New Risks on Nigeria’s Shiite Fault Line
New Risks on Nigeria’s Shiite Fault Line
Fighting among Boko Haram Splinters Rages On
Fighting among Boko Haram Splinters Rages On
Shiite Muslims take part in a rally to commemorate Ashura in Kano, Nigeria, on 24 October 2015. REUTERS
Commentary / Africa 9 minutes

New Risks on Nigeria’s Shiite Fault Line

On 12 and 13 December, Nigerian government troops clashed with members of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN). Their battle in the city of Zaria, in north central Kaduna state, reportedly killed more than 100 people, including some senior movement members, and threatened wider violence.

Crisis Group’s Senior Nigeria Analyst Nnamdi Obasi provides some insight into what happened, the relationship of the Shiite group with the government and with Sunni radicals, and whether the Nigerian government risks a second Boko Haram-style insurgency.

What can you tell us about the group the Nigerian troops clashed with?

The Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) is a group based in Kaduna state, but with significant presence in some other northern states. They are considered by many Muslims in the region to be a Shiite organisation, even though in Nigeria the Shiite label refers as much to a radical political attitude as to doctrinal differences.

The movement fundamentally believes and proclaims that “there is no government except that of Islam”. Its founder and leader is Ibrahim El-Zakzaky who, since the early 1980s, has called for an Islamic revolution to create an Islamic state in Nigeria, an end to Western influence in the country and the stringent adoption of Islamic legal principles and systems. The movement is very critical of northern Nigeria’s traditional religious and political elite, including the Sunnis who are the majority of the country’s Muslim population.

No statistics are available, but Shiites are thought to make up just 2 or 3 per cent of Nigeria’s 178 million people. Present in small numbers in Nigeria for a long time, Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution inspired strong growth in the Shiite community and persuaded its leaders to challenge traditional and secular Muslim authorities more vigorously.

Nigerian cities that have recently seen protest rallies by the Islamic Movement of Nigeria, or where members of the movement clashed with local authorities. CRISIS GROUP

What caused the new eruption of violence?

The IMN and the army give conflicting accounts about what happened exactly. On 12 December, an army statement alleged that IMN members, “on the orders of their leader, Ibrahim El-Zakzaky”, attempted to assassinate the army chief, General Tukur Buratai, en route to a military ceremony in the city of Zaria. The statement said hundreds of armed sect members barricaded General Buratai’s way, spurned warnings to disperse, then started pelting his convoy with “dangerous objects”. It said troops responsible for the army chief’s safety had to protect him by clearing the barricades forcefully, but did so in accordance with the army’s rules of engagement and code of conduct.

IMN rejects the army’s account, particularly the alleged assassination attempt. A statement on its website said unarmed members were gathered for a ceremony at their religious center, Hussainiyyah Baqeeyatullah, when soldiers attacked them, killing an unspecified number of people.

A third account by local residents said IMN members, brandishing clubs and chanting Allahu Akbar [God is great], blocked a major road linking Zaria and other major cities of northern Nigeria, and stopped the army chief’s convoy on the grounds that their leader was about to make a speech at the religious center. After they rebuffed soldiers’ orders to disperse, troops charged through their defences, stormed and seized the Hussainiyyah compound which had become a source of violent resistance, killing about ten IMN members in the process.

How did the initial clash degenerate to the many more killings that followed?

Following the initial clash, the army deployed troops to different locations across the city. At night, soldiers advanced toward Zakzaky’s house in Zaria’s Gyellesu district. Some sources say as the soldiers closed in, Zakzaky’s wife and daughter frantically sent social media messages rallying members to come defend their leader. Hundreds did so, some forming a human shield around their leader’s house, others confronting the soldiers.

