Maitatsine, Nigeria’s Religious Terror of the 1980s


It was over 34 years ago, the 18th of December, 1980 to be precise. A Fulani teacher named Shehu Shagari was the first civilian executive Nigerian President but the nation he was leading was in flames, set alight by a skinny but energetic man who spoke high-pitched Fulani. The security forces were helpless and even the Commander-in-Chief of the Nigerian Armed Forces seemed confused. The violence, the horror and the terror that ensued from the wild ideas of one old man who was not even a Nigerian was about to consume the nation. Sheer madness was mixed with agonizing destruction as major cities burned.


Untamed hordes of insurgents brandishing all sorts of primitive weapons like bows and arrows, dane guns, leopard skins to serve as bulletproof vests, and powdered charms went from house to house in the northern state of Kano and went on looting, maiming, burning, raping and killing as they wished. However, despite the low sophistication of their weapons, their pattern of destruction was so brutal and complete that in a matter of just days, about 5,000 Nigerians were dead. Considering the fact that Boko Haram’s activities have claimed the lives of over 20,000 Nigerians as at the time you are reading this, you will appreciate the scope and degree of violence of this red-faced sect that killed so much Nigerians in just 12 days. Maitatsine had become a terror and a fast-growing one, with 12,000 followers ready to march to the death on the vehement orders of their much-revered spiritual leader. For the first time in the history of Nigeria, religious differences would lead to the loss of thousands of lives.


The founder of the Maitatsine sect, Alhaji Mohammed (Muhammadu) Marwa was not a Nigerian even if his activities would later lead to the loss of thousands of precious Nigerian lives. He migrated from the town of Marwa (Maroua) in northern Cameroon to Kano State in 1945. Marwa, which is a center of cotton industry is also the capital of the Far North Region of Cameroon and the predominant religion there is Sufi Islam. Maitatsine settled in the warm and hospitable city of Kano, acclimatized and adapted to the ways of life. Fulfulde, the language of the Fulanis was the common language in Marwa where he came from so it is safe to assume that blending in would not have been a major issue. Not much is known about his activities in the ancient city of Kano up until the early 1960s when the story changed all of a sudden.

The town of Maroua in northern Cameroon where Maitatsine hailed from.

Before then, Maitatsine had gained a reputation in Kano as a noble scholar and an expert in the interpretation and commentary of the Holy Qu’ran. He was so good at it that he was named Mai Tafsiri meaning the ‘Tafsir scholar’. Tafsir is the exegesis, in-depth explanation or critical interpretation of the Qu’ran.  In 1960, Nigeria became an independent nation but the politics that would follow in Kano State was far from peaceful. The senseless jostling for power by the politicians led to an entropy in the society, and Maitatsine, who was already gaining some followership, took advantage and rode on this resultant wave of disorder initially generated by the power-hungry politicians. Unemployment soared, crime rate increased, poverty was not abating, people were disgruntled and the citizens were already tired of the fumbling and corrupt politicians. It was at that time that Maitatsine decided to launch his own movement. His message was simple but brutally efficient: to oppose the government and even orthodox Islam itself. He had transformed himself into another creature, one that would terrorize the world’s most populous black nation.

HISTORIC: The city of Kano around the time when Maitatsine was based there.


Maitatsine was reportedly a caring husband and father but it is not clear the precise layout of his familly but he was polygamous. His children lived above and outside the law. One of his sons, Tijani, once told a neighbour that the amount of weapons under the bed of his father in his room alone would wipe out the entire police force. It is believed that the death of Tijani, Maitatsine’s son was a turning point in his life. One fateful day, Tijani went out with his friends to one of their wild parties as usual. A very sad piece of news would later reach Maitatsine that his son was dead, he was shot in unclear circumstances. As Maitatsine set his eyes on the blood-stained lifeless body of his son, he cried in agony saying:

Oh the people of Kano, what have I done to you to deserve this?

Maitatsine believed the death of his son was orchestrated by his enemies i.e the government forces and that the people of Kano would definitely pay for it. His tone change markedly from that point on.


A view of the city of Kano from Dala Hill.

At this point, a little background information would be helpful. Maitatsine was just one of the many sects of Islam in northern Nigeria as at that time. Others included the Shiites (as at the initial time of writing this piece, December 2013, the home of the Shiite leader, Sheikh Ibraheem Zakzaky was reportedly attacked by hired youths in Zaria and left many dangerously wounded with machete cuts), Izala and the Tariqa. These other sects are still active and there is a precarious swing of harmony and violence. It has been like that for a while with occasional but very turbulent clashes.

