Nigeria can ill-afford to sleepwalk into another uprising at a time when it is still desperately battling Boko Haram’s insurgency. A potential Shia-Sunni faceoff could rapidly turn Northern Nigeria into a theatre of subversive intrigues by Iran and Saudi Arabia whose geopolitical rivalry in the Middle East dovetails with their theological rivalry as the two grand exponents of Shiism and Sunni Islam.

In the index of tensions that could trigger Nigeria’s next security emergency, that between the Shiite Islamist Movement of Nigeria and the Nigerian state has come to the fore in recent times. This past weekend in Zaria, yet another confrontation between Shiite Muslims and the Nigerian Army left scores of people dead, the sect leader Sheikh Ibrahim El-Zakzaky arrested, a top leader killed, and the sect’s shrine assaulted. While army authorities described the incident as arising from an attempted assassination of the Chief of Army Staff through a Shia attack on his convoy, the sect claimed that it was a wanton attack by the military on defenceless people.

The animus goes back to July 26, 2014 when a clash between a Shiite procession and the army in Zaria left 35 people dead including three of El-Zakzaky’s sons. The army later claimed that it had only fired in self-defence after being fired upon. That incident was reminiscent of the June 11, 2009 shooting of 17 Yusufiyya sect members in a funeral procession by police officers in Maiduguri – an event widely held to have triggered the insurgency by Jamaatu Ahlis Sunna Liddaawati Wal Jihad (People committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad) otherwise known as Boko Haram.

A slightly mitigating counter-argument is that the Yusufiyya were already armed and intent on levying war against the state. They were pre-empted rather than circumstantially provoked by the killing of their members. On this occasion however, El-Zakzaky urged his followers to “be patient and calm.”

El-Zakzaky has a turbulent history of confrontation with the Nigerian state. He emerged in the late 1970s preaching Islamic revolution and the overthrow of the constitution. His fiery preaching, widely circulated, on audio cassettes criticised emirs, governors, presidents, politicians and soldiers; called for the ouster of Nigerian governments which in his view were run by “kaffir, thieves and satans” and held up revolutionary Iran as his model polity. His combative and provocative style naturally set him on collision course with the authorities. Between 1980 and 1999, El Zakzaky spent nine years in prison. His releases were typically welcomed by thousands of adoring followers among them lecturers and students.

But that was years ago. El-Zakzaky has mellowed somewhat, his views tempered by age and experience. When some Northern states proclaimed Sharia law in late 1999, he was one of their sharpest critics. In an interview with Africa Today in December 1999, he argued that only an Islamic government could implement Sharia, not secular governments. “If you introduce Islamic laws under an un-Islamic environment, under a system of government which is not Islamic, then it is bound to be an instrument of oppression. It is just going to be abused.”

While El-Zakzaky still sought an Islamic republic, he now believed that it would not happen overnight but gradually, beginning with enlightening the people and attuning them peacefully to his Islamic alternative. He believed that personal spiritual transformation was essential before any Islamic revolution could occur. Since then, the Shiites have remained a quietly and steadily growing force in Northern Nigeria while locked in a low intensity conflict with the majority Sunni.

Sunni Muslims have largely responded to the Shiites’ recent travails with a marked lack of sympathy and there have been gloating comments on social media underscoring the deep antipathy between both groups. The journalist Mohammed Haruna once remarked that “Most Sunni Muslims…regard Shia Muslims as fair game for attack and elimination.”

These recent violent confrontations carry ominous portents. Scorched earth tactics by security forces can further alienate and radicalise a group which already perceives itself as being outside the mainstream. This is more so when such force seemingly validates the group’s persecution narrative. As the scholar Reza Aslan points out, Shiism idealises martyrdom and the righteous believers who follow the example of its founding martyrs and willingly sacrifice themselves in the struggle for justice against oppression.

After the July 2014 clash, El-Zakzaky told journalists that he believed that the operation “was ordered from Abuja.” Following the November 26 suicide bomb attack on a Shia procession in Kano that killed 20 people, he publicly discounted the alleged involvement of Boko Haram (even though the group had reportedly claimed responsibility) and hinted darkly at government complicity in an anti-Shia conspiracy.

A Shia uprising would be more destabilising than the current Boko Haram insurgency. It could easily evoke the ancient animus between the Sunni and Shia and trigger a sectarian civil war. Contrary to the popular bipolar portrayal of sectarian tensions in Nigeria as a strictly Muslim-Christian affair, there are very pungent animosities within the Islamic fold, not least, virulent anti-Sufi and anti-Shia tendencies. For example, in the late 1970s, the violent zealotry 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 virulently anti-Sufi movement, provoked rival Sufi orders, the Qadiriyya and the Tijaniyya to overlook their differences and establish the Jundullah, a paramilitary wing committed to the destruction of the Izala.

