as false and that no one should follow them. Maitatsine did not stop there. He went further to ban his followers from facing Mecca, Saudi Arabia while praying and even criticized the rakats of the Muslim prayer (salat). This clearly went against the standard requirement in Islam that mandated that worshippers face the Ka’aba in Mecca while praying. But that was not Maitatsine’s business. He would release another damning pronouncement: no one must say Allahu Akbar (God is Great) while praying and whoever said so was condemned to Hellfire.

You thought he would end there but he did not. The Emir of Kano and the clerics were more than alarmed but Maitatsine was yet to drop the real shocker. He simply declared himself the nabeey (Prophet). His excited followers happily shouted his praise and truly believed in his new gift of prophethood. Still riding his wave of power and influence, he stated that Muslims in northern Nigeria should not mention the name of Prophet Muhammad again, as they regarded him as any other Arab. Reports have it that after his death, copies of the Qu’ran found in Maitatsine’s home were already altered: Prophet Muhammad’s name was replaced with Maitatsine’s name. But that was not even the strangest part. The most curious part was yet to come.

He declared that while the Holy Qu’ran was indeed the true word of God, no one but him was in the right position to interpret and explain the contents of the Qu’ran and issue new proclamations in his new status as a prophet. A deafening howl of approval from his thousands of followers assured him that all was well. But all was far from well or even borehole. Just as Maitatsine was busy proclaiming himself the overall lord of the heavens, the earth and all that was in between, his terrified enemies knew that they had to do something really quick if not they would have willingly signed their own documents of annihilation because Maitatsine and his overzealous band of followers would stop at nothing to bitterly fight the opposition this time around. Once bitten, the shame of 1962 would never repeat itself again. For Maitatsine and his followers, their actions were justified and they were backed by God Himself with His Divine Armed Forces with invisible jet fighters. On the 18th of March, 1984, the Guardian described the sect thus:
“They prayed while counting their beads, five times a day, facing the East, but think Prophet Muhammad was not a breathing image of Allah…They read the Qur’an but don’t see the need to visit Mecca…At worship, the other Moslems in supplication to the Deity, place their open arms, facing away from themselves, in upright positions, on the side of both ears. But the Maitatsines, in prayers, rest the open palms of both hands on their chest…The Maitatsines preach a strong compulsion to kill. They believe that if they are able to kill ‘Arnas’ (infidels) who don’t believe in Allah, they will go to heaven”.
Maitatsine branded almost everyone candidates of Hell: other Muslims, Christians and people of other faiths, and in his eyes, killing them was not only a rewarding experience, it would be of no consequence. A petrified government watched helplessly as events snowballed. Other Muslims in the city were not just angered at Maitatsine’s arrogant and heretical pronouncements, they were also genuinely worried about the menace he was rapidly constituting. The clerics also knew that more masculinization of Maitatsine and his adherents would mean a catalysis of the progressive erosion of the unbridled power and influence they had enjoyed for centuries. Something really decisive had to be done. But as his foes were planning, Maitatsine too was not sleeping, he was scheming. Towards the end of 1980, there were widespread rumours that Maitatsine and his sect would overrun and take over two of the city’s most important mosques. By then, the Governor of the state, the late Alhaji Muhammadu Abubakar Rimi, later Sani Abacha’s minister, felt he had had more than enough. On the 26th of November, 1980, Rimi fired a hotly-worded letter to him and stated that Maitatsine’s illegal enclave in the Yan Awaki area be broken up within 14 days and that they vacate the area or Maitatsine and his followers would regret the day they were born. But for a man used to so much impunity and scoffing at the political leaders right in their faces, Maitatsine brushed Rimi’s order and deadline as not just some laughable comedy but an empty threat. Rimi later undermined his own authority by secretly telling Maitatsine that he could ignore the contents of the letter and settle for dialogue. Maitatsine rebuffed his call for a dialogue and instead called all his followers and told them that there was serious fire on Mount Kilimanjaro. He stated that the Kano State government had declared total war on them and even threatened to forcefully remove them from their homes.

Maitatsine then instructed his followers to get set for the mother of all wars, they started stockpiling weapons, fortifying their bases and stepped up their military training preparing for the final onslaught with Rimi’s men. The stage was set for was has been described as the second most violent incident in Nigeria, second only to the civil war.


