By - Makinde Ebenezer
On December 12, 2015- a day when Muslims all over the world marked the birth of Prophet Muhammed (PBUH), a Muslim group`s procession ended in violence. The Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) popularly known as the Shiite group on Dec. 12, 2015 were reported to have been attacked by the Nigerian army after throwing the first punches. The Nigerian Chief of Army Staff, Lt. General Tukur Buratai and his convoy were passing through the city of Zaria, in Kaduna State when they met a gridlock caused by the procession of the Shia Muslim group. In an eye witness report, a metal object was thrown at the vehicle of the Chief of Army Staff which the general`s convoy took for gun attack on their boss and opened fire on the group`s procession which led to the death of many members of the group. As if that was not enough, troops of the Nigerian army forcefully arrested the leader of the group, Sheikh Ibrahim Zakzaky after it was resisted by his followers, this also led to more casualties.
The incidence above had since generated lots of reactions, and protests which have resulted into violent clashes between members of the Shia Movement and the Nigerian police and have led to casualties on both sides. Currently, the group is demanding for the release of its leader who was arrested and detained by the Nigerian state following the December 12, 2015 clashes with the Nigerian military. Many Nigerians have expressed their dissatisfaction with the way the Nigerian government is handling the matter especially in light of the federal government’s insistence on not releasing the leader of the group contrary to the opinion of a Court of Law. More so, Nigerians have expressed a terrible prognosis that the government is about to make a “Boko-Haram” out of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria.
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Origin of the Shiite Group and the Present Conflict
Islamic Movement of Nigeria popularly known as the Shiite group is a religious group in Nigeria based in the Northern part of the country. The group is a pro-Iran movement headed by Sheikh Ibrahim Zakzaky. The organization fancy Shia Islamism, one of the two main branches of Islam. Unlike the Sunni Muslims, the Shiite Muslims hold that prophet Muhammed (PBUH) designated Ali ibn Abi Talib as his successor and the imams (all from Muhammed`s household) after him. In the light of this, the primary difference between the Shiite Muslims and the Sunni Muslims relates to issues of political leadership, while the Shiite group holds that Muhammed`s successor should be someone in his bloodline, the Sunni group holds that any pious man will do.
The Shiite Muslim group in Nigeria was founded by their current leader, Zakzaky in the 1980s as a student movement inspired by the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Sheikh Ibrahim Zakzaky has been recouping members of the Nigerian public convincing them that the type of Iranian Revolution is possible in Nigeria. Though about half of Nigeria`s population are Muslim, only about 3 to 5 percent of the Nigeria`s Muslim population are Shiites. The present conflict between the Nigerian government and the IMN dated back to 1980’s when the leader of the group, Zakzaky began the mobilization of followers to agitate for an Islamic state in Nigeria. During this period, Zakzaky was imprisoned for some years, but in recent times, following the cultivation of ties with Iran (Shiite Muslims dominated country), the group has become more radical and anti-system. The Shia group oppose the existence of Nigeria as a secular state and the group has continued to advocate for Islamic state of Nigeria. Beginning with the 2015 clashes with the Nigerian Military, the Shiite group has occasionally engaged in violent struggles with the federal government and Nigeria’s security forces which have made many commentators to warn of the danger of creating another terrorist organization.
Government`s Disobedience to Court Order and Proscription of the Group`s Activities
Since the arrest of Zakzaky by the Nigerian government, the Shiite movement has been engaging in regular protests calling for the release of their leader and his wife. The grievance of the group is about the detention of their leader even after a Court of law had ordered for his release by the Nigerian government. It could be recalled that on December 2, 2016, an Abuja Division of the Federal High Court ordered for the release of the leader of the Shia Islamic Movement, Zakzaky who was held in detention without charges by the Nigerian government. The Judge while declaring his judgement said the federal government actions to arrest and detain the cleric was unconstitutional and constituted great danger to public peace. Justice Kolawole Gabriel cited the case of former Boko Haram commander, Mohammed Yusuf who had died in custody. According to him, “if the applicant dies in custody which I do not pray for, it could result in many needless deaths.”
Indeed, the failure of the federal government to release the Cleric has led to the death of many innocent Nigerians including officials of the Nigerian police force and a National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) member. Since the group intensified their protests to call for the release of their leader, violence has erupted between them and the Nigerian police. The latest protest which held on July 22, 2019 led to the death of members of the group, an official of the Nigerian Police Force and a member of the NYSC working with Channels Television.
Reacting to the recent violence occasioned by the activities of the Shia movement group, the Nigeria`s government on July 29, 2019 declared the group, a terrorist organization. And this ban has intensified the fears that IMN could become a terrorist group that could also contribute to the insurgency the country is facing.
