Deadly clashes between government troops and Shiite Muslims have raised fears that another conflict is about to get out of hand in Nigeria. Civil society is calling on the central government not to repeat past mistakes.
President Muhammadu Buhari's government stands accused of abusing human rights and oppressing a minority group after clashes over the weekend and on Monday, in which scores of people were killed. Nigeria's main Shiite Muslim movement IMN said that troops shot and killed at least 27 of its members during a procession to the capital Abuja. These claims have not been independently verified.
Violence broke out when soldiers at a military checkpoint prevented the procession from entering Abuja to mark Arbaeen which occurs forty days after the Day of Ashura, a day of mourning for Shiites. In the past, the event has often ended in clashes owing to intervention by security forces.
The march at the weekend was more than just a religious rite, since it was also meant to pressure authorities to release the Shiite cleric Ibrahim Zakzaky. The founder and leader of the Shiite Islamist Movement of Nigeria (IMN), has been in jail since December 2015. At the time, security forces killed more than 300 adherents of the movement in the so called Zaria massacre in Kaduna state.
Another Boko Haram?
Nigeria's Moslems are mainly Sunnites and there was no real voice for the Shiite minority until IMN was founded in the 1980s by Zakzaky. Michael Olufemi Sodipo, project coordinator for the Peace Initiative Network, a Nigerian peacebuilding organization, told DW that the movement grew out of student enthusiasm for the Iranian revolution. The number of Shiites in the country is estimated at three million, a number big enough to scare the central government. "The Shia ideology is in opposition of what the establishment follows, which is Saudi Arabian Wahabism. And the IMN has a lot of followers in the north. We are also entering an election period," Sodipo said.
Nigerians all over the country are increasingly worried that the IMN could turn into a second Boko Haram. The movement itself denies any plans to take up arms. IMN spokesman Ibrahim Musa told DW that he rejects analogies between his movement and Boko Haram: "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," he said.
Pressing need for dialogue
Boko Haram also started as a non-violent group that turned deadly after its leader, Mohammed Yusuf, was killed by the police in 2009. Ibrahim Gwamna Msheliza, a political analyst from Maiduguri, says the central authorities have learned nothing from what happened in the northeast. "Instead of listening to these people and trying to address their problems, [they] come up and start shooting people," he told DW, adding that radicalizing the group will only lead to more violence.
Michael Olufemi Sodipo wants to prevent more violence from happening. He was in Kaduna in 2015 when the massacre took place. He was also in Kano in November 2016, when at least 10 people were killed by the police. But he won't give up hope for peace. "In 2017 we organized a dialogue between the police and IMN and other Islamic sects in Kano. The result was that everybody showed respect to each other," he said. As Kano has been spared clashes since then, the initiative succeeded, the activist believes.
Saudi Arabia and Iran's proxy war
However, dialogue alone will not be enough to solve a problem which has international dimensions, Sodipo admits. He has no doubts that Saudi Arabia and Iran are engaged in a proxy war in northern Nigeria, as they are in Yemen. "That's why we also have to rely on international actors, like the US, the British, the French and other leading powers in the world," Sodipo said.
For him, responsibility lies primarily with the Nigerian government. "The government must follow the rule of law and comply with the court ruling," Sodipo said, referring to a court order that Zakzaky and his wife should be released. The cleric, who is in his mid-sixties and lost the sight in one eye during the 2015 clashes, has only been seen in public twice since he was detained. He and his wife are said to be in poor health.