Either using the benefit of hindsight or simply taking time to orchestrate the most effective strategy to invade Yan Awaki and flush out Maitatsine and his die-hard loyalists, Governor Rimi did not immediately act on his threat even when the deadline came and passed. But something would later happen that would force Rimi to invite the combined forces of the Nigerian Police officers, Nigerian Air Force fighters, Nigerian Army soldiers and the heavy federal might of an angry President Shagari to crush Maitatsine.

In December 1980, bright-red blood of Nigerians was flowing on the streets of Kano. What happened? An uprising by the Maitatsine sect and led by the leader, Marwa himself, had taken the ancient city of Kano with its old mud walls by the storm. He did not even wait for Rimi to unleash his men on his sect. For Maitatsine, offense is the best defence. On the 18th of December, 1980, his sect launched a series of catastrophic and coordinated attacks on government buildings, churches, schools, police stations, moderate Muslims and Christians. They spared nothing in their way. But how did the attack all start?

Earlier that day, Maitatsine had visited his regular venue of sermons, the popular Shahuci Playing Ground, a vast open field where he preached. Upon getting there, they were stopped by 150 policemen who insisted they did not have a permit and would not be conducting any religious activity that day. The police also added that there were complaints that each time Maitatsine was preaching, there were several cases of harassment. Before long, an argument broke out between the police and the sect members. The police had made a very costly mistake as they underestimated the number and strength of the sect. Before they could spell the word ‘police’, the three force units sent to the ground were overpowered and in the twinkle of an eye, about 3,000 sect members descended on the ground, and they were all armed with knives, daggers, bows and arrows and dane guns. It was real chaos. All the thirteen vehicles brought by the police were set ablaze and razed to the ground. Four of the policemen were murdered while others escaped with varying degrees of injuries abandoning their weapons in the hands of the jubilant Maitatsine sect members.

After the police had scampered away leaving their dead members on the ground, the Maitatsine members, glee with the smiles and confidence of victory, decided to take on the city of Kano itself. And on they marched, spreading to Yan Awaki, Fagge, Koki, Kofar Wamba and other places. That was the genesis of the trouble that day. As they were going, they were shouting:

"Yau zamu sha jinni!” meaning ‘today we shall drink blood!"

For a people used to living in impunity and believing they were in their own republic, free of any government, the followers of Maitatsine regularly clashed with the Nigerian Police. But this particular clash was extremely bloody. By the next day, the 19th, the sect was in firm control of strategic areas of the city like the popular Fagge Mosque, the Sabon Gari Market, the largest in the city, a cinema house and even some schools. For the next 11 days, the Nigerian police was utterly powerless to stop Maitatsine and his rumbustious followers as they rampaged all over the city, leaving sorrow, blood and tears. Don’t let me add regular trademark to that. Defenceless Nigerian citizens fled the city for the neighbouring states and what many lost during that period cannot even be quantified.

Considering the fact that the government was already planning on how to smoke Maitatsine and his followers out of their fortress and that the populace was already fed up, the government decided to land the blows one after the other. By the time the madness ended, over 4,000 Nigerian lives were wasted.

While a frenetic BBC crew ran into the center of action to interview fleeing Nigerians, government security forces responded brutally. Frantic efforts to control the madness led to hundreds of suspects rounded up by the Nigerian police and military to be summarily executed. It was a desperate time and extremely desperate measures were taken by the Nigerian government, making some costly mistakes in the process, especially with the extrajudicial killings.


With over 4,000 Nigerians dead and Maitatsine still at large, there was palpable tension in the land. The old and romantically beautiful city of Kano had suddenly turned into a horrible scene of war, a theatre of speeding bullets, stabbing machetes and wheezing arrows. There was confusion all over the place and as the death toll continued to rise, the Kano State government had to admit that they had underestimated the strength of Maitatsine and his sect, who responded with so much ferocity that the State Governor had to call on the Nigerian President to assist. The state command of the Nigerian Police was totally overwhelmed by the raging Maitatsine and his sect. An enforcement of more mobile police (MOPOL) units from neighboring states could not quench the fire too. When the combined forces of the police and the mobile units could not tame the overwhelming force of Maitatsine, weapons were borrowed from the Nigerian Army arsenal but nothing tangible happened to reduce Maitatsine and his irate army. It was time to call in the federal troops. According to Toks Ekukinam, who was then the Assistant Legal Adviser to President Shagari, a request for help from the Kano State Government reached the Chief of Army Staff and it was discussed in the Cabinet, and approved by President Shagari in his capacity as the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces.

