The escalating crisis between members of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN) and the Federal Government of Nigeria appears to have come to a head following a violent clash between members of the sect and the police in Abuja, on Monday, in which live ammunition was used against the protestors and at least one journalist—a Channels TV—reporter was reportedly shot dead. A senior police officer—of the rank of a deputy commissioner—was also killed alongside at least six others. The latest protest in Abuja is not the first to take a violent turn; in late October 2018, more than 49 members of the religious organization were killed when the police and army opened fire on them during a protest match.

About two weeks ago, at least two protestors were murdered when members of the group stormed the National Assembly to demand the release of their leader. The latest crackdown has happened in the light of an allegation by members of the Islamic sect that Sheik Ibraheem El-Zakzaki, the leader of the sect, who is being held by the government, has been poisoned and that the health of his wife too is in critical condition. There is a growing concern too about a gradual lose of vision to his eyes. The last time the Sheikh and his wife appeared in court in Kaduna, he looked truly unwell and frail and would definitely do with some medical attention. 

For a while now, protest matches by members of the sect has gathered considerable momentum, especially in Abuja, where, almost on daily basis, there has been an open confrontation between protesting members of the sect and the police. While it seems that the government may be trying to wear down the sect by attrition, the sect too appears determined that their leader must be released, and by allowing the sound of their protest to go up several decibels higher than before, there is a suggestion that we may be headed for a truce in the face-off. Muhammadu Buhari, Nigeria’s president, said last week that only the courts could determine when and whether or not El-Zakzaki would be freed from detention.

Confrontations between members of the sect and security operatives have been perennial, often resulting in violence of massive proportions, the most devastating of which arguably occurred in December 2015 when over three hundred members of the sect—including three of the Sheikh’s children—were murdered by the military during a brutal crackdown in Zaria, Kaduna state. Here is Human Rights Watch report of the incident:

The army carried out attacks at the Hussainniya Baqiyyatullah mosque and religious centre, at the home of the Shiite leader, Sheikh Ibrahim Al Zakzaky, in the Gyellesu neighbourhood and at the sect's burial ground, Daral-Rahma, over the course of two days. At least 300 Shia sect members, and likely many more, were killed and hundreds more injured, according to witnesses in at least two of the sites and a hospital source. Soldiers quickly buried the bodies in mass graves without family members' permission, making it difficult to determine an accurate death toll. Although some people threw stones and had sticks, there has been no credible information that any soldiers were injured or killed. (

The military had claimed that the sect members were, by erecting a roadblock, scheming to assassinate the chief of army staff, but an independent investigation by Human Rights Watch and the testimony of several IMN members who spoke to me during the course of an academic fieldwork in the wake of the incident in Zaria debunked this allegation. According to Human Rights Watch.

The Nigerian military’s version of events does not stack up. 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. ( 

In October last year when members of the sect were set upon by security operatives, the brutality of that action was also excused as an act of defence and the Nigerian military justified its actions by including a video clip of Mr Donald Trump’s remarks about migrants heading towards the American border, in which he warned: “They want to throw rocks at our military, our military fights back.”

It’s almost four years after the Zaria massacre and Sheikh El-Zakzaki and his wife remain in detention while security operatives, especially the Nigerian military, continue to use lethal force against members of the IMN. And this is in spite of the fact that a judicial commission of inquiry set up by the Kaduna State Government has clearly established that there was no plan by the Shiites to assassinate the chief of army staff and that the killings by the army was in flagrant violation of the Army Rules of Engagement and the Geneva Convention. The Federal Government has also refused to obey other court rulings directing that the Sheikh be released and his members be allowed to exercise their rights to religious freedom and peaceful assembly. 

The violent enactment against the Shiites is, undoubtedly, an act of state terror—some sort of political violence. The anthropology professor, Carol Nagengast, writes that “Political violence encompasses overt state-sponsored or tolerated violence…(coercion or the threat of it, bodily harm, etc.) but may also include actions taken or not by the state or its agents with the express intent of realizing certain social, ethnic, economic, and political goals in the realm of public affairs…” States are primarily responsible for ensuring the human rights of their own citizens, including the right to life.

However, in certain circumstances or contexts, a state could tolerate a violent action against its own citizens or a section thereof. And “…insofar as [such an action] is tolerated or encouraged by states in order to create, justify, excuse, explain, or enforce hierarchies of difference and relations of inequality”, they are “acts of state violence, even though states themselves may not appear on the surface to be primary agents.” It is impossible to exculpate the Nigerian state or government from the crime—for it is nothing short of a genocidal crime—of mass killing of the Shiites.

The military are state agents and whether or not they acted based on directives from the government is irrelevant; what is more, the failure of the Nigerian state, as Femi Falana pointed out last week, to properly bring to book men of the Nigerian armed forces responsible for the mass killing in Zaria, is an indication of its culpability. More importantly, the Nigerian president should be seen as the chief culprit since, as Commander-in-Chief of the nation’s armed forces, the buck stops at his desk.