However, out of these four main sects Maitatsine stood out as the most radical. While other sects still cooperated to a reasonable extent with the government, Maitatsine was absolutely against the government and anything that represent constituted authority. Even the Emir of Kano was not safe from his wrath. He would later be known for his fierce and curse-filled speeches against the Nigerian government. It was this practice that earned him the nickname Mai Tatsine. That was because he would mount the pulpit and lash out in his red-hot speeches in a not-too-perfect Hausa:

Allah ya tsine maka albarka!

(Meaning: May God deprive you of His blessings!)

He would continue thus:

Whoever uses wristwatches, radios or ride bicycles,

Allah ya tsine maka albarka!

In no time, the people of Kano quickly labelled him Mai Tatsine which can be loosely translated to mean ‘the one with curses’ or ‘the one who curses’.

But that was not all. There was another dimension to Maitatsine’s teachings that alarmed millions all over northern Nigeria: he preached clearly against the conventional form of Islam. He came with his own brand of puritanical Islam and condemned everything else. The Emir of Kano, Muhammadu Sanusi (who incidentally was the grandfather of the former Central Bank Governor, Mallam Sanusi Lamido Sanusi and now the Emir of Kano) was shocked at Maitatsine’s audacity. A majority of the city’s clerics were also appalled and outraged at Maitatsine’s teachings and the challenge that he would pose as an obstacle to constituted authority, both in the religious and political spheres. But the man from Cameroon did not even send anyone of them, including the all-powerful Emir. He continued his fiery ‘preachings’ and scary sermons to his amused followers, who obviously lapped up and enjoyed everything he said.

Mohammed Sanusi was the emir of Kano during the time of Maitatsine. His grandson, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi is the present emir.

Maitatsine’s teachings were quite interesting indeed. Although many may see Boko Haram as a new creation or novel development, the truth of the matter is that this is not the first time in the history of Nigeria that a fundamentalist religious sect would challenge the state with their audacious teachings and unleash maximum destruction in a bid to establish their own version of how a society should operate. Maitatsine spoke with anger and instructed his followers that:

-Western education is a sin.

-The use of money is not important and even accumulating too much money is a grave sin. He preached that sleeping with more than one naira was lack of trust in Allah. He encouraged his followers to dress simply and they were engaged in low-paying occupations as begging, transient labour, cart pushing, petty trading and tea selling.

-They should do away with all tools of modernity such as wristwatches, radios, television sets, cars, bicycles and the rest.  Considering the fact that many of his followers were even already too poor to afford such luxuries, the teaching was quite easy to follow and enforce. Even those of his followers who had these items gladly smashed their black-white Philips television sets.


Maitatsine’s genius laid in his ability to utilize the contemporary social problems like poverty, despair, corruption and unemployment as tools to indoctrinate hopeless youths and then turn them against the government, simultaneously blaming the government as the source of their misery. His cult was massive and as at December 1980, he had between 8,000 and 12,000 members (Falola, 1998, 143). He would send his followers out in small groups of three to five to preach at major junctions near the Sabon Gari Mosque or in places around Koki and Kofar Wombai where they ferociously attacked secularism, modernity, corruption and blasted the other clerics. It was rumoured that Maitatsine was supported by one of the wealthiest contractors in Kano and that he even got assistance from politicians but there is no evidence for this. His mystique was fed by tales of his magical powers, tales of cannibalism and human slaughter, hypnotized students and brainwashed women.

As he spoke with considerable rage from his pulpit, his gleeful supporters and frenzied followers nodded in agreement to everything Maitatsine said. To them, he was nothing but an angel, God’s own manifestation on the face of the earth. Many swore they would lay down their lives for him, and they were not joking. At the height of his power and influence, Mohammed Marwa was the toast of the high and mighty. Influential personalities paid him visits in his Kano powerhouse seeking his services as a marabout. High-ranking clerics also visited his sprawling quarters. That the high political class and the religious elite have worked hand in hand to unleash terror upon the populace for their selfish gains is an unfortunate recurring decimal in Nigeria’s history. But what is even more unfortunate is the desperate attempts by some Nigerians (who are already bearing the brunt of the stupidity of the ruling class and suffering on a daily basis as a result of this unholy marriage of the exploitative clergy and the parasitic politicians) to either justify the actions or even shift blames.

At a point, Marwa had become so powerful to the extent that he operated his own autonomous enclave. Because his followers regarded other Muslims as heretics, they avoided the general population and lived in an isolated section of the city. You know, in the Reverend Jim Jones style. Like the Hamaliyya sect of the Tijanniya order, the Maitatsine preferred to live in their own hermit kingdom, creating a minuscule North Korea in the heart of Kano. Interestingly, one of the fastest and most efficient ways to indoctrinate anyone is to isolate them or cut them off from relatives and friends and then subject them to a constant stream of sweet propaganda. Maitatsine and his followers lived in an area of Kano called Yan Awaki, it was a vast tsangaya (community) on its own. In this enclave, he was the absolute ruler and the king that no one dared question. He was clearly, a power unto himself.

