The long read: How the tattered remnants of an Islamist sect transformed into a relentless terrorist army that Nigeria cannot defeat
In February 2009, I was at a motor park in Maraba, a satellite of the Nigerian capital Abuja, looking for motorcyclists wearing dried vegetables on their heads. The Nigerian Police Force had recently tightened statutes requiring drivers and passengers of motorcycles to wear helmets. In the case of motorcycle taxis known as achabas in northern Nigeria drivers would now have to provide helmets for their passengers. There was an uproar. Everyone knew that taking a trip on an achaba could be a dangerous thing; the drivers had a reputation for recklessness. But many Nigerians did not like the new rules.
Above all, the law dedicated the police an opportunity for extortion. One motorcycle taxi driver told me it was going to cost him 10,000 naira( around PS40) to buy two helmets. As he made between 300 and 400 naira per day( less than PS2 ), there was no way he could afford to obey the new law. Everyone knew what would happen. The police would set up flying checkpoints, near marketplaces, motor parks and busy streets. They would swoop down on motorcyclists, flailing sticks and canes as the riders madly accelerated out of their traps.
People who drive achabas are close to the bottom of society. They are humen( and only humen) without much formal education, often without any other marketable ability. Many sleep rough, under bridges or awnings, some sleep on their motorcycles, guarding their source of income. Their passengers are also largely poor. The vast number of achabas on the roads is a symptom of Nigerias economic problems. The new helmet law was, in the minds of most, merely another squeezing on people already in perilous circumstances.
When the regulations became operational, something strange happened. As hardly anyone had helmets to wear, achaba drivers took to the streets in all manner of improvised headgear. There were scenes in the press of people wearing paint cans and pails; but best of all were riders wearing hollowed-out watermelons and calabash bowl rustic utensils made out of dried gourds that, before the advent of plastic, were ubiquitous as water vessels.
These achaba drivers had stood up against barely disguised official extortion. Their resistance was characteristically subversive. But most Nigerians simply added the new legislation to the long list of things that built their lives difficult then they prayed, hoped the police would speedily lose interest and carried on as normal.
In one part of the country, however, this cat-and-mouse game between police and Nigerian motorists would have much more serious consequences. In Maiduguri, the capital of the north-eastern Borno state, enforcement of the helmet law caused an incident that would spark a violent conflict between the police and members of a revolutionary Islamist sect that was then unknown to the world. This, in turn, would pitch Nigeria into war.
Two year later, I watched as a slight young man entered the office of Maiduguris Special Armed Robbery Squad. The build is known locally as The Crack, ostensibly because it houses the elite police force. It is also a place from where, once a person autumns in, they might never emerge.
The young man, whose name was Mohammed Zakariyya, was resulted inside by two plainclothes officers. He had been arrested a few days before, after the car he was driving was stopped at a police checkpoint. He was thin and seemed to be scarcely more than a teen. His long pink, kaftan-like shirt was dirty and flecked with small places of dried blood.
They detected the weapons we had concealed underneath the seat, Zakariyya told me and my fellow BBC journalist, Abdullahi Kaura Abubakar. When his companion was ordered out of the vehicle to let the police search it, he tried to drive off. The Police Mobile Forceofficers opened fire, killing him.( The red hatchback , now full of holes, sat in the yard of the Borno police headquarters .)
Zakariyya said that he had been on three arms smuggling missions. Each hour, he and his accomplices drove 120 km out of Maiduguri to meet a human who ferried weapons in a canoe downriver from the mountainous border with Cameroon. Each day, he brought them half-a-dozen AK-4 7s and a handful of boxes of ammunition. They loaded the car, then Zakariyya drove it through Maiduguri to a large house in the suburbs of Damaturu, the capital of the neighbouring state of Yobe.
The men he was working for had approached Zakariyya at the end of 2010 while he was selling shoes and phone chargers. They used to preach in the open, so everyone was aware of who they were, he said.
They were members of the hardline Islamist sect that had established itself between 2005 and 2009 at a compound in Maiduguris Railway district. Known as Boko Haram, which translates as Western education is forbidden, the group had gradually brought more and more people under its influence.
