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Nigeria: Repressing the Shia will create another Boko Haram

Eromo Egbejule
By Eromo Egbejule
West Africa Editor of The Africa Report

Posted on Tuesday, 23 July 2019 16:24

A group of police officers stand close to the site where the Shi'ite group set an ambulance and a fire engine on fire at the Federal Secretariat in Abuja, Nigeria July 22, 2019. REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde

Nigeria's federal parliament was temporarily shutdown on Monday by protesting members of the country's Shia minority Muslim sect. How the government responds has heavy consequences.

It’s barely a week to the tenth anniversary of the death of Mohammed Yusuf in police custody in Maiduguri.

Yusuf was the founder of Boko Haram, the terrorist group that has wreaked havoc in parts of Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Niger since his death in 2009.

Previously, he was an Islamic scholar preaching radical doctrines until his death energised his supporters who rallied around Abubakar Shekau his most fervent disciple and began a new jihad.

History might be repeating itself this year, if Nigeria does not read the writing on the wall on detained Shia cleric El-Zakzaky.

The federal parliament was temporarily shutdown on Monday as protesting members of the country’s Shia minority Muslim sect demonstrated nearby at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

It was the second time in two weeks that the National Assembly  (NASS) would be ‘under siege’ by the same group of protesters.

  • The NASS complex was shut down as a pre-emptive measure and staff were asked to exit through the back door for fear of their safety, a worker within the premises told The Africa Report on condition of anonymity.
  • Gunshots were heard in and around the NASS complex and the federal vicil secretariat, as workers scampered for their lives while security forces tried to derail the protests by firing live ammunition. A deputy commissioner of police – and a young journalist also died from stray bullets.

The police say two Assistant Superintendents of Police were also badly injured and blame the wounds as well as the deaths on the Shia.

We have six corpses with us and someone else counted 12 more bodies”, Abdullahi Musa, general secretary of the academic forum of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria(IMN), umbrella body of the sect in the country, told The Africa Report.

The Shia are protesting the detention of their leader who has been in federal government custody since 2015.

  • Senior members of the IMN told Al-Jazeera that founder Ibrahim El-Zakzaky had suffered a second stroke earlier this month, hence the renewed wave of protests.
  • El-Zakzaky whose arrest left him blind in one eye and with several bullets in his body after the 2015 Zaria massacre, first suffered a stroke in January 2018.
  • In 2016, a federal high court in Abuja ordered the immediate release of the IMN founder along with the payment of damages – an injunction that has not yet been obeyed. The Nigerian government says it is keeping him for his own safety.

Shia groups say the presidency has a plan to eliminate their leader and vow to continue protests until he is released. “His condition is critical and he could not even walk inside the court last time”, Musa said. “What constitutional backup does the president have to tell us not to protest freely? A competent court of law has ordered his release and they refused.”

“They should obey the court so we stop protesting. They keep adjourning the case so he can die in custody. We caught a policeman in mufti trying to set a vehicle ablaze and we stopped him; they want to do that to justify attacking us.”

The tough treatment and extrajudicial killings of the Shias – including the killing of dozens by soldiers in October 2018 – shows that “Nigerian military are deliberately using tactics designed to kill when dealing with IMN gatherings”. None of the culprits have been prosecuted or taken to court.

Desperate times, desperate measures

When a goat is pushed to the wall, it turns and fights for its life, with its horns. As radical elements within the IMN get to positions of authority, they will be able to overrule calls for continued peaceful demonstrations by the older members, the dynamics of the IMN’s engagement with the authorities will no doubt change.

As the IMN asks, what is the constitutional backing for holding a man who the courts have asked be freed? Should Zakzaky die in the government’s custody again, those radical elements will have the excuse they need to draw blood.

And now that a high-ranking police officer has been killed, the government will likely use it as another excuse to orchestrate violence against the often-unarmed Shia, perpetuating a cycle of violence.

Bottom line: In a political climate where relations between communities are already tense, the government has an opportunity to de-escalate. It also has the possibility of creating new religious martyrs, and creating a second Boko Haram.

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