From within the comfort provided by the confines of his Yan Awaki residence, he launched scathing verbal assaults against the city’s imperial ruler, Emir Sanusi who was the traditional leader of all Muslims in the city. With thousands of eager youths at his beck and call, flanking him on all sides and ready to carry out his even his flimsiest instructions to the last, Maitatsine felt he had the height of it all. He became bolder, more confrontational and even more daring as the sun rose and set.

But the Emir, the government and the security agents were not finding his astronomical rise and popularity funny at all. The royal institution in ‘collabo’ with the religious establishment and with the tacit support of the state government, decided to act fast before this volcano blew up on their turbaned heads. So in the year 1962, the Emir released a royal edict indicting Marwa of various crimes. He was accused of preaching illegally and for engaging in what is called shatimati or abusive speech in fiqh(Islamic jurisprudence). An obstinate Maitatsine was then brought before a qadi (Muslim judge) to face proper judgment. It was not funny at all. The qadi sentenced him to 90 days in jail and after serving out his sentence, he was promptly deported to Cameroon. Many thought that was the end but the battle had just started. Maitatsine would return, full of renewed vigour, hate and anger. When he was catapulted into Cameroon from Kano, he continued with his subversive teachings much to the anger of the local authorities in Cameroon who then bundled him again and threw him into Gongola State in another wave of ‘repatriation’ in early 1963. That same year, Maitatsine’s old enemy, the Emir of Kano would abdicate the throne and the coast was finally clear: Maitatsine sneaked back into Kano.  The Nigerian populace would suddenly be rudely woken up to the latest brand of terror in town. There was no regulatory force to keep him in check and he quietly resumed his job as a Quranic scholar indoctrinating countless homeless and illiterate boys and youths.

After Maitatsine managed to slip back into Nigeria (na wa for our immigration pipu sef) and made his way back to Kano, he properly settled in his Yan Awaki area. Bitter and enraged, he would once again warm his way into the hearts of his followers who believed that he was unjustly victimized by the Kano elite and monarchy. It must be pointed out that a vast majority of Maitatsine’s followers were street beggars and destitute, called almajiris or gardawas in the local dialect. Many of these people learnt the Qur’an from him and got high on his bold and eloquent teachings. To them, the state was nothing but a sheer representation of evil and oppression, as exemplified by the imprisonment and deportation of their highly-revered leader.

A very clever and intelligent man, Maitatsine was not blind to all these developments and in time, he would make his boldest claim ever. He told his enthusiastic followers that he was the forerunner of the much-awaitedMahdi (Saviour or Messiah) who would wipe away all their tropical tears and take to the much-desired Promised Land. He said he was the saviour to rescue them from the tyranny of the establishment. He would banish the infidels, bring peace to the land, erase all their wheelbarrow-pushing suffering and water-hawking stress. For centuries, West African Muslims (and others across the globe) believed (and still believe) that a Mahdi would eventually emerge to get rid of all the injustices of this world. Maitatsine cashed in on this age-long belief of the people and kukumadeclared himself as the one they’ve been waiting for, the one to come before the Mahdi himself. He even compared himself to the late Fulani scholar-warrior, Uthman Dan Fodio. The other Kano clerics could not get their head over Maitatsine’s latest pronouncements, which many of them regarded as nothing but heresy.

But while they were trying to grapple with what Maitatsine was saying, he fired another shot. He declared all the hadiths and sunnah (recorded actions, sayings and traditions of Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam) as false and that no one should follow them. Maitatsine did not stop there. He went further to ban his followers from facing Mecca, Saudi Arabia while praying. This clearly went against the standard requirement in Islam that mandated that worshippers face the Ka’aba in Mecca while praying. But that was not Maitatsine’s business. He would release another damning pronouncement: no one must say Allahu Akbar (God is Great) while praying and whoever said so was condemned to Hellfire. Christians, Muslims, government, traditional worshippers, Maitatsine criticized and fought with everybody.

You thought he would end there but he did not. The Emir of Kano and the clerics were more than alarmed but Maitatsine was yet to drop the real shocker. He simply declared himself the nabeey (Prophet) after initially making demands to be addressed as a prophet in 1976. His excited followers happily shouted his praise and truly believed in his new gift of prophethood. Still riding his wave of power and influence, he stated that Muslims in northern Nigeria should not mention the name of Prophet Muhammad again, as they regarded him as any other Arab. Reports have it that after his death, copies of the Qu’ran found in Maitatsine’s home were already altered: Prophet Muhammad’s name was replaced with Maitatsine’s name. But that was not even the strangest part. The most curious part was yet to come.

