Page last updated at 11:32 GMT, Friday, 31 July 2009 12:32 UK

Brutal reality of Nigeria killing

Nigerian police officers inspect body of dead militant
Most of the 300 people killed this week have been militants

By Andrew Walker
BBC News

Few Nigerians will be surprised that their police force killed renegade Islamic sect leader Mohammed Yusuf after four days of violence in the northern city of Maiduguri.

After all, their motto used to be "Fire for Fire".

Many ordinary Nigerians will even have the same reaction to the news, viewing it as a good turn of events.

Police say the 39-year-old preacher was killed in a shootout on Thursday night.

It happened after Mr Yusuf was paraded by the police in front of journalists, and after he was apparently filmed begging for his life.

He was said to have been shot while trying to escape. But many Nigerians will assume he was simply executed.

Brutal reality

This is not the first time suspects have been paraded before journalists before winding up dead.

It is a brutal reality; this is the way the Nigerian police work. They will not care about any international outcry about human rights that might follow.


The first reaction of Nigerian Information Minister Dora Akunyili to Mr Yusuf's death was to say, on the BBC's Network Africa programme: "What is important is that he has been taken out of the way, to stop him using people to cause mayhem."

However, she did go on to say that the government did not condone what she called "extrajudicial killings".

Officers in Borno State would have been keen to send a message that people who attack them will be "dealt with" - a phrase commonly used by everyone from Nigerian security officials, politicians, to the media and the Nigerian on the street.

Decades of corruption and continued failure to train officers properly has led to a situation where extrajudicial killing is an accepted form of dealing with people the police believe to be criminals.

Nigerians see their society as being mired in violence, and do not trust the court system to punish or reform offenders.

The international rights organisation Human Rights Watch says extrajudicial killings are shockingly common.

Former jail inmates have told the BBC that armed robbery suspects are regularly executed before they are charged.


But Nigerians are not particularly shocked by this.

They know that people who use violence openly in Nigeria often do so with the backing of powerful friends.

Nigeria's political godfathers, the shadowy robber barons who wield immense power, always have a use for violent people.

Destroyed police station
Mohammed Yusuf's followers attacked police stations across northern Nigeria

Political power is judged not on how many votes you can get, but how much force you can employ to destroy rival's interests and maintain a position at the lucrative trough of government money.

Religion is incredibly important in Nigeria, and charismatic religious sects who promise dedicated followers can be as useful to powerful people as violent street gangs.

The godfathers themselves may also believe that charismatic preachers have mystic powers they want on their side.

That may be why the group that came to be known as Boko Haram was allowed to grow unchallenged in Borno state for years before this explosion of violence.

There are certainly no shortage of impressionable young men, who live without much hope of getting a regular job, willing to join a group that will look after them in return for their loyalty.

And conflicts between these groups and the police are common, as Nigeria's political tide raises some godfathers up, and beaches others on the rocks.


In 1980 another Islamic sect, led by Marwa Maitasine, was wiped out by the government. Some 1,000 people were killed, including women and children.

The sect, which preached that the Prophet Muhammad was not the genuine messenger of Allah - blasphemy under Islam - was allowed to grow because it was useful to local politicians, analysts say.

Now, Borno governor Ali Modu Sherrif has said anyone who shelters fleeing Boko Haram sect members will be "dealt with".

But in Abuja, questions will be asked about why his administration did not take a firmer line Boko Haram sooner.

There are many eccentric sects, bandit troupes and itinerant brigands in northern Nigeria, all useful to one godfather or another.

It is virtually certain that what happened in Maiduguri this week will happen again.

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