Test of Will With Frightening Consequences

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Nseobong Okon-Ekong and Solomon Elusoji write that last Friday’s declaration of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria as a terrorist organisation by a Federal High Court in Abuja, after an ex parte application filed by the Federal Government through the office of the Attorney-General of the Federation is not likely to whisk the Shi’ite crisis away

In December 2015, a group of Shia Muslims crowded Sokoto Road, near Zaria, for a religious procession. Around this time, a convoy including Chief of Army Staff, Lt. Gen. Tukur Buratai was attempting to navigate through the crowded road. The army demanded that the demonstrators disperse, to let the convoy ease through. But they refused. According to some accounts, some sort of projectile then struck Buratai’s car and the soldiers fired warning shots into the air. When that didn’t work, according to SBM Intelligence, a Nigerian security advisory firm,  “the military opened fire to cover their principal, after which they left the location.”

Coming from ‘bloody civilians’, the action of the IMN caused so much outrage in the Nigeria Army. It was extremely difficult to believe that a band of private citizens could muster the courage to openly challenge the head of the army and even seek to do him harm. Shortly after ferrying Buratai away, soldiers returned to Sokoto Road with a renewed determination to give the matter deserving attention.

According to SBM, the army saw the incident as an excuse to finally crush this group of Shia Muslims which organises under the aegis of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN).

“The Nigerian Army, according to some sources, was forced to tackle [what they see as] the problem of the Shi’ites once and for all, because of a belief that the group poses a latent threat to the stability of the region,” SBM reported at the time. “Based on security reports, the Shi’ites have consistently defied constituted authority, with Police and other security agencies too afraid to confront them.”

The 2015 Zaria crackdown, which lasted for about three days, led to the massacre of hundreds of Shi’ites. In 2016, a judicial commission said the army had killed 349 Shia Muslims, in what the commission described as a demonstration of “excessive force” by the Nigerian army. Leader of the IMN, Ibrahim El-Zakzaky, was also reportedly wounded in the violent crisis and his son and wife were killed.

The judicial commission, which had been appointed by the Kaduna State Government, recommended that “steps should immediately be taken to identify the members of the Nigerian Army who participated in the killings of December 12-14, 2015 incident with a view to prosecuting them.” But lip-service was paid to that recommendation and El-Zakzaky  was remanded in prison, despite court orders granting him bail.

Since their leader was imprisoned, IMN has continued to demand for his release, providing more opportunity to defy constituted authority. The Shi’ites regularly organise peaceful protests across the country, but some of them have turned bloody, including the recent ones held this July. A lot of experts have described the escalating tension between the group and government as a sign of darker things to come, drawing parallels with the rise of Boko Haram.

Last Friday, a federal high court in Abuja declared the IMN a terrorist organisation, after an ex parte application filed by the Federal Government through the office of the Attorney-General of the Federation (AGF). But will rendering IMN illegal whisk the Shi’ite crisis away?

The Psychology of Shi’ism

Historically, the Shiite movement started as a struggle for power. After Prophet Muhammad died on June 8, 632 AD, the Muslim community struggled to substantively agree on who should replace him as the head of Islam.

Some of Muhammad’s followers thought it was best to preserve the Prophet’s special relationship to God by recognising his family as the inheritors of his authority. So when it came to anointing Muhammad’s successor, they supported his cousin and son-in-law, ‘Ali Ibn Abi Talib. This party henceforth was known as the Shi’ ites (the “partisans” of ‘Ali).

But, at first, ‘Ali didn’t get the job. He was passed over twice. However, in 656 AD, he eventually became the ultimate earthly helmsman of Muslim affairs. But his reign did not last long. In 661 AD, ‘Ali was murdered. The Shi’ites became anxious, because the majority, now known as Sunni Muslims, preferred the Governor of Syria, Muʿawiyah ibn Abī Sufyān, as the successor to ‘Ali, rather than ‘Ali’s son, Hasan.

