Members of a fanatical Moslem sect led an uprising through northern Nigeria in late October that left hundreds of people dead and officials concerned about the government's trouble in quelling the sect's second major insurrection in two years.
Officials also were frightened by the speed with which the violence spread. The fighting began in the Bulunkutu suburban slums outside Maiduguri, 750 miles north of the Nigerian capital of Lagos, on Oct. 26 and moved to the city of Kaduna, 400 miles to the south, within three days. The clashes between police and Moslems finally ended later in the week in Kano, where a rival group staged a series of protest that led to church burnings.
Maiduguri police officials explained that the unrest began after police uncovered a plot by followers of the late, self-proclaimed prophet Mohammadu (Maitatsine) Marwa to attack worshipers at Maiduguri's main mosque during midday prayers. The Maitatsine sect members, make ritual use of human body parts and systematically mutilate the corpses of slain adversaries. They believe Moslems who do not follow Marwa's teachings are infidels and by fighting them, no matter if they win, the sect members are assured a place in heaven, the police said.
The clashes left the radical sect in disarray and its compound here in ruins. President Shehu Shagari has banned the group but a Nigerian security official said that the sect "has not been destroyed, just dislodged."
He expects its members to just stay out of trouble until they are able to build up their numbers again. "I don't believe they are finished as yet," he said.
Officials and Moslem leaders in Maiduguri, Kaduna and Kano blame the unrest on recent stresses placed on the Moslem community in northern Nigeria, which is concerned about the dilution of its Islamic culture as Nigeria uses it oil wealth to become a more urban, industrial and secular nation.
Moreover, they add, northern Nigeria's Moslem community has been affected by events elsewhere in the Moslem world, such as the the pan-Islamic preachings of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi and Iran's Islamic revolution.
The northern Moslems have used the idea of holy wars, or jihads, since the early 1800s as a method of fighting against corruption of their Islamic values.
Officials say boys and men migrate from the rural areas to the cities in search of better lives and then find they are not equipped with the right skills or education to find good jobs. They often fall under the influence of fanatical groups that preach against the materialism of urban life.
Many of the Maitatsine followers come from such circumstances. The violence in October and in 1980 were centered in the poorer, rapidly growing areas of cities.
Nigeria's Moslem community is divided. The Maitatsine sect members reject all signs of material wealth, such as wearing watches, owning cars and wearing clothes with buttons and zippers. There are also numerous other fundamentalist groups and other Moslems who advocate reform. In between, are the orthodox militants of the Moslem Students' Society, the privileged beneficiaries of education. They denounce Nigeria's secular government, reject the widening inroads being made here by Western culture and are fervent supporters of Nigeria becoming an Islamic state, despite the fact that more than half of the country's 100 million people are Christian or followers of traditional African religions. The students' society views the Maitatsine as heretical fanatics because they reject the teaching that Mohammed was Allah's prophet.
In December 1980 the Maitatsine sect attacked and killed worshipers at Kano's central mosque during Friday prayers. Eleven days of fighting followed, first with the police, who were defeated and killed in large numbers, and then the Army, which had to kill all of the sect's followers guarding their headquarters in order to capture it. The official death toll was more than 4,000, but other sources put the figure much higher.
Hundreds of skulls were found in the sect's headquarters. An investigatory tribunal later heard testimony of the ritual murder of kidnap victims and the sale of body parts to black-magic practitioners as a source of the sect's income. The sect's leader Marwa was killed in the 1980 fighting.
More than 900 of his followers were jailed, but many fled to other northern cities such as Maiduguri, Kaduna and Sokoto, where they kept a low profile and began recruiting followers to rebuild their ranks, officials said. In August, the government released the prisoners to relieve overcrowded prisons, and some of these men joined the sect's community here in Bulunkutu.
The sect's militancy had been growing since August, and in October Nigerian Security Organization undercover agents reported to police officials that the sect was collecting and making weapons to attack orthodox Moslems to be worshiping at Maiduguri's main mosque on Oct. 29, the police there later reported. Police raided their compound on Oct. 25 and arrested 37 sect members and preachers on weapons charges.
The next day, 26 policemen returned for a further search and were attacked by the sect members. Fourteen policemen were taken hostage. Police reinforcements arrived and attacked the mosque in an attempt to rescue the hostages. The sect's members, using sticks, clubs, knives and home-made swords, repelled the policemen, who were using guns. The zealots stabbed the hostages to death and cut out their eyes and tongues and cut off their ears and noses, police reported.
Those sect members who were killed were buried in a deep pit behind their crudely built, two-room cinder block mosque, the facade of which is now riddled with bullet holes.
After sect members beat back the police, they left their high-walled compound behind the mosque and attacked their neighbors' homes and shops. They went after men who had rejected their conversion efforts, brought them out into the streets and alleys of Bulunkutu, stabbed and clubbed them to death before cutting off their facial parts.
Following a pattern set in the 1980 Kano riots, they set homes, shops and cars on fire and took women captive back to their compound to cook for them.
Police reinforcements from four other cities renewed the attack on the Moslems' barricaded compound with heavy weaponry, and the sect members broke out of the cordon and ran into a forestry plantation behind Bulunkutu. Guerrilla fighting continued on the plantation until Oct. 28, when the last of the Moslems on the plantation were either killed or captured.
"They have unnatural courage," said a high-level official of the Nigerian Security Organization. "It was a strange thing to be shooting these people and they keep coming and coming at you with sticks and knives."
The security official, who declined to be named, said earlier reports that the sect's members had guns were not true.
"They didn't know how to use the guns they captured from the first policemen they killed," he said. "Only about 10 percent" of them had knives or 2 1/2-foot, pointed, doubled-edged swords while the rest "used sticks and clubs," he added.
"Most of them are Nigerians," he said, with a minority coming from the surrounding Moslem areas of Chad, Niger and Cameroon.
During a tour of the scorched mosque and large, fire-blackened, walled compound behind it, a policemen poked with a stick at a small child's charred foot in the ashes of a campfire. The bones at the top of the foot were splintered as if they had been chopped with a hatchet. Other policemen pointed out what they identified as human joints and bones in several campfires on the compound's cement floor.
"No one knows if they were eating people or not," said Borno state information official Musa Hamidu as he bent down to get a closer view of some of the bones.
Only men and boys lived on the compound, policemen said, which served as one of the sect's Koranic schools for the large number of rural youths coming to the city.
"The ignorance of the rural people makes it easy for perverted leadership to rise," said Ibrahim Ahmad, a medical doctor in Kano. "Urban Moslems are much better informed and sophisticated and reject the teachings of this sect immediately. But strictly speaking, these Maitatsine people are not Moslems."
At Bulunkutu, about 250 people were killed, 600 wounded, 2,200 left homeless and $9.4 million in property destroyed, said Adamu Daya, director of relief services. "I think many more died, but it will be very hard to get an exact figure. So many died in the fighting in the bush," Daya added.