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20 January 2016, Gateway House

A new fault line in Nigeria

A recent confrontation between the Nigerian army and the Islamic Movement of Nigeria has rekindled the state’s tensions with its Shia citizenry. However, Nigeria should pay heed to its own contemporary history of the armed crackdown on an obscure religion sect that led to the birth of Boko Haram, and exercise caution while dealing with minority groups.

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As if the rampage of Boko Haram was not toxic enough, last December saw a confrontation between the Nigerian Army and the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) in Zaria. Though the casualty figure is disputed, what is undoubted is that there were fatalities. Many independent estimates point towards the hundreds. A few have called it a “massacre”.

People outside Nigeria may be surprised to read that there are Shias of any significant number, so far away from Iran – the epicentre of Shia Islam. IMN, led by Sheikh Ibrahim Zakzaky, who was reportedly inspired in his youth by the 1979 Iranian revolution, is the fount of Shiism in northern Nigeria. The organization has been  accused of open disdain for successive Nigerian governments and operating a parallel existence to the State itself, including running its own militia and social services. Not surprisingly, the Sheikh has frequently issued tirades against the U.S. and Israel, both of whom Nigeria has warm diplomatic relations with. Given the overt allegiance of Shias to Iran, the extreme Wahhabi beliefs of Boko Haram  coupled with some conservative Muslims (who regard Shias as heretics), the fact that Nigerian Muslims are majorly Sunnis, all make for short fused conflict recipe.

The 1980 Maitasine uprising in Kano forever introduced a violent ingredient into the tapestry of northern Nigeria. Their short-lived revolt was against a perceived corrupt social, political and religious establishment. Though militarily suppressed then, it is widely believed that it has incarnated and found a vector in Boko Haram. Both share the same obscurantist, exclusionary and violently anti-establishment credentials.

The exact facts of what happened in Zaria on December 12 are disputed. However, it appears that the convoy of the Chief of Army Staff (COAS) was on its way to an Army graduation ceremony and to pay a courtesy visit to the Emir of Zaria (the non-political/traditional leader of Zaria). The highway route of the COAS was blocked and occupied by the march of the IMN. Neither side  knew in advance that their paths would cross. The IMN has been known to, annually organize elaborate public marches in Zaria and environs (to mark notable Shia events such as Ashura) and in the process, unilaterally block public highways to other road users. From subsequent social media videos and the Army’s account, it seems  that some army officers initially tried to plead and reason it out with them to allow the convoy to proceed. The appeals were unsuccessful and precisely what happened thereafter is disputed. The Army insists that the convoy was attacked by armed IMN cadres. The narrative escalated after this and the Army’s account was that there was an assassination attempt on the COAS by the IMN and which provided justification for what happened next.

The IMN has paid a heavy price for this incident: the bloodied picture of Sheikh Zakzaky (since placed under arrest), circulating online is demonstrative of this. It later emerged that he lost a wife, two of his children, his deputy and an indeterminate number of followers to the Army’s crackdown. His sprawling Zaria headquarters was demolished and the Army has taken the unusual step of lodging its own complaint with the National Human Rights Commission. Civil society groups and even the apex Sunni Muslim group in Nigeria have called for a probe. Iran, predictably, has lodged a diplomatic protest and its president reportedly spoke to Nigeria’s President Buhari, in remonstrative tones.

Yet, for all the ferocity of this episode, it is not the first nor second instance of violent confrontation between the Nigerian State and its Shia citizens. About two years ago, the military clashed with the IMN and which resulted in the death of two of Sheikh Zakzaky’s sons. Previous marches of the IMN had been attacked by Boko Haram suicide bombers. During the 1990s period of military rule in Nigeria, the Sheikh was viewed as a security threat and underwent prolonged detained.

In this current episode, there have been both a chilling reminder and a cautionary tale, from Nigeria’s bloody contemporary history, of how not to handle such a crisis. In 2009, a similar Army crackdown, on a then obscure religious sect in north-east Nigeria, led to the arrest and subsequent extra-judicial murder of its leader, Mohammed Yusuf. That murder further radicalized his followers on the path of infamy and insurgency; the name of that sect was and still is, Boko Haram.

Sadly, it is not inconceivable to imagine that the Sunni-Shia conflict will find a new theatre in northern Nigeria. The ongoing spat between Iran and Saudi Arabia over the latter’s execution of a Shia cleric has already unsettled the Middle East and portends grave repercussions, even farther afield. The Saudis have, traditionally, been generous patrons of proselytizing in Nigeria. They are unlikely to ignore the IMN; it is more likely they will intensify their engagement with Nigerian Sunni Muslims and with all the potential for conflict, this has, with the Shias. The Iranians, for their part, are not about to ignore the chance to sink deeper, the roots of Shiism in Africa’s most populous country. If anything, what transpired in Zaria sits well with the narrative of persecution and victimhood, so central to Shia identity and it is certain to win it new converts. Through their proxies in Nigeria, it is not impossible for both countries to launch jabs at one another in the period ahead.

For a weary and jaded country, peace cannot come too soon.

Kunle Ajagbe is a partner in the Nigerian law firm, Aidan Partners. He is also a director of the Nigerian-Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and a member of the Nigerian Bar Association and the International Bar Association.

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