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Special Report: Should the stones become bullets?

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Managing conflicts between Nigeria and its Shi’ites

Editor’s note: This month’s Nextier SPD Monthly examines the violent clashes between the Nigerian state and the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) also known as Shi’ites. Based on observation and desk research, it traces the origin, history and causes  the current conflicts, especially the use of military force against the group, and how the mismanagement of the current conflict could radicalise the group, taking a clue from Boko Haram. Subsequently, the magazine provides policy recommendations on how best to handle the conflict and reduce the probability of the group becoming a violent extremist group. 

Iro Aghedo, Ndubuisi Nwokolo and Patrick Okigbo III

 

Introduction

In the last three years, relations between Nigerian security operatives and members of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) also known as Shi’ites, have been characterised by conflicts, violent clashes, and deadly encounters.

In December 2015, a violent clash between the Islamic sect and soldiers resulted in the death of one soldier and 347 Shi’ites in Zaria, according to the probe panel set up by the Kaduna State government. The Shi’ites were killed because they allegedly blocked the convoy of Nigeria’s Chief of Army Staff and allegedly pelted the military operatives with stones. Reports of the incident indicate that the soldiers hurriedly buried the dead in mass graves.

Following the incident, Nigerian security agents visited the Shi’ite mosque in Kaduna, and in the ensuing melee, the mosque was razed by fire and the sect leader Ibrahim El-Zakzaky, his wife Zeena and scores of members were taken into custody. The government has continued to detain them despite the verdict of the Federal High Court in Abuja on December 2016 that the Shi’ite leader and his wife should be released on bail; a house should be provided for them and they should be paid N25m ($69,000) as restitution. Government’s refusal to honour the court verdict has generated local and international outcry against the Buhari administration as well as frequent public protests by members of the IMN.

Between October 27 and 29, 2018, Nigeria’s security agents were locked in another deadly clash with members of IMN. The security agents alleged that members of the sect who were on a non-violent procession from Mararaba in Nasarawa State to the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) in Abuja waylaid a military convoy that was conveying missiles and ammunition from Abuja to the Central Ammunition Depot in Kaduna.

The authorities claimed that the Shi’ites pelted the military convoy with stones and even attempted to snatch their weapons leading to the use of fire arms against the civilians. The FCT police authorities went further to add that the security operatives acted in self-defence when they killed seven Shi’ites, injured 22, and took 115 into custody.

In response to police claims about the casualties, the leadership of the IMN released the names of the 47 members killed in the fracas (including those who died from bullet wounds later in hospital). In addition, IMN officials re-vealed that since the clashes, over 1,000 of their members are yet to be accounted for. They confirmed that 106 of their members were still receiving treatment in hospitals and 156were in detention.

In all, Shi’ite leaders claim that over 490 of their members have been extra-judicially killed in the last three years and that investigations into the deaths are ongoing at the National Human Rights Commission.

 

“The authorities claimed that the Shi’ites pelted the military convoy with stones and even attempted to snatch their weapons leading to the use of fire arms against the civilians. The FCT police authorities went further to add that the security operatives acted in self-defence when they killed seven Shi’ites, injured 22, and took 115 into custody.”

This month’s Nextier SPD Monthly discusses the violent relations between the Nigerian state and Shia Islamic sect. It presents a global dimensions to the conflict; origin, leadership and ideology of the sect in Nigeria; state violence against the sect, responses to state violence against civilians and potential policy options for de-escalating the conflict.

 

Centuries-old global ruckus

Sunni and Shia are the two largest sects in Islam. While they share certain fundamental beliefs and practice, there are differences in rituals, doctrines, theologies, laws, and religious injunctions. However, the fundamental schism between the two sects is about the identity of Prophet Muhammad’s (SAW) religious successor.

Sunni Muslims believe that the Prophet did not appoint a rightful heir before his death in 632 A.D. and that a religious leader should be democratically elected by members of the Islamic community. They believe that the Prophet’s followers chose Abu Bakr, Muhammad’s close friend and advisor as his successor.

Shi’ites on the other hand, believe that Ali, Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law is the rightful successor. This is because they believe that only Allah can select religious leaders; therefore, all successors must share a bloodline with the Prophet.

