Boko Haram is an offshoot of Yan Tatsine, a movement active in Kano State in the 1980s under the leadership of Mohammed Marwa, an Islamic scholar who migrated to Nigeria from Cameroon in 1945. Once in Kano, capital of the State by the same name, Marwa became a fanatic, fixated with the idea of purify Islam which he considered corrupt by Western modernity and by the efforts of building Nigeria along modern democratic lines. Marwa became known for his strong language in preaching – from this comes the nickname ‘Maitatsine’, the ‘one who curses’ – especially against emirs and politicians. He was so strong that Al-Haji Sanusi, Kano’s emir, expelled him and the British colonial authority condemned him to exile far from Nigeria.
He would be back after independence and started to gather a following. In 1966, after Sanussi’s death, he went back to Kano to continue his mission. He believed to be a mujaddid, an inspired reformer of Islam, in the footstep of Usman dan Fodio (1754-1817) who had promoted the Haussa Islamic States in the north. Departing from Fodio’s tradition, however, Marwa rejected both the oral transmission of the tradition about the Prophet (hadith) and the behaviour of Mohammed as source of revelation (sunnah). He believed revelation was found solely in the Koran.
Strict with himself and his followers, he cursed those who used radios, watches, bicycles and cars. He also condemned to eternal damnation those who read books and had more money than needed to live. Marwa disliked Islamic confraternities which he judged too moderate and open to Western (boko) influence. In 1979 he even rejected Mohammed’s prophetic teaching and gave himself the title of annabi, a prophet in charge with saving the world.
By 1972 he had brought together a large group of faithful known as Yan Tatsine: a group of young fanatics ready to die for God and committed to establishing a totalitarian Islamic State. Marwa took advantage of the al-majari system: male children are taken from their families to live near a Koranic school, there they study the Koran and beg to pay for their expenses and support their master.
In 1975 he was once again arrested and charged with defamation of political leaders. By now, however, he was accepted by religious authority also because he had visited Mecca and gained the title of hajji. His followers started clashing with security forces. Their objective was to fight anything inspired by Western culture, against which Maitatsine had launched the most solemn anathema (haram). People were perplexed by the first turmoil. On November 26, 1980, Abubakar Rimi, governor of Kano, published a decree intimating Yan Tatsine to leave the State within two weeks. As a response, on December 18, the members of the movement attacked various police posts, killing 4 policemen, burning vehicles and stealing weapons. After the violence, they entered Kano, took control of the central mosque, a few schools, a cinema, and of Sabon Gari market. Nigeria’s President Shehu Shagari immediately sent the army. More than 1,000 fighters were arrested and tortured. At the end of two weeks of fighting, the death toll stood at 4,200, Maitatsine himself was wounded and died soon afterwards.
After the repression, the federal government named a commission of inquiry to understand the origin of the violence. The commission accuses Kano’s political elite, which opposed the federal government. The People’s Redemption Party, in power in Kano, rejected the accusations and claimed the federal government used Maitatsine to create the conditions that would allow the proclamation of the emergency state and so bring under control a region which they were not able to win at the ballot box.
In the meantime, the Yan Tatsine fled Kano but regrouped and by 1982 they started a new violent campaign in Bulumkuttu and Kaduna. The army was again called in. The violence caused 3,000 deaths. The survivors regrouped in Yola under the guidance of Musa Makaniki, a disciple of Maitatsine and his successor as mujaddid. Fresh violence erupted in 1984 and 1985, and Makaniki run to Cameroon, only to be arrested when he returned to Nigeria in 2004.
In the meantime, Mohammed Yusuf started to preach in Maiduguri. Thousands of disciples followed his fervent talks for a renewed Islam and refusal of Western education. His group, known as Boko Haram, was devoted to refusing Western culture and fight corruption. Yusuf was arrested severally, but always freed after a short while. In 2009, he was arrested and brutally killed. Up to today, Boko Haram demands to know how exactly Yusuf was murdered. “Behind his death – said Yusuf’s brother in law Tijjani Baba Fugu – there are army officers, politicians, and members of the Islamic clergy”. Since then, various members of Yusuf’s family have been targeted by security forces, and a few have been killed in mysterious circumstances. The movement Boko Haram is not slowing down its fight against the central government.