Saturday, January 3, 2004

‘Taliban’ of Nigeria: Who Are They?

*Yobe not under siege - AIG

Abdullahi Bego in Damaturu & Maiduguri

In addition to numerous national problems of fuel scarcity, poverty, banditry, unemployment and ecological dangers, the people of the north-eastern region and indeed the entire nation were last week stunned by the eruption of a new form of civil insurrection by a group of youths who style themselves the ‘Taliban.’ The violent clash between security agents and the youths who reportedly sought to establish an independent Muslim state close to Nigeria’s boarder with Niger Republic have sent chills of fear across the nation of a new era of religious and social insurgence.

Contrary to early reports that it was a "Maitatsine" group, the Taliban, otherwise known as the Hijrah movement composed of young graduates and post-graduates most of whom were from highly placed and influential families with an understanding of the Islamic religion that completely denounces sin, corruption and immorality.

The society, to them, is so mired in moral and political poverty that the best thing for a devout Muslim was to migrate out of the sins and the corruption to a place or society where Islamic justice, lawful means of livelihood obtain. Hence, their name the Hijrah group.

These objectives, prima facie noble raised no alarm when they ‘migrated’ out of Maiduguri some months ago to the bush area around Kanamma in Yunusari local government area of Yobe State to "live in peace and engage in studies and farming," according to one source, and to release themselves from the ‘burden’ of interacting with a ‘sinful’ (Nigerian) society.

In the Kanamma bush area, the Hijrah group members, along with their wives and children according to sources, established a ‘base’ where they engaged in religious studies among themselves, unperturbed by the people who pass by them every now and then between Kanamma and Geidam towns.

Although people did comment on their unusual presence in the area, nothing dramatic happened until one week ago when the group suddenly surfaced in Kanamma town and attacked the police station there. Weekly Trust gathered that in addition to attacking the police station and killing one policeman, the Hijrah members carted away a list of arms and ammunitions after reportedly setting the police station and other public places on fire.

From Kanamma, the group marched to Geidam, headquarters of Geidam local government area where they also overran the police station, chased out the policemen and took away guns and other weapons. The assailants also snatched and carried away one police van and a vehicle belonging to Geidam local government council.

It was at this stage that the Hijrab group members distributed leaflets stating the principal theses they sought to uphold.

Among the issues they raised were their plan to ‘curve out’ the areas around Kanamma, Yunusari and Toshiya out of Nigeria and to bring them under the control of an Islamic state, to place the areas under the leadership of Mullah Umar, presumably the fugitive former leader of the Taliban movement in Afghanistan, to kill any ‘unbeliever in uniform’ (presumably policemen and soldiers) and to call on the Muslims in the country to rise up for Jihad (Holy War) to defend Islam and establish justice.

Weekly Trust reliably learnt that prior to the sudden attack on Kanamma, the group had been approached in the bush by a committee said to be set up by the Yobe State government and made up of a number of religious scholars to persuade them to leave the area when public comments regarding their presence began to grow high. Sources said that the members had initially agreed to disperse but then made an about-turn and attacked Kanamma. This has become one of the mysteries that shroud the activities of the ‘Taliban’ group. A number of people who spoke to our correspondent said that they believed there must be factors that could have made the members of the group to turn suddenly violent considering the fact that for the months that they spent in the bush, they never engaged the police or, for that matter, the local people in any sort of confrontation.

Alhaji Baba Tijjani is a parent to one of the Hijrah group members who had been in the Kanamma bush but renounced participation in the group‘s activities and returned home before the violence began. According to him, although the matter is unfortunate, people often "tend not to try to find out why these people could go violent… These people have been living in the Geidam bush for close to one year. The authorities must have been monitoring them. Therefore something must have happened" he told Weekly Trust.

While what actually happened remain to be unravelled, the attacks on police stations in Kanamma and Geidam made the authorities to respond by deploying a detachment of the Nigerian army from the Recce Battalion, Nguru and the 21 Armoured Brigade, Maiduguri to bring the situation under control and to restore law and order. The military operation began on Wednesday morning and details are still sketchy as to what actually transpired between the military and the members of the Hijrah group.

One theory has it that the military did not surround and arrest them but instead flushed them out of the bush to run for cover and to disband and disperse. Other accounts said that the military engaged them in a fight and the group vowed to remain and die as martyrs.

What is certain however is that the early hours of Thursday last week proved to be yet another poignant juncture in the confrontation between the security agencies and the Hijrah group, the full extent of which have become a matter of wide-ranging speculations and discussions in Borno and Yobe states.