He declared that while the Holy Qu’ran was indeed the true word of God, no one but him was in the right position to interpret and explain the contents of the Qu’ran and issue new proclamations in his new status as a prophet. A deafening howl of approval from his thousands of followers assured him that all was well. But all was far from well or even borehole. Just as Maitatsine was busy proclaiming himself the overall lord of the heavens, the earth and all that was in between, his terrified enemies knew that they had to do something really quick if not they would have willingly signed their own documents of annihilation because Maitatsine and his overzealous band of followers would stop at nothing to bitterly fight the opposition this time around. Once bitten, the shame of 1962 would never repeat itself again. For Maitatsine and his followers, their actions were justified and they were backed by God Himself with His Divine Armed Forces with invisible jet fighters.

A petrified government watched helplessly as events snowballed. Other Muslims in the city were not just angered at Maitatsine’s arrogant and heretical pronouncements, they were also genuinely worried about the menace he was rapidly constituting. The clerics also knew that more masculinization of Maitatsine and his adherents would mean a catalysis of the progressive erosion of the power and influence they had enjoyed unbridled for centuries. Something really decisive had to be done. But as his foes were planning, Maitatsine too was not sleeping, he was scheming. His plans were interrupted suddenly in 1973 when the military government of General Yakubu Gowon started a wave of arrests and incarceration of religious leaders who were brainwashing kids for anti-social activities. Maitatsine was one of those that they picked up in Kano and he was promptly given a room in jail. But when Gowon was overthrown in July 1975 by Murtala Muhammed, people like Maitatsine regained their freedom and once again, he was on his way to Kano, this time around, with some really new and devastatingly efficient strategies to ultimately wreak maximum havoc.

Upon reaching Kano, Maitatsine quickly rallied his lieutenants and divided them into three wings for recruitment of new members, each for one sector of Kano City. The job of the first wing was to recruit members from the railway stations and public transport garages. The other two wings would focus on public parks and parking lots, the most ideal location to see the constant troops of ambitious but jobless youths streaming into the commercial city of Kano in search of the greener pasture. Many of these naïve boys would soon be ensnared to become fighters for Maitatsine. They were recruited for doom. Some of them were refugees from Chad, Niger and Cameroon who joined simply because they would be guaranteed food, clothing and a roof over their dusty heads. That was the initial motivation for many to join.

But being the troublemaker that he was, Maitatsine would soon land in hot soup again in April 1978 when he was arrested. His violence-laced teachings had brought wahala on his head again. He would spend one horrible year in prison with hard labour before he was released. Following his release, he stopped making public appearances, seemed to melt into the background but his followers became noticeably more outspoken and violent. By October 1979, the military regime of General Olusegun Obasanjo handed over to the civilian president, Shehu Shagari. With the iron-fisted military gone and a less repressive civilian government in power, the time was perfectly ripe for Maitatsine to emerge from the shadows. He became bolder, expanded his colony (which now had over 6,000 people), forcefully took the property of neighbours and erected illegal structures on it. He even had a kangaroo court in his Yan Awaki colony where offenders, infidels kidnapped by sect members and disloyal members were made to face ‘justice’. He was a law unto himself and built his own ‘state within a state’.

As he continued his arrogant strides of defiance, Nigerians in Kano became tired and frustrated and increased pressure on the government to act and do something. Finally, in 1980, the Kano State House of Assembly summoned courage to introduce a bill that would clearly combat abusive religious preaching. But you know the amusing thing? The bill did not pass. Members of the house were afraid they would lose patronage of the powerful and influential religious clerics so the bill failed.

Towards the end of 1980, there were widespread rumours that Maitatsine and his sect would overrun and take over two of the city’s most important mosques. By then, the Governor of the state, the late Alhaji Muhammadu Abubakar Rimi, later Sani Abacha’s minister, felt he had had more than enough. On the 26th of November, 1980, Rimi fired an instruction that Maitatsine’s illegal enclave in the Yan Awaki area be broken up or Maitatsine and his followers would regret the day they were born. (Before Rimi’s action, between October and November 1980, the Kano State Commissioner of Police had asked for reinforcements and approval to use lethal force against Maitatsine but his requests were declined).

Rimi was the governor of Kano State when Maitatsine was on a rampage.

 But for a man used to so much impunity and scoffing at the political leaders right in their faces, Maitatsine brushed Rimi’s order and deadline as not just some laughable comedy but an empty threat. Rimi would not budge and Maitatsine too would not blink. The order from Governor Rimi stated that Maitatsine should vacate the premises, disband his sect and demolish all illegal structures within two weeks or face ‘appropriate action’. The stage was set for was has been described as the second most violent incident in Nigeria, second only to the civil war.