Saudi and Battle for Sunnism in Nigeria
There is a reason to think that the current crisis between the Nigerian government and the Shiite group is an extension of the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia. As we may already know, Saudi Arabia and Iran are two countries who hardly get along. The enmity between them is largely due to or exacerbated by religious differences which have also translated into struggle for regional dominance. The two countries follow one of the two main sects in Islam- Shia and Sunni, with Iran largely Shia Muslim and Saudi Arabia, a Sunni Muslim power. In the light of this regional struggle for dominance between them, it has been insinuated that the influence of Saudi Arabia and Iran is apparent in the current struggle between the Nigerian government and Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) such that the Nigerian government is now surreptitiously serving the interest of Riyadh against its minority Shia Muslim population.
Indeed, following the crackdown on Shia Muslims, Saudi Arabia King Salman in a phone call with President, Muhammadu Buhari, pledged support for the Nigeria`s fight against terrorism apparently referring to IMN as a terrorist organization. Also, on many occasions, the Shia group protesters have been seen chanting “death to Buhari, death to Saudi-Arabia, free Zakzaky, die for Zakzaky” a message that underscore the influence of Saudi-Arabia in the current crisis. Rather than see the current crisis between the Nigerian government and the Shia group as a simple internal altercation, there is a feeling that this conflict has many resemblances to that of many Saudi-Iran conflict well known in places such as Lebanon, Yemen, and Syria. Saudi-Arabia has been financing anti-Shia campaigns in many areas of the world, and this is exactly what they are doing in Nigeria. The emergence of President Muhammadu Buhari, a Sunni Muslim himself, who is also well known for his anti-democratic credentials has provided Riyadh with a suitable environment to unleash its terrors on minority Shia population in the most populous country in Africa.
Will Shiite Movement become another Boko-Haram?
Many Nigerians have expressed their concern about the continued detention of Zakzaky which has led to the death of many Nigerians. They have also warned that the death of the cleric could lead to the radicalization of the group such that they can begin to carry arms against the Nigerian state or even become a terrorist group. Nigerian political elites have also lent their voices to criticize the Nigeria`s government ways of handling the Shiite crisis. Boko-Haram also started as a non-violent group and turned deadly only after the extra-judicial killings of their leader; it has been speculated that the Nigerian government has not learnt anything from the Boko-Haram`s scenario.
Reacting to the proscription of the activities of the group by the Federal government, Shehu Sanni, the immediate past senator representing Kaduna Central Senatorial District described the proscription of the group as dangerous and capable of creating further problem for the country. In his own words, “we have a culture of hiding our pepper in our nose or trying to quench a fire by creating walls of cotton. That is what we are doing. A court of law cannot address the problem of either insurgency or agitation or crush this kind of idea.” Furthermore, he asked, “which one do we prefer, is it an Islamic Movement that has a leader we can arrest, that has members we can see, that has an identity that we can prosecute or a group that will be forced to go underground and pose a serious security danger to our country?” Many other Nigerians and other social groups including Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) have expressed their fear of how the government is getting it wrong with Shiite group.
Nonetheless, the group has come out to denied any plans of it taking up arms against the Nigerian state. According to spokesman of the organization, “the Islamic Movement is guided by and led by the principles of Islam and Islam is a religion of peace. It only calls on people to understand it. It does not force people to follow it.” Though the group has denied any plan to become a terrorist organization, it can be said that the Nigerian government is bent on creating one out of them. However, there are enough reasons to suggest that the Shiite movement will not become another Boko-Haram despite federal poor handling of the issues.
There are critical differences between Islamic Movement of Nigeria and Boko-Haram or even the organization that later metamorphosed into Boko-Haram. As a matter of fact, the organization has existed for a longer period than Boko-Haram and more so, the leader of the group has been jailed before by the government. It means that the organization has experienced several crises that could have made a terrorist out of them. In 2016 for example, the organization was banned by the Kaduna State government.
The group also consists of established individuals including engineers, clerics, university professors and many more who will not be willing to risk their careers. They have shown their sense of responsibility to the Nigerian state. For example, it was the group that exploited the court option when the Nigerian government arrested their leader and detained him without trial. This shows the extent to which IMN believes in the legal process. Also, following the proscription of the activities of the organization by the Federal government, they announced the temporary suspension of further protests by their members pending the resolution of the court case it has initiated against the proscription of its activities. This is a massive testament to the fact that IMN is a learned group and that they are not shying away from exploiting legal options.
Therefore, it is very unlikely that IMN can go underground and take arm against the Nigerian state. However, the real danger is in the failure of the Nigerian government to expressly show their intention to respect the constitutional processes of settling dispute by obeying court orders even when not favourable. The group have consistently invoked the notions of rule of law, due process as a means of resolving the crisis. The group have only resulted to protests which of course have led to violence when the legal options appear to be insufficient and this is a danger to the country`s democracy. The present administration has consistently reacted in a way that escalates the current crisis. The government actions against the group are generating sympathy, and support for them with many social groups that would have normally criticized their activities coming out to support them against the federal government.
A situation where the government decides on which judicial orders it will obey and which it will ignore is dangerous to our corporate existence as a people such that it can endanger the authority of the judiciary as an arm of government and affect its performance as the last hope of the common man like we are seeing in the case of the Shiite movement for according to John F. Kennedy, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible, will make violent revolution inevitable.
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