Why is Sheikh Ibraheem El-Zakzaki (and wife) still being detained and his followers—often while protesting peacefully—visited with indiscriminate violence? One of the charges often brought against the Islamic Movement in Nigeria is that the organization is an extremist group and that it is a threat to the Nigerian state. Indeed, many have called for its proscription, often citing its regular rallies as indication of what a certain opinion contributor in ‘The Tribune Newspaper’ called ‘rabidity.’

It has even been suggested that Muhammadu Buhari might be considering proscribing the organization in Nigeria. I do not share this opinion, and I am deeply wary of people, especially the majority Sunni Muslims, demonising the group and calling for its proscription while condoning the killings of its members. The Shiites in Nigeria are a minority sect—an example of what Arjun Appadurai describes as ‘a small number’—whose beliefs and practices represent a contamination in the Muslim umma, in a country that has Sunni as the dominant Islamic sect.

The emergence and activities of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria and the relationship of the sect to the dominant Sunni Islamic order should be apprehended in the context of a wider understanding of Islamic culture in Northern Nigeria. Although Sunni Islam is the dominant practice within Islamic religious culture in Northern Nigeria, radical movements of different stripes have always figured in the religious life of the people and are perhaps the singular factor in the frequent ethnoreligious unrest in the region. Since the late 1970s, there has been a recrudescence of Islamic reformation initiated and pursued by different reform groups in that region of Nigeria. These reform groups share broadly stated goals of promoting a purist vision of Islam based on Sharia; eradicating heretical and anti-Islamic practices and innovations; and, for the more radical ones, establishing an Islamic state in the north.

The debate over religion and politics in the north has been generally shaped by these calls for reform, often generally in favour of legalistic interpretations of religious texts. Although the traditional Sufi orders remain predominant, the Jama'at Izalat al-Bida wa Iqamat al-Sunnah (Society for the Eradication of Evil Innovations and the Reestablishment of the Sunna), better known as the Izala Movement, in particular, has contributed to a general religious revival and a much greater public and political role for Islam. It was later joined by other reform movements, including the Muslim Students Society of Nigeria (MSS), widely regarded as a platform for young radical preachers, and the Islamic Movement of Nigeria, which is an offshoot of the MSS and which is also known as the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Muslim Brotherhood, which was established by Ibrahim El-Zakzaki, was itself part of a radical Islamic movement that started in Borno state among a group of radical Islamist youths who worshipped at the Al-Haji Muhammadu Ndimi Mosque in Maiduguri in the 1990s. Boko Haram, also known as Jama’tu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad (People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad), also grew out of that group of radical Muslim youths worshipping at the Mosque.  

The radical stance of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria, from the foregoing, can, therefore, be seen as part of a wider Islamic movement that is both reformist and programmatic. The ostensible reason for the periodic attack on and criticism of the sect, as I have said, is that they are unruly, violent and scheming to establish a parallel state within the Nigerian nation-state, but anyone with sufficient discernment would readily see that this is a smokescreen to hide the bigotry of the aggressor—the Nigerian state. It is difficult to see how they are a subversive political threat to the Nigerian state.

In interviews after interviews, many Sunni Muslims have expressed concern that the Shiites were not true Muslims and that many of their practices were un-Islamic. In fact, one of the Muslims I interviewed after the massacre in Zaria, a senior cleric and a Sunni in Tudun Wada, Kaduna, pointedly stated that the killing of members of the sect in Zaria was deserved and justified because the sect was “not portraying Islam in a good light.” For many Sunni, Shiites represent ‘an incompleteness’ in Islam and should be purged. Making them the target of violence is, therefore, something of a community service too, or a service to the Muslim umma. In visiting violence on the Shiite group, it has been necessary, on the part of the dominant Sunni sect, to develop a predatory identity by marking off the spaces and intersubjective phases of association with them.

Thus, Shia and Sunni Muslims will hardly, as is well known, pray together or listen to the same sermon or clerics. The Shiites had marked off an area of Zaria city where they conduct many of their religious activities, and in many parts of northern Nigeria they often maintain a sense of sectarian divide by building their own mosques, instituting their own madrasa with different pedagogical approaches and emphasis in regard to the production of Islamic knowledge, and generally defining themselves away from the Sunni sect through, sometimes, their mode of dressing, among other social practices. Their repeated persecution and killings are, in the opinion of some of the people I interviewed in the wake of the incident in Zaria, a necessary step towards the protection of Islamic integrity which, historically, the sect had desecrated by choosing Ali, Prophet Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, as the first successor, or caliph, to lead the Muslim state. The oppression of the sect can also be regarded as an expression of social rage.

In his highly readable and wide-ranging discussion of rage as a social phenomenon, Bonnie Berry (1999) observes that social rage operates through intolerance “and the rageful exhibit a great deal of intolerance”. More importantly, “Rageful attitudes and behaviours rely heavily upon belief systems.” And as we are reminded, “Belief systems may be paradoxical, internally contradictory, and full of faulty reasoning, but they are not arguable.” The intolerance of Shiite members among Muslim umma in Nigeria is predicated on a belief system that is, from all indications, paradoxical, internally contradictory and with a baleful impact on reasoning.   

Dr. Abayomi Ogunsanya, Dublin, Ireland.

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