Violence in Nigeria: Clashes Between Armed Forces and Shia Muslims
Written by Andrew Allen
Over the last half decade, there have been several incidents of violence between Nigerian security forces and the Shia group known as the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN). The IMN, are led by the cleric Ibrahim El-Zakzaky. Originally from the northern city of Zaria, El-Zakzaky is a self-professed admirer of the Iranian Islamic Revolution and critic of the Nigerian government. He travelled to Iran in 1980 in order to become a cleric and be able to bring Shi’ism to Nigeria (Campbell 2018). From the 1990s onward, El-Zakzaky has attracted thousands of followers as he promotes the widespread adoption of Islamic law by the Nigerian government, with the ultimate goal of turning it into an Islamic Republic.
Zakzaky and the IMN’s period of opposition towards the government of Nigeria have been characterized by violent encounters with the Nigerian army. In July of 2014, soldiers shot and killed 35 members of the IMN during a pro-Palestinian protest (Toromade 2018). Further violence ensued in 2015 during what has come to be known as the Zaria Massacre, when Nigerian armed forces invaded and burnt down an IMN complex, arrested Zakzaky himself, and killed more than 300 of his followers (BBC News 2016; Vinograd 2016). Most recently, in October of 2018, as many as 40 individuals were killed when Nigerian armed forces opened fire on IMN protesters in the Nigerian capital of Abuja. The Nigerian army came under international criticisms when it appeared to justify the violence by posting a Tweet containing a clip of President Donald Trump telling reporters that “[if] they want to throw rocks at our military, our military fights back. I told them to consider it a rifle (Yancey-Bragg 2018).” The statement, which was made in reference to a migrant caravan making its way towards the U.S from Central America, and the tweet both received considerable international criticism.
Nigeria’s response to the IMN has generated both international and domestic concerns. Protesters in Iran gathered last week and threatened to overthrow the Sunni Nigerian President Muhammadfu Buhari in response to the ongoing captivity of El- Zakyzaky, who has been held since 2016 in direct opposition to a Nigerian high court ruling ordering his release (Odunsi, 2018). In addition, many experts compare the situation with IMN with that of Boko Haram, the Sunni Islamist group that has killed thousands of Nigerians. Boko Haram increased in violence and tenacity after the extrajudicial killing of its leader more than a decade ago. Experts fear that the harsh response to the IMN movement will engender similar extremism and violence among the Shia movement and its leader (Campbell, 2018).
Campbell, John. 2018. “Dozens Reportedly Killed as Nigerian Military Fires on Shia Protesters.” Council on Foreign Relations. Council on Foreign Relations. Accessed November 10. https://www.cfr.org/blog/dozens-reportedly-killed-nigerian-military-fires-shia-protesters.
“Investigating Clashes between Nigeria’s Shia and the Army.” 2016. BBC News. BBC. January 19. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-35342215.
Odunsi, Wale. 2018. “El-Zakzaky: Iranians Threaten to Overthrow Buhari [VIDEO].” Daily Post Nigeria. Daily Post Nigeria. November 5. http://dailypost.ng/2018/11/05/el-zakzaky-iranians-threaten-overthrow-buhari-video/.
Toromade, Samson. 2018. “How El-Zakzaky Has Become the Face of Shiite Persecution in Nigeria.” News and Entertainment- Latest Updates in Nigeria | Pulse.ng. Pulse. November 7. https://www.pulse.ng/news/local/how-el-zakzaky-has-become-the-face-of-shiite-fight-in-nigeria-id9055093.html.
Yancey-Bragg, N’dea. 2018. “Nigerian Military Deletes Tweet That Appears to Justify Killing Protesters with Trump’s Words.” USA Today. Gannett Satellite Information Network. November 3. https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2018/11/03/nigerian-army-deletes-tweet-trump-speech-justify-violence/1873056002/.