shiite-protest

Buhari risks leaving as his defining moral legacy, an indifference to human suffering and tyrannical oppression of minorities that will forever colour the memory of his presidency. By its disregard for the human rights of the Shi’a, and its enablement of extremist voices, the administration is nurturing monsters whose bloody rise from the depths is something that we will regret in the near future.


A kingdom can endure with unbelief but it cannot endure with injustice. – Uthman Dan Fodio

In a parley with journalists on December 30, 2015, President Muhammadu Buhari was questioned about an incident just over a fortnight earlier in which an altercation between the convoy of the Chief of Army Staff and a procession of Shi’a Muslims belonging to the Islamic Movement in Nigeria in Zaria led to the army’s destruction of the Shi’a compound and the massacre of over 300 men, women and children. In response, the president wondered aloud why civilians should have the temerity to obstruct an army general’s convoy and poured scorn on the idea that the army should be investigated. Not only did the slaughter of hundreds of his compatriots fail to elicit any reaction from Buhari, he tacitly justified the massacres.

Since then the Nigerian state has escalated its hostility against the Islamic Movement in Nigeria. Although a judicial panel of inquiry set up by the Kaduna State government indicted both the army and the IMN for the December massacre, no soldier or officer of the Nigerian Army has been sanctioned for that incident. The presidency claims that it is still studying the findings of the panel. Katsina, Kaduna, Kano and Kebbi states have outlawed the IMN. In the past week, the home of a local Shi’a leader in a Kaduna suburb was razed in a mob attack that claimed three lives. According to reports, fifteen Shi’a Muslims were killed when the police opened fire on a procession commemorating the Ashura in Funtua, Katsina State. Mob attacks on the Shi’a were also recorded in Sokoto, Kano and Jos, as well as disruptions of Shi’a processions by the military and the police.

It is permissible to describe what is ongoing as nothing short of the state-backed systematic persecution and extermination of the Shi’a. To be clear, the climate that has permitted mob violence against Shi’a Muslims is directly traceable to the implicit and explicit anti-Shi’a posture of the Buhari administration and that of many Northern state governments. Sunni-Shi’a antipathies have always existed in Nigeria and simmered below the surface. It has taken blatant official bias to dredge up and weaponise this latent anti-Shia bigotry.

By succumbing to anti-Shi’a prejudice, the government is enabling a particularly virulent form of Sunni extremism – the sort of strain that produced Boko Haram. The irony is that while the army, the Kaduna State government and federal government have gone out of their way to demonise the Shi’a, Nigeria’s biggest threats in terms of sectarian violence and organised insurrection have emanated from Sunni extremists. The IMN has been portrayed as a violent group. But despite the fact that Sheikh Ibraheem El ZakZaky has lost six sons to the army, and was himself assaulted, shot, wounded and has been held for almost a year without a court order to that effect, the IMN has not issued a call to arms or declared war on the state. It has instead held peaceful protest marches which have been attacked by mobs and security forces.

The Charges against the Shi’a

In outlawing the IMN in Kaduna, Governor Nasir El Rufai claimed that the group does not acknowledge the authority of the Nigerian constitution. In fact, few Northern Muslims will publicly admit that they subscribe to the primacy of the constitution. Indeed, for Wahhabis, the rejection of the constitution and all other emblems of the nation-state is an article of faith. It is true that in the 1980s, El ZakZaky’s sermons gave short shrift to the constitution. In fairness, so too did the sermons of the Jama’at Izalat Al Bidi’ A wa Iqamat Al Sunna (the Movement for Suppressing Innovations and Restoring the Sunna) otherwise known as Izala, a Wahhabist revivalist movement. And the military regimes of the 1980s and 1990s themselves (including Buhari’s) were anything but defenders of the constitutional order.

Since the 1990s, El ZakZaky and the IMN have practically committed themselves to living responsibly within a plural society. When, between 1999 and 2000, a number of Northern states expanded the scope of Sharia Law to cover criminal justice matters thus introducing the prospect of stonings, amputations and decapitations, many Sunni politicians and clerics claimed that the Sharia was superior to the Nigerian constitution. El ZakZaky was virtually a lone clerical voice in criticising the blatantly political exploitation of the Sharia as a populist gimmick in the North.

