x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Leader of Nigerian sect killed in custody

The leader of a radical Islamist sect responsible for days of violence in northern Nigeria has been shot dead in police custody.

DAKAR // The leader of a radical Islamist sect responsible for days of violence in northern Nigeria has been shot dead in police custody, a move that some analysts warned could spark a new wave of revenge attacks. Mohammed Yusuf was the head of Boko Haram, a rebel group blamed for the deaths of at least 150 people since last Saturday. The sect was seeking to impose Shariah law throughout Nigeria and ban all western-style education. Nigerian troops first stormed Boko Haram's stronghold in the north-eastern city of Maiduguri on Wednesday night.

Hundreds of people, mostly suspected members of the sect, have been killed in clashes with security forces in at least four states since Wednesday, when troops stepped up their response to the uprising. Yusuf initially escaped capture but was found hiding in an animal pen at a relative's home on Thursday. Police said he was killed in a shootout trying to escape, but reports circulating in the Nigerian press suggest he was shot dead after being captured.

Human rights groups have decried the "extrajudicial" killings, and questioned the Nigerian government's use of such heavy-handed tactics. Eric Guttschuss, a researcher on Nigeria for Human Rights Watch, said Yusuf's death was "a shocking example of the brazen contempt by the Nigerian police for the rule of law". The information minister, Dora Akunyili, said although she was uncertain of the circumstances of Yusuf's death, it was a relief for the country. "It's the best thing that could have happened to Nigeria," she told AFP.

Boko Haram, which means "western-style education is a sin", first surfaced in 2004. Some refer to it as the Taliban, referring to its style of recruitment and the long beards of some of its members. Yusuf had professed that secular education led to a lavish lifestyle but it is said that he ferried his children to western-style schools in a Mercedes-Benz. The group first launched attacks on civilians a week ago, dragging people from offices and cars and provoking bloody gun battles.

Nigerian president Umaru Yar'Adua had said the group was preparing to launch a "holy war". Yusuf had also claimed that rain did not come from condensation in the sky and that the world was not round, because the Quran did not say so. He had few sympathisers in predominately-Muslim northern Nigeria and leading Muslim organisations have been quick to express their disapproval of his ideals. Kissy Agyeman Togobo, an analyst with the US-based political intelligence group Global Insight, said Yusuf's death raised many questions. "Because of Boko Haram's hardline ideology, Nigerian forces were mandated to use all necessary force. But this is certainly an extrajudicial killing and no due process was followed. His death has raised pertinent questions regarding the way in which Nigerian security forces operate."

Shola Adeniran, a researcher for the Royal African Society, said there was still a risk tensions could resurface. "I would expect the violence to now peter out, with sporadic reports of fresh violence." He said the Nigerian government's hard-line response reflected its fears about the resurgence of religious tension in northern Nigeria. In the 1980s, thousands of people were killed in riots led by a radical Islamist leader.

In an interview with French radio station RFI earlier this week, members of Boko Haram said they would continue the onslaught regardless of what happened to their leader. kthomas@thenational.ae