The Shi’ites in Nigeria gained prominence in 1979 when Ibrahim El-Zakzaky introduced Shia Islam in Zaria, Northern Nigeria while schooling at the prestigious Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria.
El-Zakzaky who was inspired at the time by the Iranian revolution, which saw Iran’s Monarchy overthrown and replaced with a Shia dominated Islamic Republic under Ayatollah Khomeini, believed that the establishment of a republic along similar religious lines in Nigeria would be feasible.
During his university days where he bagged a First Class Degree in Economics but was denied for his religious views, El-Zakzaki was active in student Islamic Unionism, where he rose to become the Vice President of the National Body of the Muslim Students Society of Nigeria (MSSN) in 1979. He also formed the Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN) after becoming impressed with the Iranian Revolution.
After his return from Iran where he obtained more knowledge on the Shia religion, El-Zakzaky became the leader of the IMN and turned it into a vehicle for proselytizing and gaining followers in the 1990s. As a result of his activities, millions have converted to Shia Islam in a country once with hardly any Shia population.
Although the IMN was peaceful in its activities and processions in its early years of formation, El-Zakzaky’s hardline views and teachings saw him behind bars during in the 80’s and 90’s. Occasional clashes between members of the group and the police were also recorded, especially during processions.
Things, however, went from bad to worst when on July 25, 2014, the Nigerian Army opened fire on IMN members who were taking part in Quds day rallies in Zaria and killed 35 people including three sons of El Zakzaky, leader of the movement.
After the onslaught, El-Zakzaky appealed to his members to be calm of calm and maintained that the killings were ordered from Abuja.
His words: “I am appealing to my followers to be patient and remain calm. After the burial of those killed, we will decide what action to take. I have communicated with the authorities, and they are all claiming not to be aware of the operation. It is my belief that the operation was ordered from Abuja.”
A bigger altercation between the Shi’ites and the army occurred on the 12th and 13th of December where over 700 persons were killed in Zaria.
Trouble started when members of the sect blocked the convoy of the Chief of Army Staff, Lt. Gen Tukur Buratai who was in Zaria for an official engagement. The Nigerian army in a bid to clear the way for the army chief, fired live bullets at the Shi’ites killing scores of them in the process.
The army also raided the house of El-Zakzaky, captured him and his wife, killed many of his followers including his sons and destroyed his house and the Shi’ite prayer ground during the assault.
Following his continuous detention since 2015, El-Zakzky’s followers in the last four years have been holding protests mainly in Abuja, calling for his immediate release.
In recent time, the protests have become more aggressive leading to the deaths of Shi’ites, security officials and innocent Nigerians caught in the crossfire.
A journalist, Precious Owolabi, who was a National Youth Service Corps member, was killed by a stray bullet while a Deputy Commissioner of Police, DCP Usman Umar also lost his life during one of the protests in Abuja on the 22nd of July. Many Shi’ites also died in the clash.
Despite a 2016 federal high court order for his release, the government has refused to grant him bail insisting that the cleric still has questions to answer after being dragged before a Kaduna High Court over allegations of culpable homicide, unlawful assembly, and disruption of the public peace, among others. The government also obtained and Gazetted a court order proscribing the IMN as a terrorist group.
Like Boko Haram, Nigeria may slide into another insurgency if Ibrahim El-Zakzaky is allowed to die in custody.
Although formed in 2002, Boko Haram officially became violent in 2009 after its leader, Mohammed Yusuf, was summarily executed by the police in Maiduguri, the Borno State capital after a clash.
The insurgency which is still ongoing in the North East has claimed the lives of tens of thousands and displaced 2.3 million from their homes. Resources meant for developmental purposes has also been deployed in the war against the terrorists.
While the nation awaits the August 5 ruling of the Federal High Court in Kaduna on his bail application, the Nigerian government must tread with caution in handling El-Zakzaky’s delicate health condition.
A stitch in time saves nine!