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In a December 1999 interview with Africa Today, he excoriated the governors for acting outside their constitutional powers, arguing that “the constitution only allows for customary courts for states that wish it; and Sharia courts for states that also wish it. And it even defines what that Sharia should be. I think even if you are making your own campaign promise, you have to understand that you are elected according to certain laws and you are duty bound to follow that law. And you even swear to abide by that law.” He contended that advocates of Sharia should have presented a bill to the National Assembly seeking a constitutional amendment.

Nigerian politicians have a perverse talent for self-subversion and self-inflicted catastrophe. Virtually all insurrections plaguing the Nigerian state can be remotely or directly attributed to state terror and extra-judicial killings by security forces. But even by their sorry standards, the apparent determination of this government to radicalise the Shi’a and manufacture a sectarian war merits close scrutiny.


His comments to Africa Today and to Karl Maier as reported in the book, This House Has Fallen, represented an endorsement of the constitutional order and his evolution from the fiery sermons for which he became famous during the 1980s. How strange that a man charged with undermining the constitution should be one of its most articulate defenders in what was arguably the hour of its sternest test. Ironically, Buhari’s presidential campaign in 2003 was fuelled by his support for the expansion of Sharia by his party, the All Nigeria People’s Party, which used it as a populist weapon. A clear-eyed assessment of their historical antecedents suggests that El ZakZaky is no more a threat (and is probably less so) to the constitutional order than Buhari and his political allies.

Shi’a Muslims have been accused of unlawfully taking over public spaces with their processions. In fact, they are no more disruptive of public order than their Sunni compatriots. On Fridays, commuting in major Northern towns is virtually impossible due to the heavy traffic of worshippers that customarily take over public roads. Indeed, in 2001, one particularly bloody sectarian upheaval in Jos was ignited by a dispute over who had the right of way after a Christian woman driving home was obstructed by Muslim worshippers that had taken over the road.

These incidents stem not from a fundamental unruliness on the part of worshippers but from the failure of the Nigerian state to enforce basic law and order. To persecute Shi’a Muslims for an infraction also committed by Sunnis and other worshippers merely highlights the government’s bias and its determination to define law-breaking as a crime by the Shi’a minority and an entitlement of the Sunni majority. It is the definition of injustice and unfairness.

The Strange Politics of Anti-Shi’a Activism

There is an interesting sidebar to the Kaduna government’s hardline stance against the Shi’a. As an opposition politician and gubernatorial aspirant, Nasir El Rufai courted El Zakzaky and the IMN. In July 2014, an altercation between the army and a Shi’a procession commemorating Quds Day in Zaria over its closure of the road led to the killing of 35 Shiites, including three of El Zakzaky’s sons. On August 8, 2014, El Rufai, then a chieftain of the Congress for Progressive Change, paid a condolence visit to the cleric and declared that the killings were one more reason to vote out the Peoples Democratic Party. Although the IMN historically eschews involvement in partisan politics, El Zakzaky reportedly made an exception on this occasion, seeing Buhari and El Rufai as more credible options for securing justice. The support of Shi’a Muslims was crucial to the electoral victories of Buhari and El Rufai. That the All Progressives Congress now deems the IMN an arch-foe to be destroyed says much about the treacherous contours of political power.

Last week, Governor Simon Lalong of Plateau State announced a ban on Shi’a processions, even though the group has never been indicted in the chronic incidents of strife in the state. By obtusely victimising Shi’a Muslims, even when they are victims of mob violence and police brutality, Lalong is thoughtlessly setting an unsavoury precedent in the volatile sectarian environment of the North. A predominantly Christian state officially victimising a Muslim minority could set the stage for the official victimisation of Christians in a predominantly Muslim state.

What makes the spate of anti-Shia activism by governors even more dubious is that in the last five years, armed pastoralists and bandits have massacred hundreds of people in communities in Kaduna and on the Plateau. Both state governments have been unable to marshal any sort of resolve against the onslaught of the so-called “herdsmen” wreaking terror in their domains, but have deployed the full weight of their coercive powers against the essentially peaceful Shi’a minority.