Bloody Shia-Sunni clashes are fairly frequent and have notably occurred in Zaria and Sokoto. After clashes in Sokoto in February 2005 and July 2007, El-Zakzaky accused the Sokoto emirate council of instigating anti-Shia violence and State authorities of clamping down on the Muslim brothers, “Killing [them], demolishing their houses and looting their properties…for the crime of being Muslims.”

A Shia uprising could perversely revitalise Boko Haram and other groups on the extremist spectrum. Jihadists are especially contemptuous of the Shia whom they regard not as Muslims but as rawafidah or “rejectionists” – heretics that rank even lower than infidels and hypocrites.

Nigeria can ill-afford to sleepwalk into another uprising at a time when it is still desperately battling Boko Haram’s insurgency. A potential Shia-Sunni faceoff could rapidly turn Northern Nigeria into a theatre of subversive intrigues by Iran and Saudi Arabia whose geopolitical rivalry in the Middle East dovetails with their theological rivalry as the two grand exponents of Shiism and Sunni Islam. Iran has already expressed “deep concern” over the incident in Zaria and urged the Nigerian government to prevent further violence against Shiites. Iraq’s leading Shia cleric, Moqtada al-Sadr has called on Iraqis to protest the incident. El-Zakzaky is revered in the Shia world and his recent travails have not gone unnoticed by his brethren elsewhere.

Historically, the growth of Shiism (exemplified by El-Zakzaky’s Muslim Brothers) and the Salafi/Wahhabi tendency in Nigeria (embodied by Sheikh Abubakar Gumi and the Izala movement) owes much to Iranian and Saudi patronage – influences which cannot be said to have been entirely benign. Syria and Yemen are stark examples of what Saudi and Iranian competitive subversive meddling could mean. As the country with Africa’s largest Muslim population, Nigeria is a significant geostrategic prize in the Saudi-Persian cold war.

Nigeria is extremely vulnerable to these global currents. In 2001, Ayman Al Zawahiri, the Egyptian deputy leader of Al Qaeda named Nigeria as one of the countries ripe for a Jihadist revolution. In the discourse of global Islamic extremists, Nigeria is considered the most prominent sub-Saharan candidate for a theocracy. Boko Haram which is now best formally known as Islamic State West Africa Province (having pledged allegiance to Islamic State in Syria) may be seen as the ultimate if indirect consequence of international terror syndicates merging with local confederates.

The Shiites have been criticised for hijacking public spaces with their processions in ways that deepen animosity towards the group. However, even this trait is symptomatic of the complex relational dynamic between religious communities and the Nigerian state. When worshippers colonise public spaces – whether it is Shiite processions in Zaria or churches creating an interminable gridlock on the Lagos-Ibadan expressway – they are demonstrating a basic contempt for the society and a belief in the inherent superiority of their communities over national laws.

These religionists claim a special authority that supersedes any behavioural constraints imposed by society. It is a form of impunity underwritten by the fear of offending religious sensibilities. Because the government refuses to insist on decorum and prefers to pander to these groups, their violations of public order have become more egregious. The eventual defiance of constituted authority is a matter of course.

The obvious solution is for the government to affirm law and order; and to clarify the rules binding on all groups and individuals as equal stakeholders in the public space. Nigerian politicians are typically reluctant to strictly define the boundaries between religion and the state not only because that ill-definition aids their own political manipulation of religious sensibilities but also quite possibly because they feel that they lack the moral authority to do so. In this regard, President Muhammadu Buhari matters because he is one of the few mainstream politicians with sufficient moral authority and following in the North to define these boundaries. He will have to use his bully pulpit to promote the democratic virtues of tolerance, peaceful coexistence and minority rights in our plural society.

Even so, the tension with the Shia has to be urgently de-escalated with public diplomacy and high level government intervention. The federal government should empanel a full scale inquiry to investigate both the July 2014 altercation and this weekend’s clash. It can do no less, given the role of extra-judicial killings and the army’s already sorry record of deadly force encounters in stoking anti-state violence. It is difficult to see what cause was served by the army’s subsequent assault and invasion of the Shia shrine and El-Zakzaky’s premises. The perpetrators of extra-judicial killings must be punished.

More effort has to be invested in civil-military relations and this involves clarifying the rules governing the use of deadly force in civilian-populated areas. We also need to ascertain to what extent non-state actors like the Muslim Brothers have become militarized and where they lie on the national security threat assessment index. Many anti-establishment groups exist in a condition of passive-aggressive tension with the Nigerian state and official violence tends to radicalize them. Our main weapons in engaging them must be intelligence and tact, not brute force. A nation cannot be governed if it has to be continuously pacified.

Chris Ngwodo is a consultant, writer and analyst.