The Shiʿites’ growing conviction that the tide of history was moving against them was confirmed definitively when Husayn, Hasan’s younger brother, was murdered, together with his family, in 680 by the forces of the Umayyad ruler Yazid following the Battle of Karbala in Iraq. With the death of Husayn, the closest descendants of Muhammad were vanquished. Husayn was seen as a martyr to be revered, and his death sealed the division between the Shiʿites and the Sunni majority.

The tragedies surrounding the deaths of ʿAli and Husayn, according to History Professor, Scott Appleby, made a lasting mark on Shiʿite consciousness. From that time forward, they were overshadowed and often persecuted by hostile rulers, including forces aligned with the Sunni caliphate. In response to this predicament, Shiʿism diverged in at least two significant respects from the belief and practice of mainstream Sunnism.

First, the Shiʿites, adopted the worldview of the underdog and came to see history as an extended era of suffering and persecution that would be reversed only with the return, at the end-time of fulfillment, of the Hidden Imam, who disappeared from a mosque in Samarraʾ around the year 875 CE. The 12th Imam in succession from ʿAli, he is the divinely guided leader (Mahdi) who will return to establish justice on earth.

Second, the leadership structure of Shiʿism revolves around learned teachers (imams), interpreters of the religious law, who are seen by their respective groups of disciples as “sources of imitation”. This reliance on authoritative and charismatic leaders gives Shiʿism, if not exactly a hierarchy of religious authority, certainly more-concentrated power than the decentralized, more numerous, and geographically more-dispersed Sunnis.

Coming to Nigeria

Shi’ism in Nigeria is usually traced to the Iranian revolution of 1979, which led to the emergence of an Islamic government in the Middle-East state. The revolution inspired many Northern Nigerian Muslims. Radical Islamist movements, such as the Muslim Brothers, later renamed the IMN and led by El-Zakzaky of Kaduna State, introduced a militant pro-Iranian Shi’ite version of Islam into Northern Nigeria in the 1980s.

IMN’s “stated mission is to establish an Iran type of Islamic state in Nigeria, which has kept it in intermittent skirmishes with government security forces,” Ibrahim Haruna Hassan, a Professor at Nigeria’s University of Jos, wrote in 2015. Though the group acquired weapons, it had not taken up arms against Nigeria’s secular government. “While the group still strongly rejects secularism,” Hassan wrote, “they believe that the time to take up arms is not ripe (yet) in Nigeria.” Perhaps, until now.

El-Zakzaky was born in 1953. He claims descent from the Prophet (Sharif) and lays claim to the Zaria Emirate dynasty. He was first educated in the traditional Qur’anic system and later in modern secular schools. While at the School of Arabic Studies (SAS) in Kano, he attended the Qadiriyya-Sufi School of Shaykh Muhammad Nasiru Kabara and the Tijaniyya-Sufi School of Shaykh Isa Waziri. After graduating from SAS with a General Certificate of Education (GCE), which includes such secular subjects as Economics, he eventually entered Ahmadu Bello University, but was expelled for his leadership in the “Islam Only” protest.

After his expulsion, he went to Iran for a short course of studies, before founding IMN, whose members refer to themselves as ‘Yan’uwa’ (a Hausa word for brothers). Many of the movement’s leaders and adherents regularly visited Iran or studied there. On the occasion of its silver jubilee on April 10, 2005, the movement declared that its main aim is “the establishment of an Islamic system and state, no more no less.”

Apart from organising religious processions, IMN also has a network of Islamic schools and hospitals with trained medical practitioners, including doctors, who attend to victims of crises and disasters, often free of charge.

In the North where it has its largest following, IMN seems to have more followers in urban areas among both Western-educated and nonwestern-educated, but nonetheless makes steady progress in the rural areas.

In 2001, El-Zakzaky told a BBC journalist, “If we want a million people out on the streets on any issue, we can do that.”

