Drive north from Kaduna city – along one of Africa’s most dangerous highways – to the university town of Zaria and you will find another sort of carnage: burned-out buildings and piles of rubble that used to be schools. Along with these remnants of clashes between Nigerian soldiers and the followers of the Shiite leader Ibrahim El-Zakzaky, deep communal tensions persist in Zaria almost 18 months after an explosion of anger there shook the country.
Zakzaky’s Shia organisation, the Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN) had its headquarters in Zaria. Today, Zakzaky and his wife, Malama Zeenatudeen, are still detained by state security, despite an order by a federal judge in Abuja at the end of 2016 to release them within 45 days.
They do not recognise or obey Nigerian law and their medium-term agenda is to start an Iranian-type Islamic revolution to create a theocratic state.
They were arrested and badly wounded in running battles in which more than 340 of their followers were killed by Nigerian soldiers in Zaria in December 2015.
Kaduna State governor Nasir El-Rufai, whose office is emblazoned with the slogan ‘Make Kaduna great again!’, tells The Africa Report that once Zakzaky is released by state security, he will face trial “for all the crimes committed by the IMN over the years […] including murders, abductions and so forth.”
For El-Rufai, the problem is one of political opposition, not religious doctrine. “We have no problem with Shiism […] it’s a free country.”
But Zakzaky has been recruiting to his Shia organisation in such a way as to pose an unacceptable challenge to the Nigerian state, according to El-Rufai.
“They do not recognise or obey Nigerian law and their medium-term agenda is to start an Iranian-type Islamic revolution to create a theocratic state.” The split between Sunni and Shiite Muslims originates in a dispute over the succession of the prophet Muhammad.
Out of Nigeria’s more than 90 million Muslims – it has the fifth-largest Muslim population in the world, more than either Turkey or Egypt – less than 5% are reckoned to be Shia. But Shiism is winning converts, boosted by Iranian proselytisers and Tehran’s funding of social projects, including more than 300 schools.
Across northern Nigeria, there is competition between the clinics and care centres that display Iran’s green, red and white flag and those that fly Saudi Arabia’s green flag with its Islamic inscription and symbol of a sword.
Of the three Shia organisations, only Zakzaky’s IMN has been outlawed due to its militant character, says El-Rufai. “They have a paramilitary and they’re suspected of having a cache of weapons. In the last 10 years or so [there were] at least two cases of Iranians importing weapons into Nigeria through Lagos […]. There was a Lebanese businessman caught with lots of weapons in Kano and linked to that.”
Zakzaky’s allies adamantly reject claims of links with armed groups. “That someone is a governor doesn’t mean what he is saying is factual”, argues Musa Shuaibu, head of the IMN’s academic forum.
“I challenge anyone to name one instance when IMN has been found by any competent court in this country to have committed any act of terrorism. We have never carried arms against any citizen of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, or destroyed any government property, even in the face of extreme provocation.”
The involvement of soldiers in the Zaria incidents and subsequent police actions against the Islamic movement raises major questions about Nigeria’s commitment to military reform…
Justice on its head
Nigerian and international human rights organisations dispute the state government’s and the army’s version of events.
“The involvement of soldiers in the Zaria incidents and subsequent police actions against the Islamic movement raises major questions about Nigeria’s commitment to military reform,” Mausi Segun, senior Nigeria researcher at Human Rights Watch, told reporters.
“The Kaduna State government’s continued repression of the group [IMN] without holding the attackers responsible turns justice on its head.”
Kaduna State’s judicial commission concluded the military had used “excessive force” against the IMN militants in the December clashes and called for the prosecution of those responsible for wrongful killings.
But it also held the IMN responsible for “acts of habitual lawlessness” and criticised Zakzaky for failing to rein in his followers. Last October, El-Rufai outlawed the IMN, calling on security forces to arrest its members. Days later, fresh clashes erupted as the IMN was winding up the annual Ashura festival, during which adherents hold processions to mark the martyrdom of the prophet’s grandson.
Security experts warn that tensions between Zakzaky’s group and the security forces could boil over once again. Some draw parallels with how the police and military repression of Boko Haram – particularly the killing of its leader Mohammed Yusuf in 2009 – prompted the group to launch an insurgency.
“More moderate elements within the IMN have been killed or gone missing, leaving the stage for the less doctrinally sound to take up leadership, similar to how Yusuf’s death [as leader of Boko Haram] made Abubakar Shekau’s emergence possible,” says Cheta Nwanze, head of research at the Lagos-based SBM security consultancy.
Nwanze argues that Shiite Muslims, despite being a small minority, hold some very influential positions in the state apparatus. Some politicians, such as El-Rufai, draw parallels between the IMN and Fethullah Gülen’s movement in Turkey, which the government accuses of gradually infiltrating the key organs of the state.
Unlike Boko Haram…the IMN members are widespread, well-educated and are entrenched in all levels of society.
“Unlike Boko Haram, which was made up of largely illiterate members and with limited spread in 2009, the IMN members are widespread, well-educated and are entrenched in all levels of society,” says Nwanze.
“When this is coupled with the links to a state like Iran, which has never shied away from sponsoring militant groups, a violent IMN will be more devastating than Boko Haram.”
Such a crisis could also put the spotlight on how geopolitical rivalries – between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran – could play out in Nigeria. From the Shiite viewpoint, successive Nigerian governments have moved far too close to Saudi Arabia and its backer, the United States (US).
And the new US government under Donald Trump has already marked out territory by selling Nigeria $600m worth of warplanes in April, a deal that was suspended under Barack Obama’s presidency because of human rights concerns.
Another signal is Trump’s appointment of Rudolph Atallah, a former US Air Force pilot, as his Africa security director. Lebanese-born Atallah, who speaks fluent Arabic and French, has an on-the-ground knowledge of Iranian networks in Lebanon, Syria and beyond. He is likely to add Nigeria to his itinerary in the near future.
From the May 2017 print edition