A battle-ready contingent led by Colonel YY Kure from the Nigerian Army was finally drafted to the ‘battlefront’ and what followed was another round of butchering interspersed with the ceaseless gunfire of furious Nigerian soldiers. In the ensuing scrimmage, the Nigerian soldiers progressed and went deeper into the heart of the Yan Awaki enclave, the evil empire of the dreaded sect. A continuous pounding with heavy artillery shells, armoured tanks, mortars, rockets and machine guns by the Nigerian Army changed the tide of the battle.

It must however be said that the Maitatsine fighters fought so well that Colonel Kure said of them glowingly:
I pray that Nigerians would be able to fight for this nation in the same manner as the fanatics fought in the event of an attack on Nigeria.
From the heavens, warplanes of the Nigerian Air Force rained bombs on his household. Maitatsine fled Kano metropolis with a handful of followers, wives and children as the heat of the gunfire, consistent shelling and aerial bombardment became unbearable. His time was up but his followers would not just give up on their prophet like that. They launched an assault to save their spiritual leader from the crushing jaws of the Nigerian Army but in the crossfire, Maitatsine himself was hit. A bullet flying from nowhere lodged itself in his leg. He let out a piercing shriek of pain and agony and would later die of the wounds he sustained. He reportedly bled to death.

Maitatsine met his end at the Rijiyar Zaki suburb of Kano (while some others believe it was at Rimin Abzinawa village that he met his waterloo). The Nigerian Army met the band of his mourning followers who had just buried him hurriedly by a roadside grave. The Nigerian Army had kept pounding non-stop for 48 hours before the Maitatsine men capitulated. Their corpses were littered all over the place, some on the roads, some in the gutters, the scene was very grisly and repulsive. Other Maitatsine members who fell in the battle were buried in four mass graves by their comrades.

Meanwhile, about 1,000 sect members were arrested and jailed (224 of them were foreigners), with many subjected to most horrendous torture in the hands of the Nigerian police and the Nigerian Army. Over 100,000 people were rendered homeless and an estimated 20,000 people survived with varying degrees of injuries. The carnage had claimed a total of 4,179 lives according to official statements (excluding police and miltary deaths), some estimates put it as high as 10,000 with hundreds of houses, shops and other buildings burnt. People shed hot tears while they counted their losses and for those who witnessed those bloody days, the memories are forever etched.


The remains of Late Malam Muhammadu Marwa alias Allah Ta-Tsine or Maitatsine.

After Maitatsine’s death, his defeated followers took his body and quickly buried it. However, the exhausted Kano State government would have none of that. The soldiers got a tip-off of the location of the shallow grave and an order was given that Maitatsine’s body be exhumed. His grave was cleared up and his corpse was brought to the surface. It was then embalmed and presented before the Commission of Enquiry. Jubilant police officers even posed with the corpse. What followed next is as dramatic as it was puzzling. The government was so determined to crush anything that left of Maitatsine that his corpse was set on fire. He was cremated. Today, his ashes, badly-burnt teeth and bone fragments are safely sealed away in a bottle at the Nigerian Police laboratory in Kano State. In a corner of an unused, dark and dusty room that reminds one of an evil dungeon, lies Maitatsine in a bottle. On the specimen bottle, is an official seal and an inscription that goes thus:

“The remains of Late Malam Muhammadu Marwa alias Allah Ta-Tsine or Maitatsine.”


But his sect did not die with him. In fact, in October 1982, his followers would launch another round of violence. This time around, it was not in Kano but in the town of Bulunkutu in Borno State, a village 15km to the east of Maiduguri, which is presently under siege by the rampaging Boko Haram. Mohammedu Goni was the Governor of Borno State that time and he was also taken aback with the scale of the ferocity of the Maitatsine sect which lasted for four days. It was a brutal assault launched by the surviving remnants of the sect that fled from Kano. (Please note that the Kano crisis of 1982 in which Dr. Bala Muhammed, the beloved Secretary to the State Government, SSG of Governor Rimi was murdered in cold blood by NPN thugs was a different incident)That was not all. They regrouped in Kaduna were many of them were killed.