Give us our Leader’

Late last year, the Nigerian military and police shot live bullets on Shi’ites marching near and in the capital city of Abuja to celebrate a religious holiday and demand El-Zakzaky’s unconstitutional release from custody.

While the military said that six people died, the IMN noted that the figures were at least seven times higher. Amnesty International reported similar figures in what it described as an “unconscionable use of deadly force by soldiers and police.”

The US Embassy in Nigeria said it was “concerned” about the deaths and called for a “thorough investigation of the events”. But to justify opening fire on the Shi’ite group, the Nigerian Army on Friday posted a video of US President Donald Trump saying soldiers would shoot Central American migrants throwing stones.

“Not only did they use stones but they were carrying petrol bombs, machetes and knives, so yes, we consider them as being armed,” former spokesman for Nigeria’s defence, Brigadier-General John Agim, said.

Again, this July, Shi’ite protesters stormed the National Assembly. According to some accounts, they overpowered policemen on duty, seized guns and shot two security operatives. They also reportedly vandalised the main entrance usually guarded by Mobile Policemen and forced legislators in session to adjourn. A few days later, another protest turned into a deadly confrontation as a Deputy Commissioner of Police, Usman Umar and a National Youth Service Corps member reporting for Channels TV were shot dead. A Shi’ite spokesman said at least 20 of their members have been killed in the recent crisis.

“Being a Shi’ite under this current Buhari administration is . . . being persecuted,” IMN spokesman Ibrahim Musa told AFP last year. “We have suffered more discrimination under this administration than with any other in the past. We are not allowed to worship our god according to our convictions.” On the flipside, there is an unveiled conviction by elements in the Presidency that the Shi’ites are bent on bringing down or tarnishing Buhari’s government because he is Sunni. This line of thinking aligns with those who want the Shi’ites punished for not voting for Buhari and openly campaigning against him.

Heading Towards Diplomatic Row

A group calling itself “students and seminary scholars of the world of Islam” have  protested in front of the Nigerian embassy in Tehran. They demanded the release of El Zakzaky who has been in custody since December 2015. The detained Nigerian Islamic leader has often clearly stayed his preference for Iranian-type of governance. It is not a surprise, therefore, that the most strident calls for his freedom from abroad comes from Iran. He has received strong ideological and many believe financial support from Iran, but it is not clear to what degree he was posing any security threat to the government. El-Zakzaky who carries the title, Ayatollah, in admiration of the Islamic scholar who led the Iranian revolution in 1979 is believed to have received generous ideological and financial support from Iran.

The protesters sought to grab the attention of global institutions in favour of the 66 year-old El-Zakzaky who they referred to as belonged the “leader of Nigerian Shi’ites.” They also tried to link Israel and the United States of America to his continued incarceration, insisting that the Nigerian was holding El-Zakzaky in deference to the two world powers.

A few days after, some London-based Nigerians protested at the Iranian embassy against the activities of the members of the IMN. Operating on the platform of the Concerned Nigerians in the United Kingdom,  the protesters warned the Iranian embassy to stop sponsoring terrorism in Nigeria.  The official position of the Iranian government, however, which corroborates that of Falana is a passionate plea to release him for medical treatment.

Circumventing the Judiciary

The Buhari administration is infamous for its frequent disregard for court pronouncements, usually citing national security as a defense. Last year, at the Annual General Conference of the Nigerian Bar Association in Abuja, Buhari said that the Rule of Law must be subject to the supremacy of the nation’s security and national interest,” an argument routinely used by dictators across the world.

It is the same reasoning that has been used to keep El-Zakzaky in detention, although actual excuses have changed over time. The government has argued it is keeping the IMN leader in detention to keep him safe and has also said it is appealing the bail judgements awarded in his favour.

In April 2018, El-Zakzaky was charged with murder, culpable homicide, unlawful assembly, disruption of public peace and other accusations. He has pleaded not guilty.