Another point of significant schism between Sunni and Shia Muslims is the position of the Mahdi (or “guided one”). Both sects agree that the Mahdi is the sole ruler of the Islamic community. However, while Sunnis believe he has not yet been born, Shi’ites believe that he was born in 869 A.D. and will return to earth under the instruction of Allah.

Sunni Muslims are estimated to be in the majority, with about 85 to 90 percent of the more than 1.5 billion Muslim population. Shia Muslims constitute about 10 percent of the global Muslim population at about 154 to 200 million followers.

Sunnis are the majority in most of the predominantly Muslim countries like Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia while Shias are in the majority in only Iran, Iraq and the Gulf State of Bahrain.

The theological differences have informed these centuries-old sectarian conflict between Sunni and Shai Muslims and to a large extent, is the basis of the broader conflicts in the Middle East.

There are contrary views that trace the current Middle East conflicts to the 1979 Iran revolution that gave rise to an Islamic state governed under Shia doctrine. Various attempts to export such Islamic revolution to other Arab states led to wars such as the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.

The invasion of Iraq and dethronement of Saddam Hussein in 2003 led to the revival of the Iranian-Shia influence in sectarian politics in the Middle-East. Efforts to checkmate the rising influence of Iran-backed Shia theological power are what led to the emergence of groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and other radical Sunni groups in Iraq and Syria. This has consequently resulted in some of the current proxy wars in countries like Yemen and Syria; and in the rising presence of Shia Militias and the Gulf states-sponsored Sunni radical groups.

 

Birth of a problem

The Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) is a Shia sect that derides the secularity of the Nigerian state and proposes an Islamic republic similar to what obtains in Iran.

The IMN associates firmly with the poor in cities across Northern Nigeria and mobilises them for religious militancy.

Islam entered Northern Nigeria in the eleventh century through the Sahara Desert, spreading through conquest from North Africa. It is the major religion in the core north and also has considerable adherents in both the North-Central and South-West regions of Nigeria, plus a small Muslim minority in the South-East.

Islam in Nigeria is not a mono-lithic unit; rather, there are various sub-cleavages and sects including Almadiyya (12 percent), Sanusiyya (5 percent), Tijanniyya (3 percent), Quadriyya (8 percent) and others.  The Maitatsine, Shi’ites, and Boko Haram are the most recent Muslim sub-cleavages.

The IMN was formed in Zaria around 1979 by Ibrahim El-Zakzaky who was born on May 5, 1953 in Zaria, Kaduna State. El-Zakzaky, as he is popularly known, trained under different scholars in Qu’ranic schools in Zaria before pro-ceeding to the School of Arabic Studies, Kano which was set up in 1934 as a Northern Nigerian Law School especially dedicated to the training of Northern Grand Khadi.

 El-Islam entered Northern Nigeria in the eleventh century through the Sahara Desert, spreading through conquest, from North Africa.

 

“It is the major religion in the core north and also has considerable adherents in both the North-Central and South-West regions of Nigeria, plus a small Muslim  minority in the South-East.”

Zakzaky was educated at the Ahmadu Bello University in Za-ria between 1976 and 1979. The university did not graduate him because of his militant Islamic views even though he passed the B.Sc. Economics degree with First Class Honours. Thus, he is the first major Muslim cleric in Nigeria to combine both Islamic and Western education.

El-Zakzaky has been a fiery critic of the government and has been jailed several times for his militant activities. He was detained by General Sani Abacha in 1996 and was only released after the sudden death of the Head of State in 1998.

As noted earlier, he is currently in deten-tion as a result of the clash between his followers and members of the Nigeria Army. Despite his endless verbal attack and clashes with government establishments especially the security agencies, he condemned the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States as a crime.

 

Conflicting theologies and seismic forces

El-Zakzaky’s theology appears to be contradictory to some of the core beliefs of the global Shi’ite Muslims. For instance, it believes in a conservative form of Islam that does not recognise the nation state while also not agreeing with the promulgation of Sharia law.

