MAIDUGURI, Nigeria—A Muslim cleric who embraced nonviolence and spoke out against the sectarian violence plaguing northeast Nigeria died Sunday after suffering gunshot wounds in an apparent attack by a radical sect, witnesses said.
Imam Ibrahim Ahmed Abdullahi died in the shade of his Maiduguri mosque after gunmen from the Boko Haram sect apparently jumped out of a sport utility vehicle and opened fire, witnesses told The Associated Press. Abdullahi suffered five gunshot wounds and died as the gunmen apparently escaped into the restive city.
Authorities thought they destroyed Boko Haram in 2009 after Nigeria’s military crushed its mosque into concrete shards, and its leader was arrested and died in police custody. But now, more than a year later, Maiduguri and surrounding villages again live in fear of the group. Western diplomats also worry that the sect is catching the attention of al-Qaida’s North Africa branch.
Boko Haram, which means “Western education is sacrilege” in the local Hausa language, has engineered a massive prison break and killed a prominent gubernatorial candidate in recent months. Police also accuse members of the group of carrying out targeted assassinations against local religious leaders and others who speak out against the group.
“We used to call the government and security agents to say that these people must be stopped from what they are doing because it must bring a lot of trouble,” Abdullahi told the AP in 2009 after the rioting that year. The imam knew the group’s former leader well and cautioned him against the violence Boko Haram later employed.
Abdullahi’s mosque, where believers gathered under the shade of a massive tree living in the dusts of the Sahara Desert’s edge, drew moderates in a city where violence has become the norm. Even after receiving threats, Abdullahi continued to talk with journalists and others in hope of bringing a lasting peace to the region.
Yet even he recognized that the crushing destitution most lived in drew them to a group that promised a more prosperous life at the end of a Kalashnikov rifle.
“People are living in absolute poverty,” Abdullahi told the AP in November 2010. “Whenever people are living in this type of poverty, if you start saying to them, ‘Look, come let us bring about change,’ … people must listen to you.”