Nigeria: Shiites - Another Boko Haram in the Making?

Women in black niqabs holding up posters calling for the release of Shiite cleric Ibrahim Zakzaky. The founder and leader of the Shiite Islamist Movement of Nigeria (IMN), has been in jail since December 2015.
26 July 2019

The incessant deadly clashes between government troops, police force and the Islamic Movement of Nigeria, IMN, known as Shi'ite moslems have raised fears that another conflict is about to get out of hand in the country.

Even the civil society is calling on the central government not to repeat past mistakes, because police itself is not doing the right thing in its bid to suppress the issue. Police duty is to maintain law and order and protect lives and property, especially in discharging its duty. The legislature and the Judiciary have always provided enabling laws for the discharge of this onerous duty.

However, the table has recently turned and events have shown that there is a conspiracy to emasculate the police to the advantage of law breakers. After all, before now, for a group of people to embark on any procession that is likely to affect the freedom and business of members of the public, they must apply to the police to enable the force plan, monitor and prevent hoodlums from hijacking such protests.

President Muhammadu Buhari's government stands accused of abusing human rights and oppressing a minority group after clashes every now and then, especially between the Shi'ite group and the government, in which scores of people were killed, including a Channels journalist, Precious Owolabi and a Deputy Commissioner of Police, Usman Umar.

The Shi'ite's problem is the continuing detention of their leader, Ibraheem El-Zakzaky, while the shooting and killing of many of their members in the process of demanding for the release of their leader, detained since December 2015, is uncalled for.

Violence broke out when soldiers at a military checkpoint prevented the procession from entering Abuja to mark Arbaeen which occurs 40 days after the day of Ashura, a day of mourning for Shi'ites. In the past, the event has often ended in clashes owing to intervention by security forces. The march has since become a protest, not just a religious rite, since it was also meant to pressure authorities to release the Shi'ite cleric, Ibraheem El-Zakzaky, founder and leader of the IMN.

Till date, causes of the conflict between the Shi'ites and government has not been ascertained. IMN and the army have given conflicting accounts about what happened on December 12, 2015. An army statement alleged that IMN members, on the orders of 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.

Nigeria's moslems are mainly Sunnis and there was no real voice for the Shi'ite until IMN was founded in the 1980s by El-Zakzaky. The movement grew out of student enthusiasm for the Iranian revolution, while the Shi'ites population in the country now is estimated at three million, a number big enough to scare the central government.

Shi'ites ideology is in opposition to the establishment's ideology which follows Saudi Arabian Wahabism. IMN has many followers in the North which is the more reason the government needs to take the bull by the horn, otherwise, the government will be leading Nigerians into another Boko Haram in the making. Nigerians all over the country are increasingly worried that the IMN could turn into a second Boko Haram, though the movement itself denies any plans to take up arms. IMN spokesman, Ibrahim Musa, has said it before now, rejecting analogies between his movement and Boko Haram. He further stated that the Islamic movement is guided by and led by the principle of Islam and only calls on people to understand it.

He asserted that the movement fundamentally believes and proclaims that "there is no government except that of Islam", stressing that the founder and leader El-Zakyzaky, has since the early 1980s, been calling for an Islamic revolution to create an Islamic state in Nigeria, and end Western influence in the country. He noted that El-Zakzaky has always called for the stringent adoption of Islamic legal principles and systems. Musa said the movement was very critical of Northern Nigeria's traditional religious and political elite, including the Sunnis who are the majority of the country's muslim population.

Though no statistics are available, but Shi'ites are thought to make up just two or three percent of Nigeria's population.

It should be recalled that Boko Haram started as a non-violent group but turned deadly after its leader, Muhammad Yusuf, was killed by the police in 2009. Since then, the central authorities have learned nothing from what happened in the North-East. Instead of listening to the group and trying to address its problems, they look the other way as protesting members of the group are killed during clashes with security forces. Radicalising the group will only lead to more violence and aggravate their militancy, maiming and killing of people including the military forces.

However, it has now come to a stage where dialogue alone will not be enough to solve a problem which has international dimension and undertones. I have no doubts that Saudi Arabia and Iran are engaged in a proxy war in Northern Nigeria, as they are in Yemen.

That is why we also have to rely on international support from the US, Britain, France and other leading powers in the world. The government, especially the police, has its share of the blame on the anomalies and incessant protests of the Shi'ites as they have failed to salvage the situation. Sometimes if prudence and foresight is not employed in legislation, we end up creating more problems for the society than the mischief we hope to cure.

For me, responsibility lies primarily with the Nigerian government. The government must follow the rule of law and comply with court ruling that ordered El-Zakzay and his wife's release. The cleric, who is in his mid-sixties, reportedly lost sight in one of his eyes following the 2015 clashes, and has only been seen in public twice to thrice since he was detained by the Department of State Services, DSS. What are they doing in the custody of DSS, after he has being granted bail by two separate courts of the country?

Orunbon, a journalist and public affairs analyst, wrote in from Abeokuta, Ogun State

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