El-Zakzaky argues that nationalism and Islam are two opposing and irreconcilable ideologies in Nigeria. He has asked his followers to denounce the former and uphold the latter. The movement has mobilised members from regional universities in northern Nigeria and has directed them to avoid association with the government and its officials because of their purported corrupting influence. For instance, while addressing the Muslim Students Society at the Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria on October 1, 1992, El Zakzaky cautioned:

“If we find out that your urge, desire and commitment is to the nation and you can sacrifice your life and properties for the nation, then you are a nationalist. Your Islamic ideology has died down, and you can only go to the Mosque to commemorate its death. But if you have the urge to give your life and properties for the sake of Islam and the Is-lamic nation, then you are not a nationalist.

“In short, one has to make a choice between the two if one wants to be sincere to one of them or else, he turns out to be hypocrite to both. We, on our part, can’t join this hypocrisy; Therefore, we come out clearly and say we are Muslims and we don’t care if Nigeria goes to hell.”

On Sharia (the Islamic penal code), IMN leadership believes that it cannot be adopted until the establishment of an Islamic State in Nigeria. In 1991, the group organised ‘horas’ (guards) to prevent the Christian crusade activities of German evangelist, Reinhard Bonnke in Kano.

It is important to note that IMN is not the only Muslim sect that opposed the implementation of Sharia in Nigeria. In fact, IMN is seen by some of its members as not militant enough in its stance. Its gradual approach to the Sharia question was opposed by some of its members which ultimately led to splinter groups. For instance, in 1994, Abubakar Mujahid split

from the El-Zakzaky-led IMN to form the Ja’amutu Tajidmul Islam (Movement for Islamic Revival). This group also organised its ‘horas’ which later metamorphosed into today’s sharia implementation militia known as Hisbah.

In fact, there are other more militant groups than IMN when it comes to some of the fundamental issues in Islam. For instance, the Izala Society has opposed Sharia and all forms of “innovation.” The Izala Society was known as “Jama’at Izalat al Bid’a Wa Iqamat as Sunna” which translates to the Society for the Removal of Innovation and Re-establishment

of the Sunna. The Izala Society is one of the largest Islamic sects in Nigeria, Chad, Niger, and  Cameroon.

 

State violence against Shiites 

The Nigerian security agencies have responded with significant force against the Shia militancy. There are documented cases of dragnet arrests, detention, extra-judicial killings, violation of human rights,  as well as disobedience to court orders.

In gross violation of both local and international laws which criminalise the deliberate killing of unarmed civilians, Nigerian military and police been implicated in the murder of IMN members including women and children.

During the December 15, 2015 clash between IMN members and the convoy of Chief of Army Staff in Zaria, it is reported that Nigerian soldiers killed 347 IMN members including the three sons of El-Zakzaky. The corpses  were hurriedly evacuated by the soldiers and buried in a massgrave 100 kilometres from the scene of what has become known as the ‘Zaria genocide’.

For several months, the military denied killing up to 15 persons until the judicial panel set up by the Kaduna State government found the military culpable of the mass murder. In fact, the panel recommended the dismissal and prosecution of the Major General who led the unit. The military denied culpability and claimed it acted in self-defence. In a media chat on December 30, 2015, Muhammadu Buhari, a retired military general and current president of Nigeria, defended the military and absolved them of any  culpability.

“El-Zakzaky argues that nationalism and Islam  are two opposing and irreconcilable ideologies in Nigeria. He has asked his followers to denounce the former and uphold the latter. The movement has mobilised members from regional universities in northern Nigeria and has directed them to avoid association with the government and its officials because of their purported corrupting influence.”

Similarly, at least 10 Shia sect members were killed in Kano in November 2016 when the police used live ammunition to disperse the procession during the Ashura festival. Similarly, during the 2017 Ashura procession in Kano, police killed three members of the IMN when the security operatives fired tear gas and bullets at the protesters.

On October 29, 2018 in Abuja, video recordings that appeared on social media showed security agents shooting at IMN protesters. Eye witnesses alleged that between16-20 members of IMN were killed by the security agents. The military authorities admitted to killing three protesters who were armed with sticks, cudgels, stones, catapults,and machetes. It is alleged that over 100 sect members were injured during the melee and over 400 were taken into custody without access to their lawyers.

Such deliberate killing of civilians, no matter the provocation, is a violation of international law as enshrined in the Geneva Convention and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court that prohibits individuals as well as organisations from intentionally kill civilian populations.

