· 'If you survive, tell my brothers I died well and living with Christ'
· PDP cautions over comments
From Saxone Akhaine (Kaduna), Njadvara Musa (Maiduguri) and John-Abba Ogbodo (Abuja)
TEARS flowed freely from their eyes. Others sobbed and wept uncontrollably. As survivors of the recent sectarian crisis in some northern states narrated their ordeal and escape from the Boko Haram's den, even the most stoic among them broke down.
The scene was the cemetery of the Goodnews Church of Christ, Maiduguri, where its Pastor, George Orji, killed during the crisis by the fundamentalists, was buried yesterday in Maiduguri, Borno State capital. Three pastors and 15 other Christians were allegedly killed by the sect members during the violence.
But Northern Elders under the auspices of Arewa Consultative Forum (ACF) yesterday attributed such crisis in the country to the prevailing poverty and deprivation which they said the Federal Government has failed to address.
The Arewa Leaders said that Nigerians should see the Boko Haram mayhem in Bauchi, Yobe, Borno and Kano states, with the prolonged agitation by Niger Delta militants as protests by "those who feel aggrieved by the prevailing conditions in the country", noting that "this attitude is agitated by the widening gap between our affluent and ostentatious leaders and the broad masses of the poverty stricken and deprived people".
Also present at the meeting of its Board of Trustees (BOT) under the leadership of retired Lt.-General Jeremiah Useni in Kaduna to deliberate on emerging national issues were the ACF Chairman, General Ibrahim Haruna (rtd); Secretary General, Colonel Musa Shehu (rtd) and several other Arewa leaders.
Speaking at the event, Mr. Thomas Ali, a survivor along with other Christians, claimed that apart from being forced to adopt Islam, they were not freed after their conversion.
Ali alleged that some Christians were killed by the Islamic group, who also burnt 20 churches and killed the three pastors on Monday, July 27, 2009.
He told The Guardian that he was forced by the sect members to undergo some Islamic rites of initiation but could not recall how he escaped from the group's den.
Mr. Emmanuel Ndah, who was abducted along with Orji said: "When we told them our names, they knew that we were not Moslems and asked whether we would denounce our faith and accept Islam. However, Pastor Orji encouraged us not to accept Islam but to hold unto what we believe in. He was singing and praying all through and encouraging the believers not to give up even unto death.
"It was his encouragement that kept us till the time we were released. But the men outside killed so many of us Christians who were even forced into Islam. I could not say how I survived it, but I did by the Grace of God."
He continued: "While we were lying there tied down, Pastor Orji turned to me and said if you survive, tell my brothers that I died well and living with Christ. And if we all die, we know that we died for the Lord."
Okechukwu E. Nwankwo, who said he witnessed the murder of Orji, said that he was abducted with all his family and forced to undergo the initiation. He said: "I was lucky. They asked me to leave, it was when I was looking for my wife and children that I saw Pastor George Orji being dragged on the ground by the armed sect members.
"They dragged him far from the camp and forced him to bend his head as he passed before Mohammed Yusuf. I was watching, he was singing and praising God and praying. Suddenly, I saw them cut the back of his neck and he fell down. His body was rolling on the ground for a long time before he finally gave up the ghost."
And a few weeks ago, growing long beards was an identity or dress code among Islamic faithful in some northern states. But now, it is a taboo in Borno and Yobe states.
Faced with an intense military/police crackdown on members of the extremist, Boko Haram Islamic sect, who last week led a religious uprising in Bauchi, Borno, Kano and Yobe states, hundreds of bearded Moslems in Maiduguri and Damaturu, the capitals of Borno and Yobe states, have overnight shaved their "long beards." Adherents of Boko Haram faith keep long beards to distinguish themselves from other Moslems.
Worried by inflammatory comments in some quarters on the Boko Haram saga, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) has urged Nigerians to exercise restrains on the issue.
In a statement in Abuja yesterday, the party said having put the situation under control, Nigerians should be vigilant to ensure that such ugly incident does not recur in any part of the country.
