Nigeria: El-Zakzaky, Shi'ites, and National Security

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.
29 July 2019
opinion

Zaria — Hayatudeen Sidi writes that the El-Zakzaky group has become a security risk.

Nigerians must take advantage of history to have a good grasp of issues of national security concerns, such as the escalating threats of insurgency by Ibrahim El-Zakzaky-led Shi'ite group. Unfortunately, for political expediency, the members deliberately distorted it into a human rights issue, taking the 'protective custody' of its leader as reason to campaign against the federal government and threaten the security of lives and property.

The courts' order freeing El-Zakzaky were strictly based on the isolated facts of El-Zakzaky's arrest and detention during the national security operation of December 2015, triggered by the daring blockade and confrontation of the Chief of Army Staff's convoy in Zaria by his aggressive followers. But the remand of Ibrahim El-Zakzaky in protective custody was premised on sober consideration of the grave national security implications of the alarmingly violent antecedents of the Shi'ite group's escalating trajectory of insurgency, initially only against mainstream Islam, then a calculated challenge of law enforcement agencies and ultimately taking on the nation's last line of defence, the Nigerian Army.

Short memories cannot shut out the El-Zakzaky Shi'ites' history of escalating insurgency. It all started when Ibrahim El-Zakzaky, after a mind-blowing visit to Iran at the height of the Khomenei revolution, opted out of an Islamic revivalist students group in ABU, Zaria to become the flag-bearer of the Shi'a sect, until then virtually unheard of in Nigeria. By that singular self-fulfilling move, El-Zakzaky got sucked into the tumultuous heart of centuries old sectarian antagonism between Sunni and Shi'a Muslims. The international dimension has fuelled several bloody wars and conflicts in the Middle East, reflected today in the unending Syrian war of attrition and the emergence of deadly terrorist militias such as Daesh, Al-Qaeda, and of course, their local affiliate, Boko Haram.

Since then El-zakzaky has steadily sowed the seeds of isolationism from the mainstream Muslim community by breaking away from the hitherto united Muslim Students Society (MSS) at ABU, Zaria and even from other Shi'a groups not affiliated with Iran's Khomenei revolution. A sign of how deep the schism had polarized the Muslim community in its northern haven was the outbreak of violent clashes between Sunni and Shi'a as far back as March 11, 2005 as a result of a protest by Shi'a and again in February and May 2006 in the revered Seat of the Caliphate, Sokoto. In August 2007, security forces had to demolish the Sokoto headquarters of the Shia sect, when members were accused of killing a rival Muslim cleric.

Such clashes necessitate the intervention of security forces, police and military to restore peace, but the Shi'ites soon began clashing with them too. Instructively, the group's tendency to replicate Shi'a rites, like the Quds Day and Arbaeen processions, not observed by the larger Muslim community only increased confrontation. The procession in July 2014 in Zaria sparked the group's first major clash with the army. A few days after multiple bomb blasts in Kaduna and amid tense military surveillance operations, sect members approaching a military check- point rebuffed soldiers' orders to take another route, prompting soldiers to fire warning shots into the air to disperse them. The Shi'ites surged forward stubbornly throwing stones at the soldiers. This was the precursor to the bloodier December 2015 incident in Zaria, where the group's leader lives with hundreds of his followers', virtually taking over Gyellesu area, to the chagrin of non- Shi'a community.

In the group's latest daring confrontational stance to the peace and security of the nation, members attempted an invasion of the National Assembly, leading to abrupt adjournment of sittings and random attacks on security forces and innocent citizens that left several policemen injured. Irate Shi'ites have now gone berserk, attacking innocent people and vandalizing their property, even openly insulting and issuing death threats to the President! This is in addition to the group's long-standing non-recognition of the sovereign government of Nigeria and an ominous pointer to the direction of the El-zakzaky Shi'ites' trajectory of terrorist insurgency could be heading if not rapidly and ruthlessly dealt with.

It is also pertinent to highlight the misnomer commonly applied in describing the El-zakzaky Shi'ites as "unarmed civilians". In reality, the sect which adopts the callous practice of taking women and children along with them even when confronting security forces as a human shield ploy, has escalated its protests from shouting to actually shooting at the forces, who are restrained by rule of engagement. The Nigerian army has been detailing the increasing weaponization of Shi'ite protests in recent times to include "shooting stones with catapaults, throwing bottle canisters filled with fuel, large stones and lobbing Molotov cocktails".

Remarkably, these terrorist trends are similarly squelched by security forces wherever they surface in accordance with "international best practices". US President Donald Trump rationalized it recently: "I'll tell you this, anybody throwing stones and rocks like they did in Mexico and badly-hurt police and soldiers, we'll consider that a firearm because there's not much difference. They want to throw rocks at our military, our military fights back. I told them to consider it a rifle." On the other hand, the Iranian government which backs the El-Zakzak Shi'ites in Nigeria, regularly harasses opposition groups like the Mojahedin and the Kurds who resist being forced into exile all over Europe just for holding different opinions and faiths!

But there is also plenty of well-reasoned Nigerian opposition to the emerging insurgents called El-Zakzaky Shi'ites. Comrade Yunusa Yusuf, spokesman of Coalition of Abuja Indigenous Association (CAIA) declared: "We are disturbed by the recent protest by Shi'ites movement to the National Assembly which turned violent and left many residents with various degrees of injuries and destruction of property. We are sad because the Shi'ites group is not the only aggrieved group in this country. We the indigenous people of Abuja are equally aggrieved over so many issues ranging from ministerial slot and deliberate marginalisation of our people, but we conduct ourselves peacefully."

Certainly, the rights of all Nigerian citizens to peaceful co-existence and the responsibility of government to protect the lives and property of its citizens are non-negotiable factors of our national sovereignty that cannot be compromised under any circumstance. The El-Zakzaky Shi'ites recognizes the Iranian government but not the Nigerian state, yet they base their aggressive agitation on the verdict of a Nigerian court!

Sidi is an Islamic scholar in Tudun Wada, Zaria

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