Sowing the Wind of Extremism

Nigerian politicians have a perverse talent for self-subversion and self-inflicted catastrophe. Virtually all insurrections plaguing the Nigerian state can be remotely or directly attributed to state terror and extra-judicial killings by security forces. But even by their sorry standards, the apparent determination of this government to radicalise the Shi’a and manufacture a sectarian war merits close scrutiny. Beyond its virulent prejudice, the hardline posture against the Shi’a might indicate external influences on our domestic policy. They might possibly reflect Saudi (and other foreign) efforts to counter the growth of Iranian influence in Africa. Iran is the spiritual motherland of Shiism and the IMN has close links to Tehran. The uncharacteristic silence of the international human rights community is extremely suggestive. Foreign human rights activists reviled the Nigerian army for its scorched earth tactics in its counter-insurgency campaign in the North-East but have been curiously silent as the Nigerian state liquidates a peaceful group.

The current tribulations of Shi’a Muslims are reminiscent of anti-Igbo mob violence in the North in the mid 1960s, which was ignored and tacitly encouraged by the state and formed the gruesome prelude to a costly civil war. Then, as now, the state’s disposition enabled an orgy of demoniacal bloodletting against a vulnerable minority.


Whether they have accepted the puppetry of foreign intriguers or are merely demonstrating their own prejudicial folly, the current reigning elites risk replicating the Sunni-Shia strife that has engendered chaos in the Middle East on our shores, thereby adding to Nigeria’s already combustible cauldron of identity conflicts. Northern Nigeria which has been devastated by sectarian violence for over three decades and by a terrorist insurgency for seven years deserves greater circumspection on the part of her leaders and the federal government. The Nigerian state which is reeling from a protracted counter-insurgency campaign, the depredations of militant pastoralists in the North-Central zone, and the terrorism of paramilitaries in the Niger Delta, simply cannot cope with another insurrection.

We should pay close attention to the dark forces being emboldened and enabled by the Buhari government. Ultra-conservative Sunni clerics aborted the location of a federally-funded film village for Kano. Having constituted themselves into cultural censors, they have also almost completely destroyed Kano’s film industry. The hypocritical prudes have hectored and threatened actresses for “indecency.” They have harangued the first lady, Aisha Buhari, over her dressing. One Izala cleric recently called for Mrs. Buhari to be arrested for criticising her husband. These extremists have called for the outlawing of Shiism. It will surely not be long before we witness a resurgence of virulent rhetoric and hate crimes against Sufi brotherhoods like the Tijaniyya and also against Christians.

It is not possible to blow the dog-whistle of anti-Shi’a prejudice without inviting extremism, chauvinism and misogyny into the equation. Once the genie of extremism is summoned it cannot be easily stuffed back into the lamp. This is how Frankenstein monsters are born – a lesson that short-sighted politicians have clearly failed to learn from the rise of Boko Haram. For Abubakar Shekau and his psychotic confederates are the natural and logical evolution of the unhinged Wahhabi enthusiasms that were manipulated, courted and tacitly encouraged by political and religious elites from the 1980s to the 2000s.

Protecting Minorities and Securing Democracy

Of all the ideals endangered by our predatory political culture, it is the sanctity of life itself that is in greatest need of defence. In a modern democracy, one of the expressions of the sanctity of life is the right to life and the protection of minorities from the repressive whims of the majority. Without these all-important safeguards for minorities, democracy in a plural society will simply degenerate into a tyranny of the majority with the dark spectre of ethnic cleansing and genocide not far behind. If our democracy is to survive, we must realise that the right to vote is not enough. Minorities must be protected. The pursuit of unity cannot be construed as the uniformity of thought, taste and theology. Such rigid homogenisation is a hallmark of extremism. The right to freedom of conscience and religion must be vigorously championed.

The current tribulations of Shi’a Muslims are reminiscent of anti-Igbo mob violence in the North in the mid 1960s, which was ignored and tacitly encouraged by the state and formed the gruesome prelude to a costly civil war. Then, as now, the state’s disposition enabled an orgy of demoniacal bloodletting against a vulnerable minority. Repression of ethnic and religious minorities only alienates and radicalises contrarian elements and drives them underground where their discontent inevitably turns toxic.

Buhari risks leaving as his defining moral legacy, an indifference to human suffering and tyrannical oppression of minorities that will forever colour the memory of his presidency. By its disregard for the human rights of the Shi’a, and its enablement of extremist voices, the administration is nurturing monsters whose bloody rise from the depths is something that we will regret in the near future.

Chris Ngwodo is a writer, consultant and analyst.