Nigeria’s Shia protesters: A minority at odds with the government

After much bloodshed, rallies continue as prominent Shia leader Ibrahim El Zakzaky languishes in prison.

Nigeria Shia protests
Members of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria protest in Abuja [Orji Sunday/Al Jazeera]

Abuja, Nigeria – Four years ago, several members of Abdullahi Muhammad’s family were killed, setting off a series of events that led him to become an outspoken critic of the government.

Now 32, Muhammad, a member of the country’s Shia Muslim minority, says he would give his life “to fight tyranny”. 

In 2015, he had travelled to Nigeria’s northwestern city of Zaria in Kaduna state, 270km north of the capital Abuja, with six relatives to observe Ashura.

Their car was caught up in clashes between the army and worshippers, which resulted in hundreds of Shia Muslims being killed.

“The army shot at our car,” Muhammad told Al Jazeera. “They killed five of my family members that day. Two of them were undergraduates in colleges. One was my elder sister. The other was an in-law. The last was my youngest cousin preparing to enter college that year.”

Soldiers arrested Muhammad and sent him to a detention facility where he was held for days before being released. 

Upon receiving the news, his mother collapsed. She suffered a stroke and was paralysed. Her condition worsened for three years until she died.

Muhammad is now one of the leaders of a daily protest movement in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital city. 

The Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) is an umbrella body for Shia Muslims in Nigeria seeking justice for those killed, an account for the hundreds who have gone missing and, above all, the release of Ibrahim el-Zakzaky– the IMN head who has been held in detention with his wife Zeenat Ibrahim following clashes in mid-December 2015.

El-Zakzaky was accused of murder, unlawful assembly, disruption of public peace and other charges following the 2015 violence.

About half of Nigeria’s 190 million people are Muslims and almost all of them are Sunni.

There are approximately three million Shia Muslims in Nigeria [Orji Sunday/Al Jazeera]
There are approximately three million Shia Muslims in Nigeria [Orji Sunday/Al Jazeera]

Before the violence of 2015, Shia Muslims were a relatively unknown religious minority led by el-Zakzaky, a Muslim scholar who was reportedly inspired by the 1979 Iranian revolution.

IMN, his project, dates back to the 1980s.

El-Zakzaky’s charismatic style of preaching enticed a largely youthful population who were disenchanted with the government, resulting in millions of converts in a country that once had hardly any Shia Muslims. Today, there are an estimated three million Shia in Nigeria. 

Authorities have long had a fraught relationship with the religious minority, arresting several leaders under different governments over the past three decades. 

President Muhammadu Buhari has been quoted as describing the community as a “state within a state.”  

Some analysts say the government fears that Nigeria’s Shia Muslims, if allowed the political space, would want to replicate the Iranian revolution in the African country. 

But Muhammad, who runs the IMN Academic Forum, rejects this idea, saying any association with Iran is based on a shared belief in the Shia principles of faith, and not revolution.

The Shia have clashed with other religious groups and local authorities during cultural processions, including members of the Izala, whose satellite television channel Manara broadcasts anti-Shia rhetoric, according to the AFP news agency. 

Those pockets of violence had remained minimal until the arrest of el-Zakzaky in 2015, which came after the bloodshed in Zaria. 

Amnesty International said the Nigerian military killed more than 350 men, women and children in Zaria.

The army alleged that IMN members “armed with batons, knives, and machetes stopped the convoy of the military”, saying it acted in self-defence and to avert the possible assassination of Chief of Army Staff Lieutenant general Tukur Buratai.

“The manner the Nigerian government is handling this issue leaves much to be desired as far as human rights and the rule of law are concerned. The rule of law must not be sacrificed in the altar of national security,” said Don Okereke, a Nigeria-based security analyst. 

Local courts and human right groups have dismissed the military’s claims for lack of evidence and merit. 

“The Nigerian military’s version of events does not stack up,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch, at the time. 

HRW interviewed 16 witnesses to the killings.

“It is almost impossible to see how a roadblock by angry young men could justify the killings of hundreds of people. At best it was a brutal overreaction and at worst it was a planned attack on the minority Shia group,” said Bekele. 

Al Jazeera contacted officials of the Federal Ministry of Information and Culture and requested comment from the Nigerian army, but did not receive a response by the time of publishing.

Hundreds of Shia worshippers have died in clashes since 2015 [Orji Sunday/Al Jazeera]
Hundreds of Shia worshippers have died in clashes since 2015 [Orji Sunday/Al Jazeera]

Local authorities have banned IMN in Kaduna.

Paul Obi-Ani, professor of history and international studies at the University of Nigeria, warned of stoking an insurgency.

The government has that tendency to kill protesters or citizens even in the face of least provocation,” he told Al Jazeera. “The military always takes the side of the government in power against the people, [it is] always willing to unleash terror on ordinary people. It has always been that way.

“The government should revert to some of its antecedents, learn to change its approach to managing crisis and bring peace out of violence.

“Even the Boko Haram issue was triggered by this kind of reaction from the security [officials].

“The government should try as much as possible to detach itself from religion. The government appears to identify with a particular sect of Islam, which is definitely not Shia.”

In October last year, Nigerian security forces killed 45 Shia protesters in Abuja and in the neighbouring state of Nasarawa, according to evidence collected by Amnesty International. 

Nigerian soldiers allegedly used automatic weapons on protesters, prompting outrage from the local and international communities. 

Ugwu Malachy, professor of religion and cultural studies at the University of Nigeria, said the country has a “terrible history” with religious violence.

“We can move forward on this issue, but that will start when the government humbly calls for dialogue with the group,” he told Al Jazeera. “Violence will … harden the people because of the belief that dying for their faith leads to martyrdom.”

Ibrahim el-Zakzaky and his wife have been detained since December 2015, even though a local court has issued an order for them to be freed [Orji Sunday/Al Jazeera]
Ibrahim el-Zakzaky and his wife have been detained since December 2015, even though a local court has issued an order for them to be freed [Orji Sunday/Al Jazeera]
Source: Al Jazeera