After a night of heavy gunfire and explosions, Zakzaky’s house and the group’s spiritual headquarters were destroyed. The IMN claimed soldiers had killed “hundreds” of its members, included Zakzaky’s wife Malama Zeenat Ibraheem; his seventh son Hammad Ibraheem; the IMN leader in northern Nigeria’s largest city, Kano, Sheikh Muhammad Turi (who was also Zakzaky’s second-in-command); the sect’s national spokesman Ibrahim Usman; and the head of its medical team, Dr Mustapha Saidu. An IMN spokesman later reported that Zakzaky himself was arrested by soldiers, after he had suffered four bullet wounds. The military later confirmed that Zakzaky, along with his wife Zeenat whom IMN had earlier claimed dead, were in their custody.

News of the killings and arrests have sparked protests in several other northern cities including Kano, Kaduna, Bauchi, Potiskum, Yola, Katsina, Gombe and Gusau. These protests, if not managed carefully, could further exacerbate the situation.

Why is this so dangerous?

Given their longstanding rejection of the secular state and Zakzaky’s advocacy for an Iranian-style Islamic revolution, IMN has long been viewed or suspected as a potential source of strife. The Shiite group is fiercely opposed by many from the Sunni majority, particularly Salafi organisations. But the main problem is the future relationship between IMN and the Nigerian state.

With the killings and destruction of the last few days, and especially in the absence of Zakzaky, the late Turi and other senior leaders, who have usually been non-violent in terms of action, more radical elements could take over and lead the group toward a more violent path. And as Boko Haram has amply demonstrated, a violent minority can bring great grief to the entire country.

Now that security forces have arrested the visibly injured Zakzaky, the government must ensure that its officials and agencies comply fully with the law with respect to his rights and welfare, as well as those of all IMN members under arrest. It must avoid a repeat of the 2009 blunder when the extrajudicial killing of Boko Haram’s leader Mohammed Yusuf in police custody tipped the group into a deadly insurgency.

How might the recent killing of IMN leaders escalate into more violence?

Some analysts say the risk is low, moderated by several factors: Zakzaky has mellowed with age and is unlikely to lead an insurrection; IMN, though highly visible, does not enjoy the support of the vastly more numerous Sunni majority or even other Shiites; the group does not now have the kind of resources it would need to mount and sustain a revolt; and the fact that President Muhammadu Buhari, army chief Tukur Buratai and National Security Adviser Babagana Monguno are all northern Muslims, means Zakzaky may not be able to project his group as victims of sectarian persecution, which he needs to mobilise wider Muslim sympathy and support.

Others argue the organisation may now be at a tipping point. After three of his sons were killed by army gunfire in 2014, Zakzaky ominously said the country would hear from him. On 1 December 2015, he publicly prayed for “Allah to punish those who carried out the 27 November suicide attack” on his followers, killing about 21 of them. Responding to the most recent 12 December clash, the IMN said: “No government can flourish successfully with a disoriented military, full of trigger-itchy personnel and security operatives trained by CIA and Mossad”. A senior security officer told Crisis Group: “Something explosive may be brewing”.

In 2012, Shehu Sani, then a rights activist from the North and now a federal senator in Abuja, warned that “if the Nigerian state applied the same measure of cruelty and extrajudicial killings to the members of the Islamic Movement as it did to Boko Haram, we would be faced with a violence that’s a million times more than that, because the Islamic Movement is well organised and educated”. Sani may have exaggerated the risk, but his warning cannot be ignored.

What is the relationship between IMN and Boko Haram? Is there any likelihood they could join forces?

The two organisations are in conflict. The IMN says it is a “peaceful organisation”, opposed to Boko Haram’s violence. Zakzaky once said Boko Haram was a creation of the “oil-hungry West”. For its part, the radical Sunni group, Boko Haram is hostile to, and often attacks, other Muslims who preach against its vision of Islam. It specifically considers Shiites to be heretical and condemns its devotees as non-Muslims who should be killed.