In what was apparently a surprising strike, the Hijrah group arrived in Damaturu, the Yobe State capital just past midnight on Wednesday presumably from the Kanamma push area to attack the A Division Police Station and to engage the policemen on duty in a fierce gunbattle. An eyewitness who was passing by at the time, said the members arrived in two or three vehicles and started shooting at the police station before moving in, to "slaughter" a police inspector.

The Assistant Inspector General of Police (AIG) in charge of Zone 12 Bauchi, Mr Fatai Fagbemi, who had temporarily re-located to the Yobe State capital in the wake of the incident, told Weekly Trust that the men "Who we believes to be Islamic fundamentalists" arrived some minutes after midnight to attack the police station. A few days back they have been attacking police stations with a view to reaching the arsenal of arms and ammunitions. However, early on Thursday when they came to the A Division Police Station in Damaturu, they met with stiff resistance by our men who were on red alert. But in the process something I cannot readily explain happened. A police inspector who was with the medical corps and might not be needed in the station at the time was killed by the attackers," Fagbemi told Weekly Trust.

What followed the attack was the burning of a Hilux Toyota vehicle, in the midst of gunfire, said to have been stolen by the group from Geidam to carry out the attack.

Before arriving in Damaturu, the group was also said to have carried similar attacks on the police stations in Dapchi and Babbangida on the way to Damaturu from Geidam where they reportedly set the house of the Bursari local government Divisional Police Officer (DPO) on fire and kidnapped him. He was however said to have escaped after the Damaturu attack when the group took a brief stop along Maiduguri road to say prayers.

The Hijrah group according to AIG Fagbemi, had also shot and wounded two mobile policemen on stop-and-search assignment along Damaturu-Maiduguri road. "The policemen,’ he said, "did not know the people they stopped. They merely stopped them thinking they were ordinary travellers. But the response from the assailants was a barrage of fire on the police. They shot two of our men; one on the waist and the other on the hand."

As all these were going on, people in Borno and Yobe State have been trying to understand why at all the confrontation came about and where it will likely lead to. For one, there is hardly anybody in the two states who equate the Hijrah group with the Maitatsine religious group given that the family backgrounds of many of the Hijrah members as well as the principal essence of their ideology is known by many people in Borno and Yobe States. People are therefore left to contemplate the mission and the consequences of the actions of the group.

Speaking to Weekly Trust in Maiduguri, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Maiduguri, Abdulmumin Sa’ad said that although the deconstruction of the issue may look simple to some people, "it is very complex and the bottom-line is either the existence of actual or perceived injustice in the society.

"So, because of apparent injustice, a lot of the religious scholars not only in Islam but even in Christianity speak against… Since you have a pack of frustrated people, it is very easy to mobilise them. And we have a lot of ideologues either religious groups or politicians, who usually seize such opportunity to mobilise apparently frustrated young people against the authority or against other groups," Professor Sa’ad said.

The university don explained that a combination of frustrated hopes and aspirations and youthful exuberance often tend to make the young to take to certain ideologies or courses of action whose ramifications they could only understand later in life. "All they want is to see solutions to their problems whether real or imagined. But as you mature in age, you learn that you have to tolerate, you learn that you have to wait and work hard, you have to wait for things to take their courses because they cannot just happen instantly," he said.

For these reasons, said the sociology professor, "people have to be very realistic in making any characterisation of the group. We have to look at our objective reality which is that people are suffering in this country, that a lot of things seem not to be working properly and that we need to provide for our youths."

"It is just like people engaged in combating crime. Where a formal organisation engaged in crime control is not doing it for instance, you find people devising their own ways of controlling crime against themselves and their property. So when you have a leadership that does not enjoy the legitimacy or the confidence of the followers, you would find these kinds of rebellious groups or individuals," Professor Abdulmumin Sa’ad concluded.

Whether the activities of the Hijrah group are actually grounded in protest to the economic and political conditions in the country or are informed by pure spiritual desire to live their own understanding of Islam, it is clear that they have generated such a high amount of fear, anxiety and interest among the people of Borno and Yobe States that a correct deconstruction of their intent would only be speculated at.

For now, the security agencies have been making arrests even as security was tightened around Maiduguri with armed soldiers conducting stop-and-search for people coming and going out of the city. Whether a few of the Hijrah group members arrested may give an insight into their world-view and the enigma surrounding the attacks they carried out in several Yobe State towns.

But for now the public in the two stats is keenly interested to learn more about the group and also to be assured that the attacks by the group has come an end.