Either using the benefit of hindsight or simply taking time to orchestrate the most effective strategy to invade Yan Awaki and flush out Maitatsine and his die-hard loyalists, Governor Rimi did not immediately act on his threat even when the deadline came and passed. He even sent emissaries to Maitatsine in the background that Maitatsine could ignore the order if he would negotiate, Rimi was clearly pandering to Maitatsine because of political reasons. But something would later happen that would force Rimi to invite the combined forces of the Nigerian Police officers, Nigerian Army soldiers and the heavy federal might of an angry President Shagari to crush the terrorist sect.

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The Maitatsine crisis reached its maddening heights under the presidency of Shagari.

Maitatsine was on the edge. He summoned his thousands of followers near and beyond to come to his aid and join him in the mother of all battles against the infidels. They heeded his call and flocked in in their thousands. Maitatsine was to lead the attack and all the plans were fine-tuned and perfected. All the ‘holy warriors’ were at alert and ready to fight at the slightest flick of Maitatsine’s slim fingers. The residents of Kano knew trouble was going to explode soon but no one had any precise idea of where and when.

Finally, the D-Day came and the venue where demons descended on earth that day was the football field of the Shahuchi Playing Ground where Maitatsine had camped his followers and was giving his usual fiery sermons. Security forces were around his venue to maintain law and order but in an instant, a skirmish broke out between the armed followers of Maitatsine and the Nigerian Police, four police units were actually on a mission to arrest some of his preachers. In a matter of seconds, police officers were killed and their vehicles were in flames. The crisis had started and Maitatsine was not looking back and the whole thing spread to Yan Awaki, the base of the Yan Tatsine and others areas like Koki, Fagge, Kofar Wamba and so on. On that day, 18th of December 1980, bright-red blood of Nigerians was flowing on the streets of Kano. It remains one of the bloodiest days in Nigeria’s history. For the next three days, the only thing that was visible on the skyline of Kano were plumes of thick, black smoke. There were corpses everywhere, on the roads, in trucks leaving the city and more fighters came in from outside Kano, six buses full of Maitatsine’s supporters coming all the way from Sokoto were intercepted.

But what happened? An uprising by the Maitatsine sect and led by the leader, Marwa himself had taken the ancient city of Kano with its old mud walls by the storm in what he called a jihad against the infidels and a direct ticket to paradise. His army of crazed fighters was very excited to embark on the one-way trip to heaven. Maitatsine had later developed paranoia over Rimi’s order of eviction and he concluded it was actually a declaration of war and a notice of an imminent attack on him. But he felt that attack was the best form of defence and that he had to act first. He lashed out at the governor saying that he took over the land and that ‘all land belonged to Allah’.

For a people used to living in impunity and believing they were in their own republic, free of any government, the followers of Maitatsine regularly clashed with the Nigerian Police. But this particular clash was extremely bloody. Considering the fact that the government was already planning on how to smoke Maitatsine and his followers out of their fortress and that the populace was already fed up, the government decided to land the blows one after the other. By the time the madness ended, about 5,000 Nigerian lives were wasted. Maitatsine was one of the dead, he was killed in the first wave of fighting. According to the Nigerian soldiers, Maitatsine’s fighters fought with so much bravery and fearlessness that even the federal troops sent to exterminate them were impressed.  The military crackdown led to the arrest of almost 1,000 people, of which 224 were foreigners. Under Buhari in 1984, he would step up the expulsion of unregistered foreigners (aliens) following attacks of the Maitatsine sect (New African, Issues 196-207, IC Magazines Limited, 1984, pages 29, 44).

While a frenetic BBC crew ran into the center of action to interview fleeing Nigerians, government security forces responded brutally. Frantic efforts to control the madness led to hundreds of suspects rounded up by the Nigerian police and military to be summarily executed. It was a desperate time and extremely desperate measures were taken by the Nigerian government, making some costly mistakes in the process, especially with the extrajudicial killings.


With about 5,000 Nigerians dead and Maitatsine still at large, there was palpable tension in the land. The old and romantically beautiful city of Kano had suddenly turned into a horrible scene of war, a theatre of speeding bullets, stabbing machetes and wheezing arrows. There was confusion all over the place and as the death toll continued to rise, the Kano State government had to admit that they had underestimated the strength of Maitatsine and his sect, who responded with so much ferocity that the State Governor had to call on the Nigerian President to assist. The state command of the Nigerian Police was totally overwhelmed by the raging Maitatsine and his sect. An enforcement of more mobile police (MOPOL) units from neighboring states could not quench the fire too. When the combined forces of the police and the mobile units could not tame the overwhelming force of Maitatsine, weapons were borrowed from the Nigerian Army arsenal but nothing tangible happened to reduce Maitatsine and his irate army. It was time to call in the federal troops. According to Toks Ekukinam, who was then the Assistant Legal Adviser to President Shagari, a request for help from the Kano State Government reached the Chief of Army Staff and it was discussed in the Cabinet, and approved by President Shagari in his capacity as the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces.