In March 1984, the surviving members of the sect launched another devastating attack on the Yola/Jimeta axis in Adamawa State. For a long time, the city of Yola was plunged into darkness because the National Electric Power Authority (NEPA)’s three substations, transformers, meters and utility poles had all been damaged in the violence. The Yola Central Market was reduced to rubble. Bloated corpses littered everywhere, posing grave health risks. Food was scarce and prices of commodities took an upward turn like a spaceship leaving Cape Canaveral.

The military head of state, Major-General Muhammadu Buhari responded with a deafening ferocity. He literally moved in his forces to wipe off the sect from existence with the same ruthlessness that he pursued Chadian forces under President Shagari. Under Shagari, Buhari was the General Officer Commanding , 3rd Armoured Brigade, Jos, Plateau State and played significant roles in containg the Maitatsine sect. Buhari flew to Yola and oversaw the military wipe out the sect (his popular vice, Idiagbon was out of the country). Buhari then vowed that Maitatsine would never sprout again. Actually, he dealt the sect a very severe blow. When Musa Makaniki, the new sect leader, fled to his hometown in Gombe, Buhari’s forces gave him a hot chase.

Following his death, Maitatsine’s enclave was demolished and all his illegal buildings levelled. Today, if you get to the area, you see an entirely different scenery, his own house was converted to a magistrate court with other buildings where he housed his thousands of militant adherents converted to police barracks and shops. Although one can barely recollect that that is the scene of the one of the most violent confrontations in Nigeria’s history, residents who witnessed it and are still alive will point to bullet holes in their houses and narrate their heart-wrenching stories.

President Shagari signed into law the Unlawful Society Order of 1982 and it clearly prohibited the formation and operation of groups such as the Maitatsine under whatever name or form. The Federal Government also set up a Commission of Inquiry but the Kano State Government, suspicious of being indicted, turned down the report of the commission and set up its own. (Initially, the FG downplayed the importance of the sect and underestimated its strength and even turned down the request of the state commissioner of police for reinforcement. Remember how Yar’adua also travelled out to Brazil while the country was burning under the terror of Boko Haram). The state government even went as far as accusing the Federal Government of breeding and supporting Maitatsine all because Kano is an opposition state. Shey you see how these people play tente with our lives? While the two parties were foolishly bickering, the survivors of the sect were busy regrouping and restrategizing and they would launch further destructive attacks.
  • The Babangida government was particularly ruthless with the jailed Maitatsine members. As at 1989, just 25 out of the 100 incarcerated disciples of Maitatsine were still alive after just four years in prison. Don’t ask me what happened to others.


So how was Maitatsine able to accumulate so much power, influence and command such a huge followership? Well, a number of factors condensed to prop him up. We look at them:
  • It was in the 1980s and Nigeria was awash with billions of petrodollars. However, just as it is today, much of the wealth did not trickle down to the masses. The fact that the Shagari government was generally regarded as inept and the President’s aides as corrupt did not even help matters. The effect? Unemployment and the harsh economic reality encouraged and sustained the child beggar (almajiri) system in northern Nigeria. Maitatsine would draw a vast majority of his followers from this pool of beggars and destitutes who were already fed up with life before Maitatsine came with his message of ‘hope’ and ‘salvation’. The almajiris would later have a popular song:

Yan makaranta boko,
Ba karatu, ba Sallah.
Sai yawan zagin mallam.

Pupils of western schools,
You do not learn or read the Qur’an
Save continuous abuse of your teacher.

