The Federal Government of Nigeria has proscribed the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN), otherwise known as Shiites, through an order of the court. The court order was given following an ex-parte application brought by the Federal Government where Justice Nkeonye Maha ordered that “no person or groups of persons should henceforth associate with the Shiites for any reasons.”
For many weeks running, the Shi’ites have sustained their protests within the corridor of the Statehouse in Abuja metropolis, even though the public only get the feel of the sect’s activities the moment the protests get violent. Their agitation remains to release the leader of the now proscribed movement, the Islamic Movement of Nigeria, IMN, Sheikh Ibrahim El-Zakzaky, who has been in custody of the DSS since December 2015, after a fracas between his followers and members of Nigeria military in Kaduna
Elzakzaky, with his wife, were arrested within the period in 2015 before he was finally detained by the federal government. He had been granted bail by different courts, which the federal government failed to respect. It is also worthy of note that Elzakzakky’s movement had, almost similar crisis with the Nigerian state under the administration of former President Goodluck Jonathan, in 2014, when he lost 3 of his sons in a shootout with the Nigeria troop.
Just as it was in 2015, it was said that the incident happened following the resistance of Shi’ite members to allow a military patrol van to pass through their procession. The Shiite procession impeded the convoy of General Tukur Buratai. the Nigerian Chief of Army Staff. In retaliation, hundreds of Shiites were slaughtered. Soldiers bulldozed Shiite centers, including mosques and schools in Zaria. Their leader, Ibraheem el-Zakzaky and his wife, Zeenatideen, were arrested, and they have remained under arrest till date without trial. In the meantime, one of Zakzaky’s followers, Abbas Isiyaku, has died in prison custody. Zakzaky himself and his wife are said to be seriously ill. The attack also left another three of his children dead. El-Zakzaky has led the IMN, the largest group of the country’s minority Shia Muslims, for more than 30 years. He remains a controversial figure, whose name arouses strong opinions among Nigerians from all walks of life. His followers say the Movement has five to 10 million members. Born in 1953, in Zaria, Zakzaky was a restless Sunni Muslim who grew up amid a period of turmoil.
During his teenage years, Nigerian Muslims have practiced moderate Sufi Islam, adopting an inclusive worldview and avoiding rigid doctrines that are prevalent in Saudi Arabia. By the time Zakzaky enrolled in the University of Ahmadu Bello in Zaria, political Islam was already gaining momentum. He joined the Muslim Student Society, MSS, of Nigeria – a movement which attacked any gathering that seems to be operating against the tenets of Islam in university during the 1970s. El Zakzaky rose swiftly through the MSS’s ranks and became its secretary-general. According to a Nigerian professor, who taught Zakzakky while in the University, “Zakzakky is a charismatic leader and an eloquent speaker who knows how to move a crowd and inspire young people,” “He understood the passion, aspiration and dream of Northern Nigerian youth in the 80s and 90s.”
The 1979 revolution in Iran gave new ideas to Muslim students. At the same time, Saudi Arabia funded scholars and religious schools to promote their own influence. “That caused a split in the MSS ranks as one of its leaders Aminuddin Abu Bakar sided with Riyadh while others joined Yan Shi’a, looking towards Tehran for inspiration”, wrote prominent historian John Hunwick.
That was around the time El Zakzaky travelled to Iran and returned a convert to Shiism – even though he kept his new-found belief largely to himself. In a report released by TRT world, it noted that Zazkakky was not the proponent of the Shiite ideology in Nigeria. Nigerian Muslims have historically been Sunnis, but El Zakzaky was not the first to introduce Shia Islam in the country. For more than a century, Shia Lebanese traders travelled to Nigeria and some of them settled here. They mostly kept to themselves.
El Zakzaky and his followers were constantly harassed by military regimes in the 1980s, and he spent nine years in prison.
“He turned to Shiism after he was expelled from Ahmadu Bello University in 1982 and eventually went to Iran to complete his studies,” Jibrin Ibrahim, a senior fellow at the Abuja-based Centre for Democracy and Development, told TRT World. It’s important to note that El Zakzaky didn’t openly declare his Shia theological conviction until 1994. And when he did, it led to a split in his group. The Iranian government has repeatedly pressed Abuja to release El Zakzaky who has been in custody since 2015 when hundreds of IMN workers were killed in a crackdown.
Unlike the countries in East Africa such as Sudan and Somalia, where Riyadh and Tehran vie for strategic control closer to their borders, the fight in Nigeria is more sectarian. Nigerian Muslims are largely Sunnis and the fight between the two sects is majorly that of supremacy. Politics and ethnicity are secondary reasons. “Both sides in the Saudi-Iranian proxy conflict are now investing in and supporting rival groups throughout the region in order to gain both an ideological and strategic foothold in West Africa’s Muslim communities,” he explained. But when it comes to El Zakzaky, the Nigerian government of President Muhammadu Buhari, a Sunni, is coming under increasing criticism for extrajudicial killings and the continued persecution of his followers.
The sympathizing observers advised that Government should negotiate and hand over El Zakzaky to Tehran so that he can be given immediate medical attention and perhaps political asylum. Beyond the allegations against the Shiite movement in Nigeria, which presses for the debate on whether the presidency was right to hurriedly proscribe the movement as a terrorist group or not, there have also been reports of good deeds credited to the movement. There are records that the Shiite in most occasion rise up to defend the Christians in the north, whenever the radical Islamists stage religious war; with reference to 2001 and 2013 attacks of Christians by other Islamist sects in Kaduna. This is the tragedy of the Shiites Muslims across the world, where the movement is of the minority. The Shiite Moslems constitute merely 10% of the world’s Muslims in the world.