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Nigerian crackdown on Shiite group sparks security déjà vu

Sodiq Adelakun, AFP | Members of Islamic Movement in Nigeria protest the detention of their leader Ibrahim Zakzaky in Abuja on January 22, 2019.

Using familiar tactics, Nigerian authorities are cracking down on an influential Shiite group, turning themselves into pawns in a regional battle for influence and threatening to repeat the mistakes of the past.

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A decade ago, Nigerian security officials in the northeastern city of Maiduguri gunned down a handcuffed Muslim cleric just hours after a news crew had filmed his interrogation in a police station. The cleric was Muhammed Yusuf, founder of a tiny group advocating the adoption of Islamic law to fight the rampant corruption in the oil-rich West African nation.

Following Yusuf’s extrajudicial killing, the group -- colloquially known as Boko Haram -- was taken over by a hardliner who swore to avenge the murder, took the organisation underground, and went on to forge links with al Qaeda and other foreign jihadist groups.

Today, the Boko Haram threat has spread across the Lake Chad Basin into neighbouring Cameroon, Chad and Niger, attracting millions of dollars in counterterror funding and security assistance from the US, the UK and France.  The threat though has not diminished -- nor has the international security funding and assistance.

Exactly a decade later, a sense of déjà vu lurks over the case of another Nigerian cleric with no links to Boko Haram. Experts warn that the government’s treatment of this case could pose a serious security challenge in Nigeria and are urging authorities not to repeat the mistakes of the past.

On Monday, August 5, a court in the northern Nigerian city of Kaduna is expected to rule on a bail application for a Shiite Muslim cleric requesting permission to travel to India for urgent medical treatment.

Ibrahim el-Zakzaky, leader of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN) – a Shiite minority sect with close ties to Iran – has been in detention since 2015 despite a court order for his release. Zakzaky’s lawyers say the 66-year-old cleric and his wife, Zinat, need urgent medical attention since they have not received “standard treatment” in prison.

The bail hearing comes a week after the Nigerian government banned the IMN, declaring the group’s activities amounted to “acts of terrorism and illegality.”

The proscription followed months of peaceful protests in the capital, Abuja, by Zakzaky’s supporters calling for his release. The demonstrations however turned deadly last month after Nigerian police “fired apparently unlawfully on a peaceful protest,” according to the New York-based Human Rights Watch.  Eleven protesters, a journalist and a police officer were killed, according to witnesses and authorities.

'Shiites are also Muslims'

The Nigerian government’s decision to ban the IMN came despite calls from international human rights and Nigerian civil society groups to learn from the mistakes of the past. Banning the Shiite movement, activists warn, would force it to go underground, and brutal security crackdowns would radicalise supporters, leading to more violence.

Nigeria’s Roman Catholic Cardinal John Onaiyekan also joined the chorus of criticisms, noting that “various tribunals and courts have ordered that he [Zakzaky] be released and the government refuses to obey the court order.” In an interview with Vatican Radio, Cardinal Onaiyekan said, “The cause of all this is that the established Sunni majority in Nigeria does not want to admit that there are non-Sunnis who are Muslims. They don’t want to recognise the fact that the Shiites are also Muslims, and because of this, the government treats them with serious violence.”

Split between a mostly Muslim north and a predominantly Christian and animist south, Nigeria has long been a tinderbox for ethnic and religious unrest. Over the past few months, tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran are roiling Africa’s most populous nation, injecting superpower-backed, intra-sectarian tensions into an already explosive mix.

As US President Donald Trump tightens the noose around Iran, experts warn that Tehran will increase its use of proxies in Africa and Asia in a bid to extend its influence and counteract what it views as an existential threat from Washington.

Soft power battle for Islam in Nigeria

The soft power battle for the soul of Islam in Nigeria began back in the early 1970s, when Saudi-funded Salafists began taking on the traditional Sufi brotherhoods -- such as the Tijaniyya and Qadiriyya – that have operated in West Africa. The Salafis made rapid inroads among Nigeria’s overwhelmingly Sunni Muslims, funding scholarships to the Saudi-based Islamic University of Madinah, and supporting alumni who returned to their homeland to become clerics.

Zakzaky, the founder of IMN, was a Sunni Muslim who converted to Shiism after the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Following a trip to Iran, Zakzaky began proselytizing in his homeland, converting millions of Nigerian Sunni Muslims to Shiism and earning the title of a cleric.