The almajiris are usually young boys, left to fend for themselves on the streets, beg and return the proceeds to their Islamic teachers. During the tribunal set up after his death, one of Maitatsine’s wives, Zainab, admitted that Maitatsine received alms proceeds at the rate of N200 naira on a regular basis from the almajiris. The almajiris are some of the most vulnerable in the Nigerian society.
  • Maitatsine’s personality also helped him a great deal. He was a fantastic orator and was described as a ‘forceful, persuasive and charismatic‘. He could charm thousands with his electrifying speeches. For a man who took his time to study the economic and political landscape, he knew just the right words to use and drive the people into a mad frenzy. His followers, mainly of the talakawa (commoner) breed were branded Yan Tatsine (Those Who Curse) by the general populace.
  • He was also working closely with members of the Police Force who incidentally were also members of his own sect or had just retired. These people supplied him with all the necessary tips and information with which he outsmarted and outwitted the Nigerian Police, seen by many as a nauseating bastion of corruption.
  • Unseriousness on the part of the politicans also worked in his favour. Instead of facing the core problems spawning the growth of the sect, selfish politicians were busy feathering their own nests, to the detriment of the population. This will make more sense to you when you realize the fact that Kano State was under the control of the opposition Peoples Redemption Party (PRP) as against Shagari’s National Party of Nigeria (NPN). Instead of tackling the problem, the inept politicians dilly-dallied trading blames with one another, just like they shamelessly do today.
  • Religious sentiments also played a very big role in the emergence of Maitatsine. When his real colours started to show, Baba Yaro, a member of the State House of Assembly raised alarm and even passed a motion in the House that Maitatsine be stopped from public preaching. Shockingly, he got no support from his colleagues, many of whom believe that Maitatsine’s work was promoting the cause of Islam. A disappointed Baba Yaro gently sunk into his chair and kept quiet. Today, a lot of Nigerians still find it difficult if not impossible to think straight because of religious sentiments, even the most highly-educated ones are not free from this debilitating scourge.
  • Maitatsine’s followers were very disciplined and when it came to bravery, they had a First Class. They were ready to die for their cause and they were properly motivated, not with the instrumentality of money or materials but the incorrigible belief that they would end up in Paradise. The officers of the Nigerian Police on the other hand, were poorly motivated and definitely not ready to die any senseless death. It must also be said that Maitatsine’s followers were not crude riffraffs but very well-trained fighters. Within their enclave, they were given adequate military training by sect members who once worked or were still working with the Nigerian security forces or in collusion with top government officials and through these people, Maitatsine laid his hands on classified government documents which he would then make copies of and distribute widely, being a sly master of propaganda.


For those who felt that the death of Maitatsine meant the end of his sect, they were sorely mistaken. In 1982, the surviving members of the sect collaborated with another sect named Kala-Kato and unleashed untold violence in their base in Bullumkutu (Bulunkutu), Borno State. Before the government security forces could react, almost 120 people were already killed, with property worth millions of naira damaged. Before the smoke of Bullumkutu died down, the Maitatsine sect under the command of Maitatsine’s second-in-command, Mallam Musa Makaniki launched another round of terror in 1984 pursuing those that fled the massacre from Borno State to the old Gongola State (now Taraba and Adamawa States) in places like Yelwa, Jimeta (Jimeta Main Market was destroyed) and Yola communities like Shinko, Vinikilang, Doubeli, Zango, Va’atita, Nassarawo and Rumde. This particular orgy of violence started with the murder of a three-and-half-year-old girl, Fatima Garba. Before the police could respond again, over 800 Nigerians had already lost their lives with countless property destroyed in the carnage. About 60,000 people were displaced and left homeless (total death toll since 1980 stood at almost 5,700). That was not the end. Maitatsine did not stop there.

After their strings of ‘victory’ in Borno and Gongola States, they launched another strike in the Pantami area of Bauchi State (now in Gombe State) from the 26th to the 28th of April, 1985. Before the security forces could intervene, over 100 lives were lost. General Buhari would then launch a devastating assault on the sect, leading to the arrest and prosecution of many of them, with the others fleeing.


One of those who fled and escaped to Cameroon was Musa Ali Suleiman (aka Musa Makaniki) after the 1985 attacks, he was the one who took over the sect following Maitatsine’s death in 1980. He got the nickname because he was once a mechanic before becoming an Islamic cleric.


You may find this difficult to believe but Makaniki would not be caught until the year 2004 under the presidency of Olusegun Obasanjo. Makaniki was initially sentenced to death by hanging but he was later freed upon appeal in May 2012.