A battle-ready contingent led by Colonel YY Kure from the Nigerian Army was finally drafted to the ‘battlefront’ and what followed was another round of butchering interspersed with the ceaseless gunfire of furious Nigerian soldiers. In the ensuing scrimmage, the Nigerian soldiers progressed and went deeper into the heart of the Yan Awaki enclave, the evil empire of the dreaded sect. A continuous pounding with artillery, mortars and machine guns by the Nigerian Army changed the tide of the battle. The military entered the battle on December 29.

From the heavens, warplanes of the Nigerian Air Force rained bombs on his household. The sect incurred very heavy losses and Maitatsine fled Kano metropolis with a handful of followers, wives and children as the heat of the gunfire, consistent shelling and aerial bombardment became unbearable. They escaped and marched out of the city into the western districts along the Gwarzo Road. His time was up but his followers would not just give up on their prophet like that. They launched an assault to save their spiritual leaders from the crushing jaws of the Nigerian Army but in the crossfire, Maitatsine himself was hit. A bullet flying from nowhere lodged itself in his leg. He let out a piercing shriek of pain and agony and would later die of the wounds he sustained. He reportedly bled to death. Maitatsine met his end at the Rijiyar Zaki suburb of Kano (while some others believe it was at Rimin Abzinawa village that he met his waterloo). The Nigerian Army met the band of his mourning followers who had just buried him hurriedly by a roadside grave but he would later be exhumed by the government forces and kept at a local mortuary for several days before it was finally cremated.


The remains of Maitatsine.

After Maitatsine’s death, his defeated followers took his body and quickly buried it. However, the exhausted Kano State government would have none of that. The soldiers got a tip-off of the location of the shallow grave and an order was given that Maitatsine’s body be exhumed. His grave was cleared up and his corpse was brought to the surface. It was then embalmed and presented before the Commission of Enquiry. Jubilant police officers even posed with the corpse. What followed next is as dramatic as it was puzzling. The government was so determined to crush anything that left of Maitatsine that his corpse was set on fire. He was cremated. Today, his badly-burnt teeth and bone fragments are safely sealed away in a bottle at the Nigerian Police laboratory in Kano State. In a corner of an unused, dark and dusty room that reminds one of an evil dungeon, lies Maitatsine in a bottle. On the specimen bottle, is an official seal and an inscription that goes thus:

“The remains of Late Malam Muhammadu Marwa alias Allah Ta-Tsine or Maitatsine.”


But his sect did not die with him. In fact, in October 1982, his followers would launch another round of violence. This time, it was not in Kano but in the town of Bulunkutu (Bullumkutu) near Maiduguri in Borno State which would later be under siege by the rampaging Boko Haram. What sparked this crisis was the attempt of the police to arrest the sect members. Mohammedu Goni was the Governor of Borno State that time and he was also taken aback with the scale of the ferocity of the Maitatsine sect and the attack spread to Kaduna where 39 members of the sect were killed by the vigilante group (total killed was 44 in Kaduna and at least 452 people had already lost their lives in the Maiduguri attack). It was a brutal assault launched by the surviving remnants of the sect that fled from Kano. (Please note that the Kano crisis of 1982 in which Bala Muhammed, the beloved Secretary to the State Government, SSG of Governor Rimi was murdered in cold blood was a different incident) The government records indicate that 188 civilians and 18 police officers mainly in Maiduguri were killed and 635 arrested but the Commission of Inquiry hinted that the deaths could have been well over 500. But that was not all. On 27th of February 1984 (after it was banned in November 1982 with its members rounded up and others subjected to surveillance), the surviving members of the sect escaped from jail in Jimeta and launched a series of devastating and indiscriminate attacks on the Yola, the capital city of Adamawa State (then Gongola State) and they also made attempts to enforce their brand of Islam on everyone – Christians and Muslims alike. The military head of state, Major-General Muhammadu Buhari, who had barely spent two months in office, responded with a deafening ferocity. He moved in his forces to wipe off the sect from existence with the same ruthlessness that he pursued Chadian forces under President Shagari. General Buhari had flown into Yola to personally on a Wednesday oversee the military offensive against the sect (AF Press Clips, United States Department of State, Bureau of African Affairs, 1984), this include the bombardment of the sect’s hideout at Rumde, a suburb of Yola. The counterattack was so brutal that the Jimeta Main Market was destroyed, over 700 people had died and 30,000 were displaced from their homes by the time the smoke cleared.

