Boko Haram leader Mohammed Yusuf. Photo from the BBC.
Mohammad Yusuf, the leader of Boko Haram, the Islamist group responsible for the recent uprising in northern Nigeria, has been killed by Nigerian authorities during a crackdown in the northeastern city of Maiduguri. Police claimed Yusuf was killed after attempting to escape from custody.
“Mohammed Yusuf was killed by security forces in a shootout while trying to escape,” Moses Anegbode, the regional police assistant inspector-general, stated on Nigerian television.
Contradicting Ahegbode’s statement, Colonel Ben Ahanotu, the operational commander assigned to defeat Boko Haram, claimed to have handed over Yusuf to police authorities unharmed. Colonel Ahanotu maintained that Yusuf had given himself up peacefully.
“All I know is that in the attack, I was able to pick him up from his hide out and hand him over to police,” Ahanotus said. “But he was OK. As I got him alive, I handed him over to the authorities.”
The circumstances of Yusuf’s death are controversial, as some reporters were shown two video tapes. One shows Mr. Yusuf confessing to police in custody while another shown on state television shows police dancing around Mr. Yusuf’s bullet-ridden body with one officer voicing his concern that the sect leader would have been “let off the hook” if he had faced charges in court.
Human Rights Watch activists are calling for an investigation into Mr. Yusuf’s death, and some, such as Eric Guttschuss of HRW, are asserting that the Nigerian authorities are guilty of executing the sect leader while in police custody.
“The extrajudicial killing of Mr. Yusuf in police custody is a shocking example of the brazen contempt by the Nigerian police for the rule of law,” Guttschuss said.
Nigeria’s Information Minister Dora Akunyili, responding to accusations of foul play in Mr. Yusuf’s death, assured there would be an investigation into the Islamist’s demise.
“(Yusuf’s death is) a big issue to the good people of this country because Nigeria believes in the rule of law, Nigeria believes in fundamental human rights being respected”.
Ms. Akunyili praised Nigerian authorities for their swift campaign in “for being able to bring to a stop this killing and destruction in just a few days”. Entitling Mr. Yusuf a leader “in the mold of Osama Bin Laden,” she made clear that his death was a “positive” development for Nigeria.
Yusuf was reportedly captured after escaping Boko Haram’s compound along with 300 followers. Before being discovered by police, Yusuf hid in his parent-in-law’s goat pen at their house in the northern town of Kernawa.
The Battle to Defeat Boko Haram
Five days of brutal fighting in northern Nigeria between security forces and Yusuf’s Boko Haram, also known as the Nigerian Taliban, have plunged the northern area into turmoil. Between 300 and 600 people are estimated to have been killed in the fighting.
The fiercest fighting has been concentrated in the city of Maiduguri in Borno State, where the Islamist group’s stronghold was located. The government deployed 1,000 additional soldiers to Maiduguri to aid in the dismantling of the sect. Now the fighting has died down in Maiduguri and police claim the situation is “totally under control.”
On Wednesday, the Nigerian military heavily shelled the sect’s mosque stronghold before assaulting and penetrating the establishment. Fleeing Boko Haram members defended themselves with machetes, homemade hunting rifles, firebombs, and bows and arrows. After Nigerian forces penetrated the mosque stronghold, reporters who entered the compound counted 50 Islamists killed inside the mosque and another 50 bodies scattered outside. The group’s deputy leader was among those dead.
Also on Wednesday, the Nigerian military demolished a mosque and home of Malam Salisu Aljasawy, another prominent Boko Haram sect leader active in the groups violence in Wudil town in Kano State, 44 kilometers from the city of Kano.
Human rights groups have accused the Nigerian military of killing civilians in their military operations against Boko Haram. The Nigerian military denies the charges, saying that it is impossible for human rights organizations to distinguish civilians from combatants among the dead.
The Red Cross reported late Thursday that it is sheltering 3,500 internally displaced people at Maimalari Barracks, who have fled the fighting in Maiduguri. The Red Cross also reported that 150 people are being treated for wounds at the University of Maiduguri Teaching Hospital and 30 others are receiving treatment at the barracks. Civilians have been caught in the fighting, but casualties among civilian and Nigerian security forces remain largely undisclosed.
Nigerian government’s prior reluctance to take action
Prior to the Boko Haram uprising on July 27, the Nigerian government had been reluctant to take decisive action against the group. Since 1995, Nigerian officials have been aware of the group’s existence under various names but until recently the government did not crack down on the group or its leaders.
Nigerian authorities arrested Yusuf on Nov. 13, 2008, after an attack by his followers on a police station in Maiduguri; 17 of his followers had died in the attack. Yusuf and the Boko Haram leader of Kano state, who was also detained, were set free despite being initially handed over to the inspector-general of police for prosecution. Police also detained Yusuf’s deputy twice in 2009, but he was freed by the authorities.
Aminu Abubakar, a journalist for AFP,explained how wealthy families and individuals, such as Mohammad Yusuf and his family, made authorities apprehensive about taking action owing to the militants’ connection to government officials.
“People believe the government didn’t want to crack down on these people because their parents would get angry,” Abubakar said.
Government now warns against extremism
Nigerian President Umaru Yar’Adua, currently in Brazil, is looking to launch an anti-Islamist public relations campaign against sects like Boko Haram.
“(Yar’Adua) specifically seeks that governors encourage religious leaders to use the occasion of tomorrow’s (today’s) Juma’at services in all the Mosques across the federation to warn young men and women about the danger of fraternizing with sects like ‘Boko Hara’ and other such extremist groups which promote beliefs that infringe on the right of others,” said Olusegun Adeniyi, the Special Adviser on Media and Publicity for the president.
With Mohammad Yusuf’s corpse on display at the Maiduguri state police command headquarters, northern Nigeria remains concerned that the remaining fragments of the group will retaliate. Although Boko Haram is undoubtedly fractured, it will still be a matter of time before the Nigerian government can safely declare victory.