Followers of the Nigerian Shia cleric who has been detained since December say he stands for justice.
Muslim Friday prayers can lead to traffic nightmares in many African cities. It is an inconvenience that has led most residents of these cities to come up with peaceful alternatives to circumvent this challenge.
However, in the city of Zaria, in the Nigerian Kaduna State, there was a growing animosity between the law enforcement agencies and the followers of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) in this regard.
Every Friday followers of the IMN, which is led by the charismatic 63-year-old Shia cleric Ibrahim el-Zakzaky, used to gather outside their headquarters, Hussainiyya Baqiyatullah in Zaria, for prayers.
The police had accused them on a number of occasions of disregarding the state laws by blocking traffic, which the IMN believed was used as a pretext to disrupt their activities.
This was an ongoing bone of contention, when on December 12, 2015 the situation escalated after soldiers accused members of IMN of plotting to kill the Army Chief, Tukur Buratai. The intervention of the army in the gathering of the IMN led to deadly skirmishes which resulted in the deaths of 347 people.
Subsequently el-Zakazky and his wife were detained and have been in prison ever since. IMN have denied allegations of plotting to kill the army chief and have accused the army of using the plot accusations as a pretext to suppress their freedom and to kill and detain their members and leadership.
Following the massacre in Zaira the government instituted a Commission for Judicial Enquiry to investigate the incident.
In a rather shocking turn of events on December 5, the commission issued a White Paper or findings of its investigation. The White Paper basically absolved the soldiers of any wrongdoing and blamed the leader of the organisation, el-Zakzaky, for the massacre. It recommended that el-Zakzaky be prosecuted and the IMN declared an insurgent group – a dangerous move that can turn into a security nightmare for the Nigerian state.
There is a leadership bankruptcy on the side of the Nigerian government in dealing with the challenge of radicalisation. Indeed, the radical rhetoric from certain Muslim pulpits in Nigeria threatens national security.
However, heavy-handedness should be used as the last resort in tackling such situations because past experiences suggest that it can result in further radicalisation.
The current challenge involving IMN is reminiscent of how the government dealt with Boko Haram in its infancy in Maiduguri. There is enough evidence that tactics used by the government at the time backfired.
The current discord between the authorities and the IMN is an extension of the global Shia/Sunni contestation.
In 2009 the police stopped a group of Boko Haram members on motorbikes on their way to a funeral for not wearing helmets. The encounter resulted in police officers opening fire on the group, resulting in more than a dozen injured.
This eventually led to clashes between Boko Haram and the police, resulting in a number of deaths.
The subsequent arrest, torture and murder by the police of Mohammed Yusuf, the founder of Boko Haram, further complicated the situation. Yusuf’s humiliation at the hands of the police was widely publicised.
Members of Boko Haram were angered by these actions and gradually adopted more violent tactics in defying state authorities in Nigeria.
Abubakar Shekau succeeded Mohammed Yusuf, and under his leadership Boko Haram became the one of the deadliest terrorist group in the world.
The continued detention of el-Zakzaky and his wife, the death of three of his sons after a pro-Palestinian March in 2014 and the renewed suppression of IMN could culminate in a more dangerous situation.
It will all depend on how the federal government of Kaduna deals with the recommendations of the Commission of Judicial Enquiry.
The Nigerian government has a tendency to deal harshly with dissent, and there is little hope that it will relent on the recommendations this time around. The attitude of the government has always been that of digging in its heels in dealing with such matters.
The situation in Zaria seems set to get worse and the government doesn’t seem as if it can afford to deal with another front of insurgency at this time.
The current discord between the authorities and the IMN is an extension of the global Shia/Sunni contestation. It is a phenomenon whose growth could be attributed to the steady flow of money from both Sunni and Shia sponsors into the African continent.
It has led to an entrenchment of schism and resentment between these sects whose members had coexisted peacefully over the years.
Nigerians must be cognizant of this entrapment and must resist all circumstances which could worsen the situation, including weak leadership. Relegating the decision on the future of the IMN solely to the ambit of the federal government of Kaduna could prove to be a fatal mistake in the long run.
Thembisa Fakude is a researcher at the Al Jazeera Center for Studies.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.