With constant artillery pounding, the unrest was finally controlled and Maitatsine was severely decimated, the blow was clearly a mortal one.  Nigerians were very excited with the offensive with various personalities like Dele Giwa hailing the military campaign. They made their last show of rebellion, which was to start riots in April 1985 when the police made attempts to arrest Maitatsine’s successor under the Babangida regime in what is now Gombe State (then Bauchi State) which led to the deaths of over 100 people and the arrests of 146 suspected members of the sect, three police officers were killed and 100,000 rounds of ammunition were discovered in Maitatsine caches. That was the last time they would disturb public peace. But from inception till their final attack in April 1985, the total death toll was at least 5,646 lives. After their attack in February 1984, the Buhari-led military regime set up its own panel headed by Mr. Justice Mohammed Lawal Uwais to investigate the causes, remedies and incidental matters of the crisis.  (I must state that under the Buhari regime, the suppression and crackdown on militant religious sects were second to none. The military dictator launched a terrifying wave of repression against sects as the ‘Yan Izala with many of their members imprisoned and tortured by the secret service. Donors like Alhaji Haruna Danja who funded the ‘Yan Izala sect were imprisoned under the charges of corruption. These multiple suppression tactics severely weakened religious sects that had the ability and capability to foment trouble. However, this would change when Buhari was overthrown on the 27th of August, 1985 and the incoming regime of General Ibrahim Babangida relaxed the rules and provided a broader political context for sects as the ‘Yan Izala and others. Babangida released the jailed ‘Yan Izala members and supporters, Sheikh Abubakar Gumi was reinstated to his old position as a religious adviser to the president and his sect resumed its controversial preaching and activities). – Islamic Reform and Political Change in Northern Nigeria by Roman Loimeier, pages 220 – 223.

Sheikh Gumi was one of the fiercest ideological opponents of Maitatsine.

Following his death, Maitatsine’s enclave was demolished and all his illegal buildings levelled. His own house was converted to a magistrate court.

President Shagari signed into law the Unlawful Society Order of 1982 and it clearly prohibited the formation and operation of groups such as the Maitatsine under whatever name or form.


Remember the three recruitment wings of Maitatsine? Yes, once they got batches of new recruits, what followed next was a bizarre initiation ceremony in which they all met Maitatsine who would then administer hypnotizing potions and concoctions on them, special tattoos are made on their abdomens after which they pledged eternal allegiance to him. The new recruits, many of them in their teens would also be given charms and amulets that were supposed to protect them from bullets and other weapons. The military training and combat rehearsal sessions were handled by the sect members who were former officers in the Nigerian Police or the Nigerian Armed Forces.

However, it must be said that although there were widespread rumours on the sect receiving weapons from Libya and Israel, the government commission of inquiry set up to look into the crisis found no evidence of any foreign support. In fact, Maitatsine fighters made use of the crudest weapons such as machetes, bows, knives, arrows, spears and a few rifles but which they used with the devastating efficiency of a King Shaka-led Zulu army. Their main source of financing was alms collecting and that was surely not enough for them to procure arms from overseas. All in all, they launched four devastating series of attacks: Kano (December 1980), Bullunkutu (October 1982), Rigasa (October 1982) and Yola (February 1984).


For those who felt that the death of Maitatsine meant the end of his sect, they were sorely mistaken. In 1982, the surviving members of the sect collaborated with another sect named Kala-Kato and unleashed untold violence in their base in Bullumkutu, Borno State. Before the government security forces could react, almost 120 people were already killed, with property worth millions of naira damaged. Before the smoke of Bullumkutu died down, the Maitatsine sect under the command of Maitatsine’s second-in-command, Mallam Musa Makaniki launched another round of terror in 1984 in the old Gongola State (now Taraba and Adamawa States) in places like Yelwa, Jimeta, Dobeli, Zango, Va’atita, Nassarawa and Rumde. Before the police could respond again, almost 570 Nigerians had already lost their lives with countless property destroyed in the carnage. That was not the end. Maitatsine did not stop there.

After their strings of ‘victory’ in Borno and Gongola States, they launched another strike in the Patami Ward of Bauchi State (now in Gombe State) from the 26th to the 28th of April, 1985. Before the security forces could intervene, over 100 lives were lost. General Buhari would then launch a devastating assault on the sect, leading to the arrest and prosecution of many of them, with the others fleeing.


One of those who fled and escaped to Cameroon was Musa Makaniki, the one who took over the sect following Maitatsine’s death in 1980.


You may find this difficult to believe but Makaniki would not be caught until the year 2004 under the presidency of Olusegun Obasanjo. Makaniki was initially sentenced to death by hanging but he was later freed upon appeal in May 2012.


Boko Haram is like a resurrection of Maitatsine. The similarities between the two are eerie.