In January, during a court hearing, El-Zakzaky’s counsel and human rights lawyer, Femi Falana, argued that his client, together with another of his wife who has been imprisoned with him, be granted bail based on health grounds.

“Since both of them were shot by the Army on December 14, 2015, they have not been given adequate medical attention,” Falana said. “We, therefore, pray the court allow them to remain alive so as to stand trial, since they are ready for the trial,” adding that the duo could be flown abroad, if there were no medical facilities to cater for them.

“In the case of Malam (El-Zakzaky), he has lost an eye in detention and is in the process of losing the second eye because he has developed glaucoma.

‘’In the case of the wife, the bullets in her body have not been ‘totally’ extracted after three years and she suffers excruciating pains.”

The case was adjourned and the duo are still in government detention.

Recently, in response to a claim by Presidential Spokesman, Femi Adesina, that the Federal Government had the legal right to hold El-Zakzaky since the government had filed an appeal against the bail order, Falana said a “mere filing of an appeal does not operate as a stay of action, ” adding that the appeal filed has not suspended the orders of the court for the release of Zakzaky from “unlawful detention.”

“Before now, the Federal Government had invoked ‘national security’ to justify its contemptuous conduct,” Falana said. “Apparently embarrassed by the allegation of disobedience of court orders, the Federal Government has now turned round to give the misleading impression that the filing of an appeal is a justification for not releasing the El-zakzaky from detention.

“With respect, it is trite law that the mere filing of an appeal does not operate as a stay of action in respect of the judgment of a court. In the instant case, the filing of the appeal referred to by Mr. Adesina has not varied or suspended the orders of the federal high court for the release of the El-Zakzakys from unlawful detention.

“It may interest Mr. Adesina to know that the order of a court for the release of a citizen from custody cannot be stayed pending the determination of an appeal. Hence, the Federal Government did not deem it fit to file any motion for a stay of execution of the orders of the federal high court.”

What Next?

In a recent op-ed commenting on the Shi’ite violence, Editor of the Daily Nigerian, Jaafar Jaafar, noted that Nigeria might be set for a “showdown with another monster.” He noted that the El-Zakzaky affair had been “poorly managed by the Buhari administration” and warned that a long-lasting solution was to focus on “killing fanaticism” not “killing fanatics.”

But history teaches that the Nigerian leadership will likely go for maximum military

 while largely ignoring the more important ideological battle. The first sign that this trend will continue is the “terrorist” tag the government has now tacked on the group. This will give it more wiggle room to escape human rights accusations as it seeks to wipe Shi’ites from the streets; but Shi’ism has survived ‘persecution’ for centuries. The backlash could be devastating for the entire country.
A prolongation of the effects of the Shi’ites protest around the country has started to manifest. Last week, the Inspector-General of Police took cognisance of what happened in Abuha and decided to be proactive by ordering the immediate beef-up of security nationwide, according to a statement signed on Friday by the spokesperson for the Force Headquarters, Frank Mba. The reason given by the police authorities for the tighter security measure is due to the series of protests by members of the IMN popularly known as Shi’ites.

Mba conveyed the seriousness with which the IGP,  Mohammed Adamu views the IMN. “Zonal Assistant Inspectors-General of Police (AIGs) and Commissioners of Police (CPs) nationwide have also been mandated by the IGP to ensure customised security arrangements are put in place in their Area of Responsibilities (AORs) to checkmate the activities of criminals and any possible threat to public peace.”

The police boss assured citizens that proactive measures including aerial surveillance of major cities have been put in place to ensure the safety and security of lives and property.”

The IGP has further advised all would-be protesters to ensure they express their grievances within the ambit of the law so as not to infringe on the constitutional rights of other citizens or cause a breach of public peace.”