 

It is only combatants (people who bear arms and pose a direct threat of harm to the adversary) that can forfeit their immunity in international law.

Furthermore, Nigerian legal injunctions strongly prohibit intentional killing of civilians. In fact, one of the cardinal functions of the security agencies is to protect lives and property and ensure peace and

security.

Unequivocally, the killing of Shi’ites by Nigerian security operatives is a gross violation of both international and Nigerian laws.

Apart from killings, even the fundamental human rights and freedoms of IMN members have been violated. The burning of the Shi’ite mosque and proscription of the organisation is unacceptable judging by democratic conven-tions that are supposed to uphold the freedom of association and right to worship of individuals and groups. Even the arraignment of El-Zakzaky has become a source of public disorder as major roads are barricaded by security opera-tives whenever the sect leader is taken to court to prevent possible attack by his followers. In one of such arraign-ments in August, 2018, business activities including bank services were paralysed in Kaduna metropolis due to heavy presence of security operatives.

The violence of the Nigerian state against IMN has also negatively affected the judicial arm of government on account of the blatant disregard to its verdicts that the Shi’ite leader and his wife should be released on bail. Similarly, on July 31, 2018, a Kaduna State High Court discharged and acquitted 100 Shi’ites based on no-case submission. This verdict has not been acted upon because the government claims it was “perverse and totally lacking in merit”.

 

Creating monsters 

State violence against IMN members has elicited a number of responses locally and internationally. First, two leading international civil society organisations, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have condemned what they described as ‘state genocide’ against Shi’ites.

The organisations stated that the massacre was a gross violation of both local and international laws which criminalised the use of lethal weapons against unarmed civilians.

Second, while this may not be a credible threat, some protesters in Iran have pledged to overthrow tthe Buhari-led administration in order to secure the release of El-Zakzaky.

Thirdly, the killing and repression of IMN is gradually leading to a violent transformation of the group as it did with Boko Haram which shares similar reli-gious ideology against state secularity.

 In fact, as a manifestation of Shi’ite radicalisation during the June 21, 2018 clash in Kaduna, a policeman was allegedly stoned to death and a van belonging to the police was set ablaze by some irate sect members.

It appears that Nigeria has not learnt any lesson from its handling of the Boko Haram sect that led to  the insurgency. In the case of Boko Haram, the security agents poorly managed their use of arbitrary arrests to weaken the sect. There were several security operations variously code-named “Operation Flush,” “Operation Flush II,” “Operation Restore Order” and “Operation Lafiya Dole.”

These operations resorted to dragnet arrests instead of intelligence gathering. As the state is currentlydoing with the Shi’ites, it resorted to harassing Boko Haram members on their way to or from Da’wah (preaching). As the state is currently doing with El-Zakzaky, Mohammed Yusuf (leader of Boko Haram) was also frequently arrested. This action became

counter-productive as it made Yusuf popular and endeared him to various stakeholders and fed his narrative of victimhood and persecution. Such is now the case with El-Zakzaky.

Over time, Boko Haram became radicalised and initially resorted to targeted killing of security agents especially those who had become drawn to extra-judicial murders of suspected insurgents.There are many reported incidents of such killings: Mohammed Yusuf during the 2009 uprising, murder of a number of detained suspects at the Giwa Military Barracks,

etc. These killings led to both local and international calls for the prosecution of the military personnel for crimes against humanity. As noted by a keen observer of the insurgency “the security forces often went on the rampage to retaliate the slaying of soldiers or policemen, without any counter-insurgency planning to win the hearts and minds of the people”.

“It appears that Nigeria has not learnt any lesson from its handling of the Boko Haram sect that led to theinsurgency. In the case of Boko Haram, the securityagents poorly managed their use of arbitrary arreststo weaken the sect. There were several security operations variously code-named “Operation Flush,” “Operation Flush II,” “Operation Restore Order” and “Operation Lafiya Dole.”

Time to ratchet down

There is the need to see new vistas of engagement with the various dissident groups in Nigeria. While military force may earn temporary reprieve, it is the painstaking engagement with dissident groups that will lead to lasting and more sustainable security stability and peace in Nigeria. The focus should beto prevent, reduce, and resolve conflicts. The interventions must seek to promote respect for human rights, prevent and combat radicalisation and violent extremism, drive economic and social development, achieve verifiable disarmament and develop and maintain the legal framework for civil existence.

