*Faith Under Fire
Christians live in dread as new, local Taliban rises in the north
In areas such as Kano it is corruption, not religion, fuelling Muslim
Chris McGreal in Kano
Thursday May 3, 2007
The men dressed in red turbans and long robes and carrying machine guns
and machetes handed out amulets that they said would protect people in
the coming fight. They went among the Muslim and Christian residents in
the northern Nigerian city of Kano saying they meant no harm; their
gripe was solely with the national government for failing to live by the
The next day the hundreds of fighters, who included women and some
children, attacked the police headquarters, killing 10 policemen and a
divisional commander's wife. The police station was set ablaze, vehicles
were burned and prisoners freed.
A six-hour battle followed through parts of the city that left at least
10 others dead, some of them civilians caught in the crossfire. About 25
attackers were killed as the army shelled the mixed Panshekara district.
Others were captured.
Binta Zakari narrowly escaped being shot. "I saw them attacking with
their children and wives. I don't know what they wanted but I was told
they are not happy with the state," she said.
No one in Panshekara is even sure who the attackers were. But religious
leaders believe they were members of the self-styled "Nigerian Taliban",
a group founded by radical students who believe the country is led by an
The Nigerian Taliban first emerged five years ago demanding "full
sharia" in the 12 states in the north that introduced Islamic law after
the end of military rule in 1999. Attacks on symbols of the federal
government followed, particularly the police.
The latest assault sent a new wave of fear through Kano's minority
Christian community, which lives with one eye on sharia and
inter-religious violence that has caused tens of thousands of deaths in
recent years with periodic massacres across the country.
Islamist attacks on the Christian areas of Kano have left hundreds dead
at a time. In Plateau state, human rights groups have recorded nearly
60,000 religious killings of Muslims and Christians in the past six
years. Tens of thousands more have fled their homes.
Before the assault in Kano, the fundamentalists told residents they were
avenging the killing of a popular dissident cleric in the city, Sheikh
Jafar Adam, who was shot dead by masked men as he led early morning
prayers at his mosque.
Some saw a political motive. The murdered sheikh, who had a large
following, had fallen out with Kano's governor, Ibrahim Shekarau, for
not implementing sharia law strictly enough and quit the commission
overseeing Islamic law in protest.
Sharia came to Kano on a wave of popular support in northern Nigeria
among voters who hoped it would curb rampant corruption. The state
introduced a form of religious police to enforce dress codes, ban the
sale of beer and impose a bar on male-driven motorbike taxis carrying
women. Earlier this year the national government won a court ruling
disbanding the religious police as illegal, to the fury of more radical
Sheikh Adam, a Saudi-educated member of the strict Wahhabi sect, was
among those who also accused state governments of watering down sharia
law, saying that politicians had hijacked a populist issue to get
elected but then neutralised it in a classic Nigerian way: the Kano
administration established a series of commissions and councils to
oversee sharia, gave them large budgets and co-opted many clerics, who
bought new cars and bigger houses.
"People have been let down. Corruption was unchecked," said Dr Bashir
Aliyu Umar, the new imam of the assassinated sheikh's mosque. "Some of
the religious leaders have been compromised by the creation of
institutions that support the implementing of sharia. They have sizeable
government budgets and have become like other government agencies. They
haven't been free of corruption.
"People see that some governors here used the issue of sharia to stay in
power and amass a lot of wealth. They see these governors here use
sharia in a very evil way to make sure the finger is not pointed at them."
Mr Shekarau is among several northern governors also accused by
Nigeria's anti-corruption commission. He was up for re-election last
month. The day before his death, Sheikh Adam delivered a sermon in which
he said he would direct his followers how to vote. His large following
meant that if, as expected, he threw his weight behind the opposition he
could have had a significant impact on the election.
The sheikh was shot before he could deliver his instruction. Mr Shekarau
was re-elected two days later.
The Nigerian Taliban has also attacked what it says is a western plot to
"Christianise" Islam after Kano's leaders sought to offset the influence
of Saudi Arabia and Iran, which are funding hardline Islamist schools
that some fear are educating a generation of extremists. The Emir of
Kano is negotiating a deal with the US and Britain to fund schools with
a more balanced education.
Sheikh Umar said that while many northern Nigerians are as angry as
Muslims elsewhere at events in the Middle East, they have not been
radicalised by them: "You can't blame people who see injustice in
Afghanistan and Iraq. But here we are more preoccupied with our local
issues, fighting corruption and the like."
But extremism is sometimes not far from the surface. Earlier this month,
a female teacher in Gombe spotted a student cheating during an exam on
Islam and threw his books in the bin. The student, trying to cover up
his wrongdoing, told other pupils that Oluwatoyin Oluseesin had
desecrated the Qur'an. They beat her to death.
About half of Nigeria's 130 million citizens are Muslim. They dominate
the north, although there are sizeable Christian communities, which
often leads to friction and, periodically, bloodshed. A Muslim presence
dates back to the 12th century after north African scholars arrived on
trade routes, bringing Islamic teachings and culture. Jihads followed
from what is now Senegal. Britain used Islamic political and religious
structures to administer the north. After independence a new political
class and the military emerged. Thousands have been killed in recent
years in religious violence, with Muslim attacks on northern Christian
enclaves and Christians slaughtering Muslims in the south. The return to
democracy in 1999 led to populist politicians getting elected on
promises to widen Islamic law. Twelve states strengthened the sharia
code, often banning alcohol, segregating the sexes in public,
introducing amputations for theft, and stoning for adultery. Most severe
punishments were not carried out.