Although Sunni and Shiite Muslims are both sects of the Islamic faith, the differences between these two groups stem from conflicting religious beliefs. One thing that Sunnis and Shiites have in common is that they are the two largest denominations of the Islamic faith. Additionally, both Sunnis and Shiites believe that the Prophet Muhammad established the Islam religion during the seventh century.
The schism between the two sects began after the death of Muhammad in 632 A.D., at which point a dispute over the identity of Muhammad’s religious successor caused the followers of Islam to divide into Sunnis and Shiites. The Sunnis believe that Muhammad had no rightful heir and that a religious leader should be elected through a vote among the Islamic community’s people. They believe that Muhammad’s followers chose Abu Bakr, Muhammad’s close friend and advisor, as his successor.
Shiites believe that only Allah, the God of the Islam faith, can select religious leaders, and that therefore, all successors must be direct descendants of Muhammad’s family. They maintain that Ali, Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, was the rightful heir to the leadership of the Islam religion after Muhammad’s death.
Another contentious religious difference between Shiite and Sunni Muslims concerns the Mahdi, which is Arabic for “guided one.” Both groups perceive the Mahdi as the sole ruler of the Islamic community. But while the Sunnis hold that the Mahdi has not yet been born and anticipate his arrival, the Shiites believe that the Mahdi was born in 869 A.D. and will return to Earth under Allah’s orders. Most Muslims are Sunnis. Of the entire Muslim population in the Islamic world, only 10 percent are Shiite, according to cnn.com. The only countries that have a Shiite majority in the Middle East are Iran, Iraq, the Gulf Island State of Bahiran, Iraq, and more recently, Lebanon.
Buhari, a Sunni, who has been accused of not being sufficiently sensitive to the plurality of Nigeria, realized in his second term that he had entrusted sensitive responsibilities in people that either lack sufficient knowledge of their jobs or those than can easily be used and compromised. He is also wary of the Shiite and Iranian connection.
While the Shiite issue has become a serious national security dilemma, the approach of the president and the government’s handling of the massacre of its members and the continued incarceration of its spiritual leader, Sheikh Ibrahim El-Zakzaky, despite court orders according to many will not in any way solve the problem especially for a government that has a mandate of only four years left of the exhaustive 8 years.
The government appears to be in a dilemma on the issue of El-Zakzaky because the Shiite leader according to credible sources was badly manhandled and now almost incapacitated. The fear of releasing El-Zakzaky and seeing him in his new look and what it may trigger among his followers is also an issue of concern for the Federal Government while the Shiite movement has undoubtedly become a serious national security issue and a time bomb. The Iranian Government is clearly not happy with President Buhari on El-Zakzaky and the handling of the Shiite issue in Nigeria. Another major reason, raised by concerned observers is the religious coalition and the preemptive move by President Buhari to bury the Shiite idealist in Nigeria. In March 2016, Buhari announced that Nigeria would be joining a 34-country-strong Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition sponsored by Saudi Arabia. Its stated objective is to defeat terrorism in Afghanistan, Egypt, Libya, Iraq and Syria. The coalition eventually proved to be Saudi Arabia’s way of challenging Iran’s growing influence in global Islamic affairs. By joining it, Buhari has identified with the Sunni’s impending war against the minority Shiites. Saudi Arabia is a country of Sunni Muslims, while Iran is the citadel of Shia Muslims worldwide. The two persuasions remain at loggerheads in the Middle East. However, Nigeria is not a Middle Eastern, but an African country. Besides, it is a country of Sunni Muslims and Shia Muslims. Joining Saudi Arabia in an anti-Shia Muslim coalition is therefore counter-productive for the Shiites and for Nigeria at large. Buhari’s move divided Nigeria’s Sunni Muslims against its Shia Muslims officially, in contravention of the country’s constitutional secularity. In effect, it is claimed that President Buhari aligned Nigeria’s national interest with the national interests of Saudi Arabia
The Saudis’ principal regional adversary is the Iranians, and the Iranians are the financier of other Shiites minority in other countries. For the time being, their battle-grounds are Syria and Iraq. But with Buhari/Zakzakky’s case, that battleground could easily extend to Nigeria.