First, the government must be seen to keep its laws and obey court verdicts. This is important to ensure that all Nigerians realise that they can seek redress to their grievances in the law courts. The government must strive to be seen as a responsible and law-abiding entity by all parties, especially the non-state actors. The state cannot be seen to flout local and international laws and abuse the human rights of individuals and groups in its bid to annihilate groups seen as enemies of the state. These inglorious activities make both local and international communities believe that the state is really as described in the narratives of dissident movements.

Second, the government should work very closely with civil society organisations to train and retrain the security agencies on how to engage with civilian populations. While there is a place for application of force, policing is more effective when it wins the hearts and minds of the people. Given Nigeria’s history of a gruesome civil war and the impact of military rule on the general psyche of the people, there is a need to re-orientate the security agents on how to manage civil conflicts.

Third, the security apparatus should democratise its relations with IMN through proactive collaboration and proactive engagement. For instance, security agencies could offer security and protection to the IMN during their processions. It is a way of ensuring that they do not engage in any violence and any individuals who breach the laws of civil conduct can be singled out and prosecuted. Rather than antagonising the sect, the police and other para-military organisations including the Federal Road Safety Corps can help maintain law and order especially when the Shi’ites have obtained the permits to conduct peaceful processions. This collaboration will help to bring all factions together and could open new vistas for further dialogue and negotiations.

Fourth, the Nigerian state should draw a clear line between what is secular and sacred. The secular notion enshrined in the constitution is not practised in reality by the state. For instance, every year, the government finances religious, personal pilgrimages by both Muslims and Christians. In some instances, the state has also funded the construction of churches and mosques as well as the appointment of clerics.

The exercise of religious faith is a personal choice. The state should place religion in the private realm where it belongs so that religious pundits should stop rubbing shoulders with the government. The government should focus on acting as the public machinery for the actualisation of collective good. What one believes (or not) should not be the concern of a state that has a lot of developmental issues to focus on.

Fifth, there is need for the security agencies to resort to good, old, intelligence gathering as a means of proactively identifying security challenges when they are still at the nascent stages. There are various models that have been effective in various conflict situations both in Nigeria and elsewhere. The critical success factor is that the communities must see that they are better off when there is peace in their communities. The government must strive to win the hearts and minds of the people.

Finally, members of the IMN should seek alternative peaceful means of actualising their goals. The IMN should learn a lesson from the transformation of the Lebanese group, Hezbollah (Party of God). Despite being an armed resistance movement for several decades (including being a Shia military movement during Lebanon’s war), it has since (2008) metamorphosed into a key political party using democratic processes to argue for its worldview.

Similarly, IMN can transform into an opposition political party starting from its stronghold states in Kaduna and Kano. This is an effective way to validate that they have a worldview that appeals to a greater number of Nigerians.

“There is need for the security agencies to resort to good, old, intelligence gathering as a means of proactively identifying security challenges when they are still at the nascent stages. There are various models that have been effective in various conflict situations both in Nigeria and elsewhere. The critical success factor is that the communities must see that they are better off when there is peace in their communities.”

Conclusion

As evidenced by the Niger Delta militancy and the Boko Haram insurgency, use of repression to manage rebellion has largely been counter-productive in Nigeria. In the Niger Delta, the state had to resort to amnesty and conciliation when repression could not deliver peace and security. Similarly, the government has also offered the olive branch to Boko Haram insurgents on some occasions including the release of some of the Chibok and Dapchi schoolgirls.

Thus, in dealing with the IMN, the government should deploy more of reconciliatory strategy rather than overreliance on repressive approach which more often radicalizes dissident groups into unmanageable proportions.

There is no point in fanning an ember into a flame and then struggling to extinguish it when it is already a wild fire. Why wait for the stones to turn to bullets before seeking reconciliatory engagements with the dissidents?

Aghedo, Nwokolo and  Okigbo III published this article for Nextier SPD Monthly– a development consulting firm that uses evidence-based research to develop and build knowledge and skills to enhance human security, peace, and development as means to achieving stability and properity in Africa.


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