Mistaken for a Boko Haram bomber, Nigerian woman was lynched by mob

The group’s use of female and child bombers has spurred a vigilante justice culture that has killed innocent people

Alheri Haruna shows a photo of her sister, Tabitha Haruna, March 17, 2015, in Bauchi.
Chris Stein
Alheri Haruna, center, with her mother, Rahab Haruna, left, and aunt Keziah Yohanna.
Chris Stein

BAUCHI, Nigeria — It was a Saturday when the sickness came over Tabitha Haruna again. She threw a tantrum that was predictably violent, heaping insults on her mother and sister and wrecking things in the house they shared before declaring that she was going out to buy tomatoes. She got her Bible and walked off, heading down the dusty roads of the Yalwan Tsakani neighborhood in the northeastern Nigerian city of Bauchi. Her family expected her to come back in a few days, as she always did. But Haruna never returned.

The next morning, at the entrance to the Muda Lawal market, Haruna was mistaken for a suicide bomber and set upon by a mob. They beat her with sticks until she fell to the ground, then piled car tires and dumped gasoline on her, setting her ablaze in the street as hundreds of people watched.

Those who witnessed her death say it was all a misunderstanding. No bomb was found on her body. Her erratic behavior at Muda Lawal, the people there would learn only later, was due to a mental illness that had already cost her a job and a marriage. Now it had cost Haruna her life.

Mob violence is not unheard of in Nigeria or at Muda Lawal, where mobs have beaten suspected thieves bloody before handing them over to the police. But merchants who have worked at the market for years say they had never seen someone killed as Haruna was. Perhaps that’s because it has been decades since Nigeria’s northeast has lived in the climate of fear it does today.

The six-year killing spree of Boko Haram has fundamentally changed the way people in the northern half of Africa’s most populous nation live. In the quest by the armed group to institute its interpretation of Islamic law in the region, Boko Haram has turned churches, mosques, bus stops and schools into charnel houses with suicide bombings and shootings.

One minute Tabitha Haruna would be fine; the next she would be trying to break their television and cursing her mother and sister at the top of her lungs.

Nigeria’s police and military have repeatedly failed to protect the population from the violence. Starting last year, the group was able to overrun swaths of the northeast, though most of that territory has been reclaimed in the past few weeks.

In recent months, Boko Haram has turned to sending women and children to carry out bombings. The message to Nigerians is clear: Anyone could be wearing an explosive vest.

Bauchi hasn’t been as hard hit as other cities in the northeast. The group has bombed the town only a few times and once staged a prison break that loosed hundreds of suspected Boko Haram fighters onto the streets. Other cities in the region — such as Potiskum, Maiduguri and Damaturu — have been victimized repeatedly.

But Boko Haram’s shift to using female bombers and the repeated failure of the police and military to stop its fighters were enough to spur a do-it-yourself justice culture that led to Haruna’s lynching. If they didn’t act, Haruna’s assailants presumably thought, they would be the next to die.

“Our society’s not brought up to take the law into our own hands,” said Zubairu Yakubu, an adviser to the local traditional ruler, the emir of Bauchi. “But so many things happened that changed the culture of our people.”

Nigeria’s police and military have repeatedly failed to protect the population from the violence. Starting last year, the group was able to overrun swaths of the northeast, though most of that territory has been reclaimed in the past few weeks.
Nigeria’s police and military have repeatedly failed to protect the population from the violence. Starting last year, the group was able to overrun swaths of the northeast, though most of that territory has been reclaimed in the past few weeks.
Alheri Haruna with a photo of Tabitha Haruna that was taken during one of her episodes.
Chris Stein

Tabitha Haruna had fallen on hard times. Business at the marketplace on a military base where she sold fish had dropped off, and money was getting tight. Some friends approached her to join a cult, said her sister, Alheri Haruna. When she refused, they cast a spell on her. At least that was one theory for the violent tantrums Tabitha Haruna began throwing periodically about eight years ago.

Truth is, no one really knew what was wrong with Tabitha Haruna, and no one could stop it, Alheri Haruna said — not the doctors at the teaching hospital, or people at the local church or the faith healers the Haruna family asked for help.