The man we had come to Maiduguri to speak with was a member who called himself Abu Dujana his nom de guerre was taken from one of the companions of the oracle Muhammad. He described the atmosphere of the sects Maiduguri headquarters in cult-like words. The pace of life inside was dictated by the charismatic leader Mohammed Yusuf, who defined and enforced strict standards of religious purposes. Yes, I lived there, Abu Dujana said proudly. There wasnt a mosque like this in the whole of the country, where you could go and attain as much knowledge.
On 20 February 2009, members of the sect were travelling to a funeral in a large group. The escort was made up of many motorbikes, and the police stopped them. The police were part of a state-wide task force, named Operation Flush and put up in 2005 to combat political thugswho had run amok in elections two years before. The dispute between the group and the police about their refusal to wear helmets became heated. Some the reporting of the exchange say that the police shooting first, others that a member of the group disarmed a policeman and tried to use his weapon on the other police officers. In any case, the police opened fire, and several people in the travelling funeral party were killed and wounded.
This was not the first time that Operation Flush had traversed tracks with Boko Haram, and different groups leadership had already concluded that the purpose of theJoint Task Force was to harass them immediately. In the weeks following this encounter, Yusuf made a series of speeches, circulated widely on tapes and DVDs and over Bluetooth connections, calling on Muslims to prepare to come to Jihad. This, he said, included material preparation such as learning shooting, buying rifles and bombs, as well as developing the Islamic Soldiers to fight the infidels. You should sacrifice your souls, your homes, your autoes and your motorcycles for the sake of Allah.
Yusuf also had a large farm in Bauchi state, which he used as a base.The country government responded to these speeches by ordering the police to raid the farm, capturing hundreds of Boko Haram members and killing several more. The police laid siege to the sects headquarters in the Ibn Taymiyyah mosque compound in Maiduguri. They did not engage us fully, but tried to elicited us, driving along the side of the compound in a jeep, Dujana told me. We awaited until we had our chance and then we took it.
When they watched the states forces had pulled back and began shooting at them from a distance, “the mens” inside armed themselves and broke out of the compound. Dujana said they split into groups he resulted one detachment, which roamed the city go looking for military and police units to attack. For four days Boko Haram rampaged through the streets of Maiduguri. As well as killing police and soldiers, they slaughtered ratings of civilians who were caught out in the open, slitting their throats like animals.
As the authorities concerned re-established control of the town, Mohammed Yusuf was captured by the military. He was interrogated in front of journalists who filmed it with their phones. He was then handed over to the police. Within minutes, Yusuf was dead shot, the police said, while trying to escape. Nobody believed this. Yusufs bullet-ridden body was then displayed to journalists, who took pictures.
This was just the beginning of a tide of violence that has left thousands of people dead and at the least 1.5 million people displaced from their homes. Seven years after Yusufs killing, the war between Boko Haram and the Nigerian country has changed and developed. From late 2014 to early 2015, the sect controlled an estimated 70% of Borno state the authorities, meanwhile, seemed incapable of dislodging it.
After his election in 2015, President Muhammadu Buhari of the All Progressives Congress party tried to reinvigorate the military leadership by replacing a number of top generals. This, he hoped, would bolster the states response to Boko Haram. By August 2015, the military had reversed many of the groups gains and pushed it back to more remote regions. But the war is by no means finished.
In November, during attacks 48 hours apart, suicide bombers killed ratings in the eastern city of Yola and Kano in the north, targets that lie hundreds of miles apart. These attacks indicate the extent of the groups reaching, even outside the area it once controlled. There have been continual, under-reported, skirmishes in the border regions of north-east Nigeria. Just last Friday, on 29 January, the group launched an attack on Dalori, a small town close to Maiduguri. As many as 80 people were killed. Witness said they heard the screams of dying children as their houses burned down around them. These assaults are in spite of Buharis announcement in December that the war was technically over.
Yusufs group did not appear out of nowhere. Even before the open war between Boko Haram and the country, it had been growing. Among its ranks were people from all levels of society, from street children and merchants, to disaffected students and wealthy businessmen.
Many of the young men and women came from the University of Maiduguri, where the elite of the 1990 s sent their children to be educated. The organization was famed for the hedonism of its students, who indulged in ritual showings of wealth. The young sons of the elite would vie to be King of Campus: the win racked up the highest expenditure on parties. The naira spray was a particularly fashionable kind of gala, much considered during the petroleum boom of the 1970 s: to honour a talented musician, dancer or a pretty daughter, one of these wealthy young men would scatter a rain of currency that the object of their approval would then pick up off the floor.