"Boko Haram is like a resurrection of Maitatsine. The similarities between the two are eerie" -Max Siollun, historian and expert on Nigerian military history.
Some Nigerians believe that the present-day Boko Haram is an offshoot or a mutation of the Maitatsine. Those who believe this state that the uncle of the Mohammed Yusuf, the late Boko Haram leader, was actually one of the senior commanders of Maitatsine but he narrowly escaped from Kano to Maiduguri during the heavy military onslaught on the sect. This uncle of his was said to have raised Yusuf as a child. However, that is not to say that other factors did not contribute to the growth and emergence of Boko Haram and it is not clear if Boko Haram has confirmed or denied this relationship. There are many similarities between the two sects but Boko Haram has remained a far more resilient organization. Both sects were anti-government, had their own autonomous enclaves and organized charismatic sermons against the use of Western items. Just as Maitatsine also had ties with the politicians of Kano State, Boko Haram was also linked with the politicians of Borno State. As a matter of fact, a suspected financier of the group, Alhaji Buji Foi, was summarily executed by the police. Foi was a Commissioner for Religious Affairs during Governor Ali Modu Sheriff’s first term in office. Before then, Foi was twice the Chairman of Kaga Local Council in addition to other top public offices that he held in Borno State. Here is a video of his execution:

  • Wanda ba ta yarda ba Allah tatsine. Meaning,(May God curse whoever does not agree with me).
  • All land plots in this world belong to Allah and he does not have to ask permission of anyone before building on any plot.
Maitatsine telling his followers to take over the land of the neighbours and build anywhere they deemed fit.

“I can still remember vividly those days when he would invite me to ceremonies like naming of children while I also invited him to attend mine. But as his weird sermon attained its peak, he ordered me – being the second Imam of the mosque near his house – to stop my muezzin from calling prayers, saying he has banned it.” -Mallam Ibrahim Adamu, neighbour.

"My father has an enormous cache of weapons in his room that can allow him wipe out your police in no time" -Tijjani Marwa, Maitatsine’s son, to a friend in 1980. 100,000 rounds of ammunition were later seized from the Maitatsine base.

”There was a day I went to fetch water from that tap (points at a pump near a bridge bordering the spot where Maitatsine’ house was located), but to my greatest surprise, his men chased me away, warning me not come near the place again as the tap was meant for them.” -Mallam Bara’u, family friend and neighbour.

"The Maitatsine is a fitnah, a corrupt jihad. It represents a direct attack on the Muslims and an affront to the very Islamic principles which all Muslims honour and cherish. All Islamic authorities agree that anyone who believes that there is a prophet after Muhammad is not a Muslim; that anybody who rejects the sunnah does not belong to Islam even if he professes belief in the Qu’ran, and that anybody who attempts to change the Islamic mode of worship is anything but a Muslim. And these exactly are the doctrines of the Maitatsine movement" -Muslim Students Society (MSS)
"The Maitatsine sect is nothing but a few organized cranks and hoodlums masquerading as Islamic teachers and preachers" -Jama’atul Nasril Islam (JNI) (Society for the Support of Islam, an umbrella body for Muslims in the country).

"Maitatsine are not Muslims" -Lateef Adegbite, Secretary-General of the Nigerian Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs (NSCIA), now late.

"It is a mistake to vest Maitatsine with the stature of a misguided Muslim reformer, which clearly, he was not. At best, he was a Muslim deviant, and at worst, a charlatan who took advantage of the societal weakness" -Jubril Aminu, professor of cardiology, former Nigerian Ambassador to the USA and Senator of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

  • As early as 1982, hundreds of Maitatsine members arrested were granted amnesty by President Shagari.
  • Maitatsine was born into rural poverty in 1927 in Maroua, Cameroon, became a brilliant student under a Quranic teacher and excelled especially in tafsir but left his birthplace for Kano when he was sixteen. His full name went thus: Muhammedu Marwa Darkwa aka Mai Tabsiri.