"We call on politicians across the political divide to moderate their comments on sensitive national security matters in order not to further inflame passions and divide the citizenry. Moments of challenge such as this require a show of statesmanship and patriotism from all citizens and not grandstanding and an opportunistic show of brinkmanship aimed at scoring cheep political goals."
Since the nation's armed forces quelled the sectarian violence led by Mohammed Yusuf, who was killed alongside the sect's suspended financier, Alhaji Buji Foi, men and officers of the Operation Flush 11 have embarked on a house-to-house search for the remnants of the group.
Meanwhile, the death toll from the four-day military-Boko Haram crossfire, which ended in Maiduguri last Friday, has risen to 825.
Col. Ben Ahanotu, the commander of the Operation Flush II, said some of the victims were innocent citizens but were caught in the gun duel.
The mass shaving of beards by the Moslems in Maiduguri and Damaturu started last Thursday after it became clear that bearded men, irrespective of their religious affiliations, were targets of security forces.
It was learnt that a majority of the Moslems, who have shaved their beards for the last three days are members of the Islamic groups of Ahalil-Sunnah Waljama'a and Izala.
Members of the two sects are also known for wearing knee-size trousers but now they put on full-length trousers to avoid arrest and summary execution by security men.
Mr. Isa Adamu Azare, the Borno State Police Public Relations Officer, confirmed the house-to-house search in a telephone interview with The Guardian. He admitted that "bearded men were being questioned because some members of the sect were returning to the cities from their enclaves. There were desperate attempts by security men to curtail them."
Sheikh Muhammad Sani Yahaya Jingir, National Chairman, Council of Ulamas of the Jama'atul Izalatil Bidah Wa'ikamatis Sunnah, said those Moslems, who shaved their beards to escape arrest did nothing wrong against Islam.
"What they did was right and I acknowledge their indulgence", he said, cautioning security agents against killing innocent people because they grew beards.
He said that Prophet Muhammad had enjoined good Moslems to allow their beards to grow and reduce the sizes of their moustaches, which, according to him, attracts "enormous reward from Allah."
In Potiskum, 100 kilometres west of Damaturu, where the armed sect members burnt a police station and killed a police officer, a large number of Moslems have shaved their beards.
Malam Nuhu, an Imam at the Potiskum Motor Park Mosque, said that he was forced to cut his beard for the fear of being killed.
"I also directed those close to me to do the same, because you can only practise religion when you are alive," said the cleric, in his reaction to the development.
The Chief Imam of Damaturu Central Mosque, Uztaz Hudu, was unhappy with the manhunt for the sect members by security agents.
Zarami Dungus, a permanent sectary in the Borno Civil service, was one of the Moslems that shaved his beard.
Yesterday, former Military Governor of Kaduna State and Chairman of the Movement For Unity And Peace (MUP), Col. Abubakar Dangiwa Umar (rtd), asked the Federal Government to explain why the police killed Yusuf without trial in the court of law.
Umar, who also faulted the government's handling of the uprising, said it showed that the authorities lacked the capacity to protect the citizens.
In a statement made available to reporters in Kaduna, Umar argued that it was unexpected that a government, which claimed strict observance of the rule of law, would allow the police to execute a Nigerian citizen who had not been tried before any law court.
"As it is customary, efforts will surely be made in the days and weeks to come, to enquire into or determine what went wrong. Nigerians cannot wait to learn why the security agencies proved powerless to prevent the Boko Haram religious group from conducting itself and constituting a threat to the peace and security of their neighbours as well as to the wider public.
"There are allegations that leaders of this religious sect had used unlawful methods to recruit followers, including abductions, kidnapping or other tactics that violated the rights of other people. They were also alleged to induce or even perhaps hypnotise some women and their children to abandon their families to join them. How these followers were treated and what tasks they were made to do can only be known through an early and comprehensive enquiry," he said.
At the burial of Pastor George Orji of the Goodnews Church of Christ (GCC), Maiduguri a victim of the religious mayhem, it was disclosed that 250 Christians were abducted and forced to accept Islam by the Boko Haram leader.