A psychiatrist prescribed pink and white pills. Alheri Haruna isn’t exactly sure what they were, but they seemed to work. Unfortunately, she said, whatever possessed Tabitha Haruna kept her from taking the medication after she left the local hospital.

Tabitha Haruna’s life slowly fell apart. She split from her husband and moved back in with Alheri Haruna and their mother, Rahab Haruna, a security guard at the state polytechnic school. In 2012, Tabitha Haruna’s only child, a 2-year-old girl, died after falling into a well.

Tabitha Haruna’s attacks became routine, one more thing for her mother — whose husband died about 10 months ago — to worry about. One minute Tabitha Haruna would be fine; the next she would be trying to break their television and cursing her mother and sister at the top of her lungs. Then she would be out the door, gone for days on the streets.

A neighbor, Marcus Maigana, remembered Tabitha Haruna as an erratic presence in the neighborhood. Sometimes she would go into his compound, just up the road from the Harunas’ home, to greet him. Other times he would see her dumping food down a well.

“She gets berserk and destroys almost everything that was within her reach,” Rahab Haruna said. Then she would snap out of it and call home. “She would tell us, this is where she found herself, maybe on the road somewhere.”

When she wasn’t sick, she tried to maintain a sense of normality, her sister said. She was in her second year of studying finance at the school where her mother worked, with an eye toward getting a job at a bank.

That Tabitha Haruna was once again wrestling with her demons on the last day of February was no surprise to her sister and mother. When she left the house to buy food at the market, as she would often do when having an attack, they expected her back.

The Muda Lawal market stretches along Sultan Abubakar, a two-lane road that is often a scrum of cars, motorcycles and trucks, all carrying people and goods.

Accessibility was once an asset for markets across Nigeria, but Boko Haram changed that. Bauchi’s central market, in an older section of the city, was bombed in December. No one took responsibility, but Boko Haram rarely does, and most everyone here blames the group for that attack.

Schools and churches were targeted so often that people in Bauchi and other northeastern cities started installing metal gates — the kind you see at tollbooths — to block nearby thoroughfares if a car bomb was suspected.

A guard searches a customer at Muda Lawal Market in Bauchi, March 16, 2015.
Chris Stein

About five or six months before Tabitha Haruna made her final trip, Muda Lawal’s leaders began worrying that the market could be Boko Haram’s next target. Alhaji Adamu, the chairman of the market’s leadership, said they decided to make the heads of the various departments — from the kola nut traders to the fish sellers to orange dealers — responsible for the security of their areas.

Different sections took different approaches, he said. Some hired old men and young boys to watch the market at night. Others hired people to check shoppers during the day. Some groups went further, like the grocers’ union, which hired a guard to wave a metal detector at incoming customers in hopes of finding a bomb or a gun before it could be used.

“There’s always that fear,” Adamu said. “People come in, come out. It could happen at any time.”

Nigerians for years have paid private security guards or vigilante groups to guard houses or neighborhoods, said Mausi Segun, Human Rights Watch’s Nigeria researcher. These forces make up for a police force that is often overstretched and short on resources.

As Boko Haram rampaged across the north, communities turned to hiring vigilantes or local hunters to protect them not from petty crime, but from organized violence.


‘It’s believed that any women or child that acts in a suspicious manner … could be a suicide bomber, and mobs are prone to take this kind of action.’

Mausi Segun

researcher, Human Rights Watch

Nigeria’s security forces have repeatedly failed to stop the group from bombing cities as it pleased. Nor did they stop Boko Haram from overrunning an area that was at one point about the size of Belgium, although most of that territory has been reclaimed by a military offensive in the past few weeks. But Yakubu, the emir’s adviser, said the damage has been done. “There is no trust now between the Nigerian public and the Nigerian security forces,” he said.

The plainclothes men that Muda Lawal relied on for round-the-clock security were waiting as Tabitha Haruna approached a market gate on the first day of March. Wearing three-quarter-length shorts, shoes and, as many women in Nigeria’s north do, two caps on her head, she was confronted by a guard, who asked to search her. She refused, Adamu said. That’s when a crowd gathered.