  • Although Maitatsine banned his users from possessing and using modern devices/items like the elegant dresses, radio and television which he argued would interfere with their spirituality, he was smart enough not to ban guns, knives, explosives and other weapons.
  • Maitatsine’s members were once warmly received at the Kano State Government House and prayed with Governor Rimi who was condemned for receiving ‘emissaries of the Devil’. Rimi was trying to be very careful with the issue while also simultaneously protecting his political career.
  • Maitatsine was accused of ordering that people be slaughtered like rams in his enclave, especially his enemies and those who dared cross his path. At first, he started out as a nice, gentle and likable cleric in the neighbourhood but with time, he became a terrifying monster and former neighbours had to flee the Yan Awaki area. Shortly before Maitatsine himself was captured, his men captured of one of his neighbours, Alhaji Usman Yawale, a rich businessman. When Yawale was brought to his presence, Maitatsine ordered him to attest that he was truly a Prophet of God but Yawale declined and told Maitatsine pointblank that he cannot regard him as a Prophet of God because he had just returned from the Holy Pilgrimage and that he saw the tomb of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (SAW) with his own eyes so he cannot proclaim Maitatsine an Apostle of God. Maitatsine was visibly angered and what followed next was very dramatic. He ordered that Yawale be executed by slitting his neck. Yawale was not even moved with the declaration of death but he made one single request that Maitatsine granted: to make an ablution. Yawale left behind two wives and 16 children and they are still mourning their father and breadwinner as you are reading these words.
  • When Maitatsine was eventually killed, photos of military men clutching his body sold like hot 'okpa di oku' while jubilant crowds trooped to the mortuary to see his corpse. Many could not believe that the legendary Maitatsine could die afterall.
  • Some analysts like Paul Collier and Nicolas Sambanis do not see the Maitatsine event as either a riot or an uprising but they have classified it as a full-blown civil war, and even refer to it as the ‘Maitatsine War’. Basis for this classification was given in their book, Understanding Civil War: Africa.
  • In the 1990s, it was believed that some remaining members of the sect were practising in secret.
  • Maitatsine’s followers and fighters were not only Nigerians but also illegal immigrants (aliens) from Niger Republic, Cameroon and Chad. Nigeria Immigration Service, over to you o!
  • Before he turned to something else, Maitatsine was well-respected in the community. He even went on the Holy Pilgrimage (hajj) to Mecca in 1971 after which he started receiving considerable recognition from the religious authorities. His passpport number was 089150 and his place of birth was recorded as Jabbi, near Mubi, in the former Adamawa Province.
  • He saw to the material needs of his followers, ordering massive preparations of steaming hot rice meals.
  • Today, the name Maitatsine has come to be associated with religious intolerance in the nation. Anytime a new violent outflow of religious intolerance is noticed, people reflexly mention or make reference to Maitatsine.
  • As at 1979, Nigeria had just 10,000 police officers and when the NPN of Shagari came to power, they were planning to raise it to 100,000 by 1983, the same period during which Maitatsine was tramping on everyone. Maitatsine alone had a standing army of at least 3,000 fighters. Do the maths.
  • Maitatsine’s first child, Tijjani, who was later slain once told a friend of his, Mallam Bara’u in 1980 that his father had stockpiled so much weapons in his compound that the police can never handle, that it would take only a combined team of the Nigerian Armed Forces to have any significant impact in dislodging him.
  • Maitatsine lashed out at the corruption in the government and called for social justice.
  • His sect was not strictly a fundamentalist one in that context because he blended his own version with some forms of paganism and African syncretism.
  • Maitatsine was described as an ‘isolated fanatic’ by Michael Watts. He has also been described as a cultist and magician masquerading as a cleric.
  • Just like with the Boko Haram too, the State Security Service (SSS) issued warnings about the group two months before their disastrous strike but their warning fell on deaf ears.
  • Maitatsine was summoned four times by the State House of Assembly to answer the allegations levelled against him but not once did he even show up. Whenever his members were arrested and served court summons, they refused to appear. Maitatsine was also accused of forcefully taking over the house of his neighbours and converting it to his own area in Yan Awaki Quarters in Kano. He also constructed illegal buildings in the area and when the Kano State Municipal Development Board served him a quit notice, he simply brushed it aside. His Yan Awaki Quarters was a no-go area for non-sect members. Like Anini, he was a law unto himself.
  • Owing to the fact that Maitatsine had a squint in one eye, there were some Muslims who took this to be a sign that he was indeed, the Dajjal (Anti-Christ) who would combat Islam and hasten the end of the world.

Although while agreeing that an onslaught by the military was necessary to maintain order, the summary execution of Nigerians without fair trial is a very disturbing trend indeed. When Lawrence Anini, the notorious armed robber was caught in 1986, he was shot in the legs, taken to a military hospital, treated with courtesy and care, allowed to confess and name all his collaborators before facing trial and eventually the executioners. On the other hand, the late Boko Haram leader, Mohammed Yusuf was summarily executed even when he was already subdued. The manner with which Nigerian police officers and members of the armed forces descend on everyone during insurrections and public disturbances is alarming. The militarization of the Nigerian state is yet to be diluted.

