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Nigeria’s conflict over Shia cleric will not melt away

By Eromo Egbejule, in Lagos
Posted on Wednesday, 10 July 2019 18:08

Protesters in Abuja calling for the release of Sheikh Ibrahim Zakzaky in 2018. REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde

Nigerian police claims that members of a Shia protest group shot at law enforcement raise the stakes in a long-running battle over imprisoned cleric Sheikh Ibrahim Zakzaky.

A violent confrontation between the Nigerian police and members of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN) protesting outside the national assembly complex on Tuesday left at least two of the demonstrators dead and one of the policemen injured.

The IMN, an umbrella body for many members of  Nigeria’s Shia minority sect, were at the premises of the federal parliament to protest at the continued detention of their leader, Sheikh Ibrahim Zakzaky, who has been in custody since 2015.

Eyewitnesses said the latest altercation happened as protesters tried to force their way into parliament to table their grievances before the legislators.

  • A number of cars were destroyed by the protesters, with the police claiming one of their own was shot at by IMN members.
  • The IMN claim two of their own were killed. One member who was present at the protest sent The Africa Report photos of the corpses, claiming that one was a 14-year old boy called Umar Abdullah. The veracity of the photos could not immediately be ascertained.

Who are Sheikh Ibrahim Zakzaky and his followers?

Zakzaky, who comes from Zaria, was inspired by the Iranian revolution to call for the establishment of a similar Islamic republic in Nigeria. Since he founded the IMN in the 1980s, Shia Muslims in Nigeria have grown from a very small minority to around 3 million.

  • Successive governments have viewed Zakzaky as a threat. He was imprisoned twice by military regimes, then again in 2015 after a military raid that left three of his sons and hundreds of the cleric’s supporters dead.
  • The 2015 killings now known as the Zaria massacre came less than a year after another three of Zakzaky’s sons were killed by the army – in July 2014.
  • Despite a court order for his release in 2016, Zakzaky and his wife remain in government custody, triggering regular protests in the capital city of Abuja.
  • In October 2018, more than 400 Shiites were killed by soldiers during another Abuja protest; the military justified its action by tweeting a video of US President Donald Trump suggesting that the soldiers’ American counterparts could fire at migrants stoning them.

Protests and oppression

There is little to suggest that the IMN seeks violent confrontation. After the 2018 massacre, IMN spokesman Ibrahim Musa told German news outlet DW: “The Islamic movement is guided by and led by the principles of Islam, and Islam is a religion of peace. It only calls on people to understand it. It doesn’t force people to follow it.”

Repeatedly, however, and including after the Zaria massacre, the army and police have claimed they were acting in self-defence.

Boko Haram analogies

Though it also seeks a more stringent application of Islamic laws, IMN has no links to the militant group Boko Haram, who are Sunni Muslims. However, analysts within and outside Nigeria have pointed to a proxy war being played out in Nigeria between Saudi Arabia (Sunni) and Iran (Shia), as well as to the fact that Boko Haram started out as a peaceful group that became violent after the death of its leader, Mohammed Yusuf, at police hands in 2009.

  • In 2015 the Sultan of Sokoto, Alhaji Sa’ad Abubakar III, cautioned the government: “The history of the circumstances that engendered the outbreak of militant insurgency in the past, with cataclysmic consequences that Nigeria is yet to recover from, should not be allowed to repeat itself.”

Why this is important: If the Shia departed from their usual peaceful stance to shoot at law enforcement on Tuesday, then the dynamics of the conflict is changing. The government could seek to inflict more harm on the IMN and its leadership, possibly leading to an escalation.

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