Muslim minorities in Africa

Nigerian Shias defiant in support of Zakzaky

Nigerian security forces resorted to violence last week to end protests by supporters of imprisoned Shia cleric Ibrahim Zakzaky in Abuja. Tensions are high after at least eight people were killed in the clashes. Zaharaddeen Umar reports

Tensions were high in the capital Abuja after police clamped down on a demonstration.  At least six protesters, a police officer and a journalist were killed during an Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN) march last Monday, and the stand-off continued the next day. Police opened fire with live ammunition as well as tear gas as protesters threw petrol bombs at the officers.

The Shia group has vowed to continue the marches until their spiritual leader Ibrahim Zakzaky, who was detained by Nigeria's Sunni authorities in December 2015 on charges including terrorism, is released from prison. Previously, hundreds of Shias had been killed in clashes with security forces in the northern Nigerian city of Zaria.

Zainab Lawal Abdulkadir, a young Shia woman, told the Deutsche Welle that she was on her way to see a doctor because she had been hit by tear gas, but that she would be heading right back to the demonstration. "I hope to die in this struggle; I want a live bullet to enter my body as was meted out to my brothers and sisters yesterday."

Demonstrating in solidarity with Shia cleric Zakzaky in Abuja in 2018 (photo: picture-alliance)
Solidarity with Zakzaky: since the arrest of the Nigerian Shia spiritual leader in December 2015, supporters have been demanding his release – seen here last year. Following a series of violent demonstrations, the Nigerian government has now banned the "Islamic Movement of Nigeria" (IMN). In Nigeria, it is estimated that about half of the nearly 200 million inhabitants are Muslims, most of them Sunnis. Members of the Shia minority often feel oppressed by the Sunnis

Police spokesman Frank Mba told a local TV station the demonstrators "indiscriminately and violently attacked innocent citizens and policeman and then embarked on a spree of destruction to both public and private property " using, in his words, "lethal weapons."

Zakzaky's followers denied the accusations levied against them. Over their 40-year history and despite repeated attacks from the government, the Shias have always remained peaceful, Twitter user Mustyy wrote. "We will never become a second Boko Haram." But touching Zakzaky's life is a "no-go."

Drawing up the battle lines

Both the government and the protesters need to respect the rule of law, argues Mukhtar El-Khasim, an analyst in northern Nigeria. The IMN is acting unlawfully, he told DW, and "the Nigerian government refused to follow the guidelines of the constitution or the verdict of a legal court of law." The analyst was referring to the fact that the government has refused to free Zakzaky even after a federal court dismissed the government's case as unlawful and ordered Zakzaky's release in 2016.

The Nigerian authorities have consistently sent in the military to respond to IMN protests or marches, according to Amnesty International. The IMN is the most widely known Shia group in Nigeria where the Muslim population is, however, mainly Sunni.

Declared aim: freedom of religion

Zakzaky founded the IMN in the late 1970s. It was originally a student movement inspired by the Islamic revolution in Iran. Zakzaky convinced fellow students that an Islamic revolution was possible in Nigeria, too. The group's first reported march in Nigeria in 1980 was in support of Iran after a joint U.S.-Canadian operation to save U.S. diplomats trapped in Tehran in 1979.

Over the past years, the country has seen frequent clashes between the security forces and IMN followers during protests and religious processions. Nigeria's government has accused the IMN, which claims to have several million members, of supporting militancy and aiming to undermine the state. Apart from demanding its leader's release, the Shia group claims it only seeks freedom to practice its faith in northern Nigeria.

To defuse the situation, Zakzaky should be released on bail, said retired army major Bashir Shuaibu. The cleric would then be able to address his supporters.

Fatima Musa is one of them – and for her, there is no going back: "I will not leave Abuja without my spiritual leader, I have sacrificed my entire life to free Ibrahim Zakzaky." It doesnʹt look like the protesters are about to give up any time soon.

Zaharaddeen Umar

© Deutsche Welle 2019

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