Frustrated idle youths will seek succour and relief in anything, including religion. A word may not be enough for our government. As at the time of writing this, only 1 state out of all the 36 can pay the salaries of workers (not even to talk of financing projects o) WITHOUT collecting oil money from Abuja simply because their internally-generated revenue is laughable. That one state is Lagos. As long as an army of willing, able and ready Nigerian youths are rendered useless, the Nigerian nation will never be free of turmoil. Stop shouting, it is not a curse. It is called a FACT.

Going through even the social media nowadays, one will be shocked at the level of hatred and intolerance spewed by Nigerians. If it is not childish tribal rants (which totally pisses me off), it will be one senseless argument over religions. Religious leaders have the responsibility of giving responsible teachings that will provide overall harmony and development in the society. But even if the clerics have failed in their duties, whatever happened to our own brains?


While Maitatsine as a phenomenon cannot be said to be a creation of the greedy politicians, the growth and strengthening of the sect can be linked to the direct actions and inactions of the political class. In the Maitatsine case, politicians deliberately played ludo with the whole scenario until it became a full-blown monster. One political party would be blaming the other while also trying to shore up their respective political bases. At the end of the day, who suffers? Innocent Nigerians. That the Kano State government could put down the riots in less than two weeks show that they were not hampered in the real sense by the needed resources but by an embarrassing lack of political will.

Unserious Nigerian governments will set up committees to look into the ‘immediate and remote’ causes of a crisis only for them not to adopt the recommendations of such panels or inquiry or committees and that explains why we keep having a recurrence. The one instituted by the Federal Government on Maitatsine was headed by the late retired Supreme Court Judge, Justice Anthony Nnaemezie Aniagolu who died in July 2011. The commission dismissed claims that Maitatsine was sponsored by Israel, Libya, Saudi Arabia or even a political party. All the blame was heaped on his head.

In a nation where police officers are in the pockets of politicians, it is very difficult to combat crime. Maitatsine had been arrested before a couple of times but on each occasion, he called on his friends in high places and secured his freedom. With each bout of liberation, he became more emboldened until he transformed into a monster that almost swallowed up the politicians themselves.

In 2011 the World Bank released a report stating that the Northern region of Nigeria has the highest rate of illiteracy not in Africa but on earth. As if that was not enough, in April 2013, the Central Bank Governor, Mallam Sanusi Lamido Sanusi revealed that 93% (read that again, 93%) of girls in northern Nigeria are illiterate. In such an environment with such a thick atmosphere of ignorance, it is very easy for superstitious beliefs to spread about people like Maitatsine. During his time, many believed that he even had magical powers and bullets could not penetrate his followers. The fact is that no matter the amount of the magical powder you rub on your body, a bullet will not sweat before piercing your skin. If you need real ayeta, go get the latest Kevlar vests.

A very negative impact of these baseless superstitions is that they demoralize the police. During the onslaught on Maitatsine, many police officers were very reluctant to go smoke him out, some officers did not even bother to report for work at their respective stations, they simply disappeared (who wan die) while the few unfortunate ones drafted out to confront the full wrath of Maitatsine were already psychologically defeated, they were fighting from a position of fear and trepidation, all because of superstitious rubbish. Education, is the key. For Nigeria to bloom, she must experience an explosion in information technology and a revolution in the education sector. When that time comes, we will stop holding up criminal elements as mythical and indomitable figures worthy of adulation or honour but hold them accountable for their actions as criminals. Spread the message of love and tolerance. Violence begets violence and no cobra will birth a dove.

Thank you very much for your time.


  1. Truly a nice and well articulated writeup about maitatsine, point of correction maitatsine was never an islamic cleric or a muslim he was trained and brought up by CAN!!! source: Professor Dauda Ojobi, a former secretary of Northern Christian Association of
    Nigeria (CAN), a retired Professor in Benue
    State University faculty of Law, the 3rd
    Reverend Father from northern Nigeria,
    after Paul Gindiri, and GG Ganaka, The first
    Nigerian overseer of Baptist Church in Kaduna, and One time commissioner of
    Justice in Bauchi State

    1. Where did you get this info. pls... We need facts please and not hear-say