Maitatsine Riots, The

The Maitatsine riots were a series of violent uprisings instigated by Islamist militants in northern Nigeria between 1980 and 1985 and represented northern Nigeria’s first major wave of religiously-inspired violence. The riots prompted immense ethnoreligious discord between Muslims and Christians in years to come.

The Maitatsine movement was led by Muhammadu Marwa (d. 1980), a Cameroonian residing in Kano who opposed the Nigerian state (Maitatsine is a Hausa term for “He who damns,” referring to Marwa). He referred to himself as a prophet—to the extent that one account reports that some of his followers referred to Marwa in lieu of the Prophet Muhammad as God’s prophet—and a reformer (mujaddid), with reference to Usman Dan Fodio. He was also notable for his vociferous condemnation of Western culture, education, and technology, and Marwa was known to refer to anyone who sent their children to a state school as an “infidel,” which is echoed in the contemporary Boko Haram movement.

Marwa’s followers were young, poor men, particularly former seasonal laborers economically displaced by the oil boom as well as petty merchants and youths seeking an Islamic education in Kano. Prior to the oil boom the urban poor were regarded as worthy recipients of Islamic charity; against the backdrop of economic changes—which included inflation and the destruction of the petty mercantile economy—they were looked at as hooligans and thieves. Thus, the socially and economically marginalized were receptive to Marwa’s anti-government message and exclusivist religious outlook.

The first riot broke out on December 18, 1980 in Kano and resulted in 4,000 deaths (including Marwa). Numerous other riots took place between 1980 and 1985, killing or injuring thousands of northern Muslims and Christians.


Adimbola O. Adesoji, “Between Maitatsine and Boko Haram: Islamic Fundamentalism an the Response of the Nigerian State,” Africa Today, Vol. 57, No. 4 (2011), pp. 98-119.

Elizabeth Isichei, “The Maitatsine Risings in Nigeria 1980-85: A Revolt of the Disinherited,” Journal of Religion in Africa, Vol. 17, No. 3 (1987), pp. 194-208.