QUICK FACTS:

*In December 2015, a group of Shia Muslims crowded Sokoto Road, near Zaria, for a religious procession. Around this time, a convoy including Chief of Army Staff, Lt. Gen. Tukur Buratai was attempting to navigate through the crowded road. The army demanded that the demonstrators disperse, to let the convoy ease through. But they refused. *Some sort of projectile then struck Buratai’s car and the soldiers fired warning shots into the air. When that didn’t work, the military opened fire to cover their principal

*The army saw the incident as an excuse to finally crush this group of Shia Muslims which organises under the aegis of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria

*The Shi’ites have consistently defied constituted authority, with Police and other security agencies too afraid to confront them

*The 2015 Zaria crackdown, which lasted for about three days, led to the massacre of hundreds of Shi’ites

* In 2016, a judicial commission said the army had ki by the Nigerian army. Leader of the IMN, Ibrahim El-Zakzaky, was also reportedly wounded in the violent crisis and his son aed.

*In 2016, a judicial commission said the army had killed 349 Shia Muslims. Leader of the IMN, Ibraheem El-Zakzaky, was also reportedly wounded in the violent crisis and his son and wife were killed

*El-Zakzaky  has since been remanded in prison, despite court orders granting him bail

*Since their leader was imprisoned, IMN has continued to demand for his release, providing more opportunity to defy constituted authority. They regularly organise peaceful protests across the country, but some of them have turned bloody, including the recent ones held this July

*A Federal High Court in Abuja has declared the IMN a terrorist organisation

*The Shiite movement started as a struggle for power. After Prophet Muhammad died on June 8, 632 AD, the Muslim community struggled to substantively agree on who should replace him as the head of Islam

*Some of Muhammad’s followers supported his cousin and son-in-law, ‘Ali Ibn Abi Talib to inherit his authority as head of Islam. This party henceforth was known as the Shi’ites (the “partisans” of ‘Ali)

*His reign did not last long. In 661 AD, ‘Ali was murdered. The Shi’ites became anxious, because the majority, now known as Sunni Muslims, preferred the Governor of Syria, Muʿawiyah ibn Abī Sufyān, as the successor to ‘Ali, rather than ‘Ali’s son, Hasan

* Husayn, Hasan’s younger brother, was murdered, together with his family, in 680 by the forces of the Umayyad ruler Yazid following the Battle of Karbala in Iraq. With the death of Husayn, the closest descendants of Muhammad were vanquished

*Husayn was seen as a martyr to be revered, and his death sealed the division between the Shiʿites and the Sunni majority

*Shi’ism in Nigeria can be traced to the Iranian revolution of 1979, which led to the emergence of an Islamic government. The revolution inspired many Northern Nigerian Muslims. Radical Islamist movements, such as the Muslim Brothers, later renamed the IMN and led by El-Zakzaky of Kaduna State, introduced a militant pro-Iranian Shi’ite version of Islam into Northern Nigeria in the 1980s

* IMN’s stated mission is to establish an Iran type of Islamic state in Nigeria

*El-Zakzaky entered Ahmadu Bello University, but was expelled for his leadership in the “Islam Only” protest. He was Deputy President of the Moslem Students Society. After his expulsion, he went to Iran for a short course of studies, before founding IMN, whose members refer to themselves as ‘Yan’uwa’ (a Hausa word for brothers)

*On the occasion of its silver jubilee on April 10, 2005, the movement declared that its main aim is ‘the establishment of an Islamic system and state, no more no less’

*This July, Shi’ite protesters stormed the National Assembly, overpowered policemen on duty, seized guns and shot two security operatives. They also vandalised the main entrance usually guarded by Mobile Policemen and forced legislators in session to adjourn

*A few days later, another protest turned into a deadly confrontation as a Deputy Commissioner of Police, Usman Umar and a National Youth Service Corps member reporting for Channels TV were shot dead

*A Shi’ite spokesman said at least 20 of their members have been killed in the recent clashes

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