She demanded to enter the market, but the guard stood firm. As Haruna argued with the guard, a rumor spread that she had something under her clothes, said Mikail Abubakar Garba, a secretary for the traders’ association at Muda Lawal. “They saw something in her body,” he said. “It looked like something bulky.”

Boko Haram has over the last few months begun sending women strapped with explosives into military installations or civilian targets across the northeast, including the city of Gombe, less than 100 miles east of Bauchi, and Jos, about 75 miles to the west. Besides killing dozens, the attacks have broadened the suspicion in northeastern cities, according to Segun.

“It has exposed women to this kind of attack because it’s believed that any women or child that acts in a suspicious manner … could be a suicide bomber, and mobs are prone to take this kind of action,” Segun said.

As the altercation went on and the rumors spread, Haruna morphed in the eyes of witnesses from a defiant shopper to a potential bomber.

The crowd forced her away from the gates. But not long after that, she returned, this time with a man dressed in a military uniform who was holding her hand.

“There she is,” Mohammed Auwal, a car tire repairman who works across the street from the gate, remembers hearing people in the crowd shout as they descended on her.

Alheri Haruna heard later that they used sticks and machetes, beating the soldier until his shirt was torn and bloody. Her sister tried to escape by jumping into a keke napep, the motorized tricycle ubiquitous in Nigerian cities.

The crowd got her, beating her to the ground.

“Some people were bringing tire. Some people bring petrol. Some people bring stick,” Alheri Haruna said.

They stacked more than 10 tires on top of Tabitha Haruna, soaked them with gasoline and eventually set her on fire.

Garba said he asked someone to bring water to put out the flames, but it was too late. The police arrived and sent a bomb squad to inspect Tabitha Haruna’s body. She didn’t have any explosives on her, local police spokesman Haruna Mohammed said.

A police officer found Alheri Haruna near her home and told her about her sister’s death. He said he tracked her down after finding a card with her name on it, secreted in the pages of the Bible that Tabitha Haruna took with her to the market.

‘What pained me most was her being burned alive. That was the most devastating thing that happened to me.’

Rahab Haruna

Tabitha Haruna’s mother

Rahab Haruna outside the family home.
Chris Stein

The Harunas aren’t unfamiliar with Muda Lawal. They have lived near the market for 35 years, Rahab Haruna said. Nor, like many Nigerians, are they unfamiliar with mob justice. Reports of crowd beatings and killings appear frequently in Nigerian newspapers and on the radio.

Many of the victims are people accused of being thieves. Others are suspected of being gay. Some people are targeted for myriad matters, from political beefs to allegations of witchcraft.

In her time living near the market, Rahab Haruna said, she has seen mentally ill people wander through, and she has witnessed crowds beat up thieves. But never before did a mob take the time to stack tires on someone and burn the person to death in the street.

“What pained me most was her being burned alive,” she said. “That was the most devastating thing that happened to me.”

On April 2, the Nigerian government’s national security spokesman issued a statement denouncing the lynching of suspected Boko Haram members. Days later, local newspapers reported that two suicide bombers were apprehended in Biu, a town about 175 miles east of Bauchi in Borno state, Boko Haram’s heartland. Bystanders caught one of the suspects at a bus station (which had been bombed in February) and handed him over to the police. A second was found at a mosque and lynched.

No one at Muda Lawal claimed to know exactly who made up the crowd that killed Tabitha Haruna. Garba blamed “bad people along the road” who might not have had anything to do with the market officially but made a buck doing odd jobs for the merchants. “You know most of the people are illiterate,” he said, “and they are afraid of something that is happening somewhere in the country.”

Officers have arrested three men, ages 20 to 25, on charges of culpable homicide and criminal conspiracy, Mohammed said. But Garba said the mob that surrounded Haruna that day consisted of about 10 to 20 people and grew to hundreds after she was dead.

In Bauchi, Adamu, the market chairman, said he convened a committee to investigate Haruna’s death and prevent something like that from happening again.

“If she had allowed herself to be checked,” Auwal said, “nothing would have happened.”

It took hours before the crowd that formed around her body dispersed, Garba said. By the afternoon, the market was back to normal.

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