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The arrest of Ibrahim Zakzaky, leader of the Shiite group in Nigeria, on Saturday by the Nigerian army has once again highlighted the significance of this particular sect within Muslim society in Nigeria, especially in Northern Nigeria. Their activities in recent times have garnered widespread controversy and support from many groups worldwide. They are now synonymous with elaborate processions, marches and festivals in the North east, of which no one dared to disturb, before the incident that happened between the group and the army on Saturday.

Shiites are a Muslim minority

The Shiites (an abbreviation of “Shiatu Ali” or “followers of Ali”) and the Sunnis make two of Islam’s main sects. The division resulted from leadership disputes, following Prophet Muhammad’s death. Though both sects believe in the Quran, they have differences in religious traditions, customs and practice. Most Muslims all over the world – between 80 to 90 percent of them – are Sunnis and the rest are Shiites. Because Sunnis are the majority, Shiites are often suppressed, which is a large source of conflict in the Middle East today.

Though most Muslims in Nigeria are Sunnis — reports say 60 million (even Boko Haram members claim to be Sunnis) – there’s a relatively moderate number of Shiites in Northern Nigeria, who are based especially in Kano, Sokoto, and Kaduna.

Perhaps the singular event that has led to the Shiite “re-awakening” was the Iranian revolution in the 1980s. This revolution in Iran, started mostly by leaders of the sect, garnered support from Shiite groups all over the world.

Who is Ibrahim Zakzaky?

Ibrahim Zakzaky, a Muslim cleric born in Zaria, Kaduna, has been the leader of Nigeria’s Shiite population. His sermons and charismatic rhetoric drew followers, which prompted the formation of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN), supported by Iran. Zakzaky is reported to drawn his inspiration from the Iranian revolutionist and leader, the late Ayatollah Khomeini. “Nigeria must become wholly Islamic and Allah proclaimed Lord of the entire nation,” Zakzaky said in 1996. This kind of statement attracted Muslims to him, who were tired of corruption and repression under the military rule at the time.

Adel Assadinia, a former Iranian diplomat, claimed that the IMN was set up by and modeled on the Lebanese Hezbollah and that Iran provides the IMN with training “in guerrilla warfare: bomb-making, use of arms such as handguns, rifles and RPGs, and the manufacturing of bombs and hand grenades.” These claims raised some questions concerning the radicalisation of the sect, and a researcher in Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria, Mr. Isa, in an interview with BBC in 2012 compared the group’s movement to that of “a state within a state.”

Shiite traditions have also led to widespread animosity from the Sunni. There were minor feuds between Shiites and Sunnis in Sokoto state, however, things escalated quickly when an anti-Shiite Imam in Northern Nigeria, Imam Umaru Danmaishiyya, was murdered by unknown men in 2007. His death marked the beginning of Shiite vs. Sunni violence in Nigeria, with the Sokoto state government launching assaults on the Shiite groups in Sokoto, which in a particular incident, culminated in the destruction of their headquarters. As a result, the sect moved its headquarters to Zakzaky’s hometown in Zaria, Kaduna. Their headquarters, which was called “Husainiyya Baqiyatullah” has now, allegedly, been destroyed by the Nigerian Army.

Zakzaky claimed, in an interview with BBC in 2012, that he trained his men as guards, but that it is more “like teaching karate to the boy scouts.” His supporters also claim he is no supporter of violence. However, incidents involving the group in the last two years (coincidental, or not, with the rise of Boko Haram) seem to disparage those remarks. At least 33 Shia members were gunned down by the Nigerian army last year when fights broke out between the two groups during a Shiite procession. A suicide bomb attack in November on another procession (Boko Haram claims responsibility) and last weekend’s killings in Zaria, Kaduna seem to suggest two possibilities- they are either victims of their extremism or victims of discrimination.


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