Based in Zaria, a city in the northern state of Kaduna, the IMN ran schools, mosques and welfare programmes such as soup kitchens and shelters, becoming the “mecca for the dispossessed in Nigeria," explained Matthew Page, an associate fellow at the London-based Chatham House and a former US State Department specialist on Nigeria, in an interview with Bloomberg.

Larger and more mainstream than the fringe Boko Haram movement, the IMN carried on its activities for over three decades. While the group’s brand of revolutionary Islam earned the wrath of northern Nigeria’s traditional elites and Saudi-linked Salafi groups such as the al-Izala movement, the Shiite movement largely stayed out of the crosshairs of the Nigerian security services.

That began to change after May 2015, when Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari -- who has close ties to Saudi Arabia – came to power.

A massacre in Zaria

Following the signing of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and ascension of King Salman to the House of Saud throne, Saudi cables released by WikiLeaks revealed Riyadh’s concern over Iran-driven Shiite expansion into Africa and Asia.

By the end of the year, tensions were increasing between the IMN and authorities in Kaduna state. On December 12, 2015, Nigerian troops launched a massive crackdown on the group, killing more than 300 members over a three-day operation in Zaria, according to human rights groups.

Zakzaky and his wife were arrested during the crackdown, triggering protests calling for their release.

Nigerian authorities said they attacked IMN establishments in Zaria after a group of Zakzaky’s supporters attempted to block the convoy of Nigeria’s army chief, Gen. Tukur Yusuf Buratai, in an attempt to kill him. The Shiite group denies the allegations.

Shortly after the crackdown, Saudi media released a statement on a phone call between Nigerian President Buhari and King Salman during which the Saudi monarch pledged support for Nigeria’s fight against terrorist groups and “rejected any foreign intervention”.  The statement was widely seen as a sign of Saudi support for the crackdown and a warning against Iranian interference in Nigeria.

A year after Zakzaky’s arrest, the Federal High Court in Abuja ordered the release of the Shiite cleric and his wife, but Kaduna state authorities have refused to comply with the court order, fueling anger among Nigerian Shiites.

‘Death to Saudi Arabia’

In recent months, IMN protests have drawn thousands to the streets of Abuja, many of them chanting, “Death to Buhari, death to Saudi Arabia, free Zakzaky, die for Zakzaky”.

For Nigeria’s Shiites, the Kaduna state government’s refusal to comply with the 2016 court order releasing Zakzaky from jail was taken as a sign that the Nigerian government was willing to subvert the country’s judiciary.

Last month’s decision by Nigerian authorities to ban the movement has further underscored the government’s uncompromising position on the group.

“In a way, the mentality of the Nigerian state in terms of its internal security is very much a mindset reminiscent of Nigeria under military rule before the 1999 return to democracy. Of course we have a president now who is a former military man and has that mindset,” said Chatham House’s Page, referring to Buhari’s long military career, in an interview with Al Jazeera English. “Nigeria has long taken this approach to elements in its society that are troublesome for the government or that cause unrest and use a heavy hand, often committing gross violations of human rights in trying to control them.”

But while the Nigerian military has a record of violent crackdowns complete with gross human rights violations, they have a poor record of tackling security threats. That, in effect, feeds an increasing cycle of reliance upon and demands for international counterterror assistance.

IMN members have been warning that the government’s continuing pressure on the group risks driving members to violence.

"They're trying so hard to get the Islamic movement to a point where we say, 'That's it, let's defend ourselves and take up weapons’,", Zakzaky's daughter, Suhailah Maleshiya, told AFP. "Watching your brothers killed again and again would change how anyone thinks," added Maleshiya, who studies in Malaysia.

Among Zakzaky’s surviving children and supporters, concerns are mounting over his health. The 66-year-old cleric has lost vision in one eye and was in danger of “losing the second one,” his lawyer, Femi Falana, told reporters last month. Zakzaky and his wife still have “pellets of bullets in their bodies,” said Falana, which were sustained during their 2015 arrest.

The Shiite cleric was not present in court last week for a bail hearing since his health was “very bad,” said Falana. “That is why we applied that he be excused from appearance in court and it was granted.”

Zakzaky’s supporters and civil society groups hope the court will grant him bail to travel to India for medical treatment. Prosecutors have argued that the medical care Zakzaky needs is available in Nigeria. But even if the court does grant permission, his supporters aren’t sure Nigerian authorities will follow its orders.

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