Boko Haram had been blamed repeatedly for attacks on Shiites, especially in Potiskum, the commercial hub of Yobe state in the north east. Since May 2013, there have been four bomb attacks on Shiites, three in Potiskum and one near Kano, with about 42 members killed. No group claimed responsibility for the first three attacks, but suspicion always fell on Boko Haram. The most recent attack, by suicide bombers against an IMN group of pilgrims on 27 November, was claimed by the West Africa Province of the Islamic State (Boko Haram’s new name since it pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq), which vowed to “continue harvesting the infidel Rafida [Shiites] until we purge the land of their filth”.

How strong is the movement in terms of followers and resources?

We don’t know the exact number. At various times, Zakzaky had claimed between “hundreds of thousands of followers” to as many as three million. There is no credible, independent estimate.

IMN has a youth vanguard to which it gives para-military training. Over the years, members had undertaken a symbolic trek annually, to commemorate the 40th day of Ashura, a period commemorating the murder of Imam Hussein 1,300 years ago. In recent years, the group’s processions have become more frequent, blocking highways for hours and causing great discomfort both to other road users and to local residents.

The movement has established many schools, known as Fudiyyah or Fodia schools, named after the famous 18th century Muslim scholar and reformer, Sheikh Usman Dan Fodio, who founded the Sokoto Caliphate in what is now northern Nigeria. It has had a thriving publishing business for over two decades, rolling out English and Hausa publications, notably the widely-read Hausa newspaper Al Mizan. In recent years, it has announced plans to broadcast its now internet-based Hausa language radio station, and also establish a TV channel.

A security analyst told Crisis Group that in some respects the movement is now “a state within a state”, with its members accepting the Nigerian government’s jurisdiction very grudgingly. Other local sources said its members had long become “a law unto themselves” and that their defiant disposition and scant regard for government authorities had long set the stage for a major confrontation with security forces.

Has the IMN ever advocated or engaged in violence?

Zakzaky has never publicly advocated violence, but the IMN has a history of clashes with security forces and other Muslim groups. In 1991, Zakzaky and his followers clashed with security forces in Katsina. In 1996, his followers seized and decapitated a Christian on the allegation that his wife used pages torn from the Quran to clean their infant. In June 2005, they clashed with emirate authorities in Sokoto, over access to the city’s central mosque. In July 2007, the murder of a Sunni cleric in Sokoto, Umar Dan Maishiya, who had been highly critical of Shiites, sparked reprisal attacks that killed at least five Shiites and destroyed many of their homes.

In September 2009, Zakzaky’s supporters clashed with police in Zaria, leading to injuries and deaths on both sides. In another major clash, during a pro-Palestinian procession in Zaria on 25 July 2014, soldiers killed about 35 members, including three sons of Zakzaky, all undergraduates at the time. That brutal killing was widely condemned and the Nigerian government set up a committee to investigate.

The relationship between IMN and the government has always been characterised by mutual antagonism and recurrent hostility. The IMN accuses the government of wanting to wipe it out. The government views IMN as an extremist group building up the critical mass it needs to eventually turn violent.

What can the government do immediately to stop the violence and restore calm?

President Buhari was silent in the first three days after the violence and his chief press secretary said what happened was a “military affair”. IMN members read the president’s silence as either indifference or complicity with the military. Though the president, on 15 December, sent a fact-finding delegation headed by Interior Minister Abdulrahman Danbazau to Kaduna state, Buhari needs to respond urgently and personally to the violence. He should assure all Nigerians, particularly those directly affected, that his government is committed to the rule of law and will not condone impunity by any group, civilian or military. The Nigerian army, which already has a questionable human rights record, should take every possible action to avoid worsening that record, especially by sanctioning officers whose actions may have abused or violated citizens’ rights during the recent operations.

The Kaduna state government should also urgently institute a full-scale judicial inquiry, particularly of the extrajudicial killings. The inquiry should identify any individuals whose actions triggered or aggravated the violence, and recommend appropriate legal sanctions. Furthermore, it should make provisions for redress and compensation for the many innocent people who suffered human or material losses during the violence.

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