-Max Siollun, historian and expert on Nigerian military history.

Some Nigerians believe that the present-day Boko Haram is an offshoot or a mutation of the Maitatsine. Those who believe this state that the uncle of the Mohammed Yusuf, the late Boko Haram leader, was actually one of the senior commanders of Maitatsine but he narrowly escaped from Kano to Maiduguri during the heavy military onslaught on the sect. This uncle of his was said to have raised Yusuf as a child. However, that is not to say that there other factors did not contribute to the growth and emergence of Boko Haram and it is not clear if Boko Haram has confirmed or denied this relationship. There are many similarities between the two sects but Boko Haram has remained a far more resilient organization. Both sects were anti-government, had their own autonomous enclaves and organized charismatic sermons against the use of Western items. Just as Maitatsine also had ties with the politicians of Kano State, Boko Haram was also linked with the politicians of Borno State. As a matter of fact, a suspected financier of the group, Alhaji Buji Foi, was summarily executed by the police. Foi was a Commissioner for Religious Affairs during Governor Ali Modu Sheriff’s first term in office. Before then, Foi was twice the Chairman of Kaga Local Council in addition to other top public offices that he held in Borno State. Here is a video of his execution:




-Although Maitatsine banned his users from possessing and using modern devices like the radio and television, he was smart enough not to ban guns, knives, explosives and other weapons.

-Some analysts like Paul Collier and Nicolas Sambanis do not see the Maitatsine event as either a riot or an uprising but they have classified it as a full-blown civil war, and even refer to it as the ‘Maitatsine War’. Basis for this classification was given in their book, Understanding Civil War: Africa.

Today, the name Maitatsine has come to be associated with religious intolerance in the nation. Anytime a new violent outflow of religious intolerance is noticed, people reflexly mention or make reference to Maitatsine.

-Maitatsine was described as an ‘isolated fanatic’. He has also been described as a cultist and magician masquerading as a cleric.

-Owing to the fact that Maitatsine had a squint in one eye, there were some Muslims who took this to be a sign that he was indeed, the Dajjal (Anti-Christ) who would combat Islam and hasten the end of the world.



Although while agreeing that an onslaught by the military was necessary to maintain order, the summary execution of Nigerians without fair trial is a very disturbing trend indeed. When Lawrence Anini, the notorious armed robber was caught in 1986, he was shot in the legs, taken to a military hospital, treated with courtesy and care, allowed to confess and name all his collaborators before facing trial and eventually the executioners. On the other hand, the late Boko Haram leader, Mohammed Yusuf was summarily executed even when he was already subdued. The manner with which Nigerian police officers and members of the armed forces descend on everyone during insurrections and public disturbances is alarming.


While Maitatsine as a phenomenon cannot be said to be a creation of the greedy politicians, the growth and strengthening of the sect can be linked to the direct actions and inactions of the political class. In the Maitatsine case, politicians deliberately played ludo with the whole scenario until it became a full-blown monster. One political party would be blaming the other while also trying to shore up their respective political bases. At the end of the day, who suffers? Innocent Nigerians. That the Kano State government could put down the riots in less than two weeks show that they were not hampered in the real sense by the needed resources but by an embarrassing lack of political will.


In a nation where police officers are in the pockets of politicians, it is very difficult to combat crime. Maitatsine had been arrested before a couple of times but on each occasion, he called on his friends in high places and secured his freedom. With each bout of liberation, he became more emboldened until he transformed into a monster that almost swallowed up the politicians themselves.


In 2011 the World Bank released a report stating that the Northern region of Nigeria has the highest rate of illiteracy not in Africa but on earth. As if that was not enough, in April 2013, the former Central Bank Governor, Mallam Sanusi Lamido Sanusi revealed that 93% (read that again, 93%) of girls in northern Nigeria are illiterate. In such an environment with such a thick atmosphere of ignorance, it is very easy for superstitious beliefs to spread about people like Maitatsine. During his time, many believed that he even had magical powers and bullets could not penetrate his followers. The fact is that no matter the amount of the magical powder you rub on your body, a bullet will not sweat before piercing your skin. If you need real ayeta, go get the latest Kevlar vests.

A very negative impact of these baseless superstitions is that they demoralize the police. During the onslaught on Maitatsine, many police officers were very reluctant to go smoke him out, some officers did not even bother to report for work at their respective stations, they simply disappeared (who wan die) while the few unfortunate ones drafted out to confront the full wrath of Maitatsine were already psychologically defeated, they were fighting from a position of fear and trepidation, all because of superstitious rubbish. Education, is the key. For Nigeria to bloom, she must experience an explosion in information technology and a revolution in the education sector. That time, we will stop holding up criminal elements as mythical and indomitable figures.



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