MAIDUGURI, NIGERIA: Nigerians in the birthplace of the Islamic uprising gripping the country’s northeast celebrated the start of the Muslim holy festival of Eid al-Fitr with devout prayers and a joyful show of adulation for their king that attracted more than 10,000 people.
Because of the threat of Islamic extremist violence, it was the first big public Eid festival in three years in Maiduguri and the delight that it could take place — amid massive security — was heard in the cries of ululating women, screams of delight from children and men chanting “Long live the king!”
The Shehu of Borno, as the king is known, and his courtiers mounted horses bedecked with beaten silver and maroon pompoms and slowly paraded to the cheers of residents a couple of miles to the palace.
The large turnout was a triumph for the Joint Task Force of soldiers, police and intelligence officers fighting the extremist violence in a 3-month-old state of emergency.
“We want the world to see that despite the security challenges we are happy and joyous,” said Tijjani Abba Ali, a civil society leader.
The festivities were marred, however, by gunshots two blocks from the king’s palace that crackled after dignitaries and most security details had departed. Women grabbed up children and scattered, losing flip-flop sandals in their rush. Soldiers screeched off and an exchange of gunfire ended the outburst 10 minutes later.
“It’s Boko Haram!” said a security guard. The incident passed without major violence, but the fear remained amid the celebrations.
Boko Haram — which means Western education is sacrilege — terrifies residents. The Islamic extremists are blamed for the deaths of more than 1,600 people in the past two years.
The Boko Haram network is accused of large-scale bombings against civilian targets and attacks on Muslim and Christian religious and political leaders as well as Westerners, journalists, Christian churches and primary schools, according to a report issued this week by the International Criminal Court in The Hague. The radicals also have attacked mosques and imams who preach against their extreme brand of Islam.
In one of the cruelest attacks, on a school outside Maiduguri last month, extremists locked pupils into a dormitory and set it ablaze, burning many alive.
The extremists’ violence poses the worst threat in years to unity in Nigeria, Africa’s biggest oil producer and most populous nation of more than 160 million people, almost equally divided between Christian and Muslim. It also raises fears for other countries in the region.
Now some of the people of this area in northern Nigeria are fighting back. A vigilante group of young men and at least one woman brandishing cutlasses, bows and arrows and homemade wooden clubs studded with nails are visible at the many roadblocks throughout the city, capital of Borno state, searching for suspected members of the banned terrorist network.