So much has been said about the December 12 confrontation between the Nigerian Army and members of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria led by Sheikh Ibraheem El-Zakzaky, the leader of the Shia in Nigeria. I guess the point has been well-made that there are faults on both sides. There seems to be a consensus, however, that the followers of Ali, better known as Shiites or the Shia, seem to enjoy confrontations with the state and seem determined to disregard dominant authority- Islamic and secular.
By the same token, the Nigerian security establishment has since the 1980s showed an equal determination to put el Zakzaky in his place. But in no way does this justify the extra-judicial killing of members of the Islamic Movement, or the use of the word, “Prisoners of War” (POW) to describe its detained members. The Nigerian Government since the 80s has set up a series of panels of inquiry and produced tomes on the subject of forging peaceful relations between the state and religion, and yet religion remains a key threat to amalgamation and the sanctity of the Nigerian state.
What we are dealing with is something deeper- it is the outflow of a deep schism within the Islamic faith on the questions of authenticity and legitimacy, in terms of what constitutes rules, doctrines, interpretations and values. This old battle for doctrinal supremacy is what has been responsible for the divisions within the faith since the First Fitna. It is the drama being played out in the Middle East. It is the story and politics of ISIS and ISIL. This is why it will be wrong to describe the Islamic Movement in Nigeria’s constant conflict with the Nigerian state as a confrontation between Nigerian Muslims and the state, to the extent that ISIS or ISIL does not speak for all Muslims just as the ISMIN does not speak for all Nigerian Muslims.
There are many Muslims in the North and across Nigeria who do not agree with El Zakzaky’s preaching and his mode of organization. Sectarian differences between Shiites and the Sunnis, who lay claim to a more authentic version of Islam, are often transported onto the platform of the open society. A Nigerian Sunni in uniform who is wielding a gun, confronted by a Shiite insisting on lack of regard for the state, will willingly open fire on that promoter of a branch of the religion, which he considers unacceptable.
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The state gets blamed, but the battle is in the hearts of the men on both sides: an ideological as well as indoctrination battle. This connection between the hearts of men, their beliefs, and the circumstances of power relations in which they find themselves significantly defines the outcomes in cases such as this. It explains the loud silences from critical quarters, including government.
For example, in a famous 2014 letter from Sheik Ahmad Gumi, a Nigerian Sunni Islamic leader, the former accused El-Zakzaky of bringing “a lot of bad innovations among Nigerian Muslims that rather than unite the Muslims are further entrenching the divide without any added value to the worldly development nor the hereafter…” These innovations include the blocking of roads, disregard for state authority and the rights of other Nigerians, incitement, resort to abuse and the deployment of hate speech. Gumi complained about “the delinquency of your followers and the disturbance of public peace.” He identified the root of the crisis when he said: “How can you be the good servants of Allah when you call other human beings beside him?” He refers to this as “path to perdition.”
The response by El Zakzaky signed by one Ibrahim Usman simply accused Dr. Gumi of hatred and of ordering the shooting of Shias by the Nigerian government. This argument between a Sunni Sheik and a Shia Sheik, would still have been just as emotional and ideological if it had been between either of them and a leader of the Sufi brotherhood: the Tijaniya, the Quadiriyya or the Ahmaddiya. This battle is fought at many levels within the Nigerian space, oftentimes with state apparatus as cover. The saving grace is that no one has said that the man who ordered the shooting or those who pulled the trigger against the Shiites in Zaria on December 12, are Christians.
The bigger responsibility of the state may well lie in preventing the spread of the radicalism that turns the likes of Sheik El-Zakzaky into such powerful figures that they command millions of radical men and women who do not recognize the state or are prepared to use every possible means to affirm the supremacy of their doctrine. El-Zakzaky practically grew into an institution before the very eyes of the Nigerian state. While freedom of religion and worship is in order, there must be stronger structures for promoting inter and intra-religious understanding. The existing platforms for such dialogue on peaceful co-existence are weak and almost ineffectual, and the political elite, seeking power, often compromises itself by promoting those whose doctrines pose a threat to peace and unity.
El-Zakzaky’s ding-dong battle with the Nigerian state, for example, has been on since the 80s. He has spent a total of nine years in nine prisons across the country. The polyglottal First Class Graduate of Economics from Ahmadu Bello University has in 35 years built a movement that started with just a few hundreds of youths, looking for answers to matters of faith, into a nationwide network that boasts of two million members or more. That is more than the population of many countries. “If we want a million people out on the streets on any issue, we can do that”, he once told the BBC.
This pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel, pro-Iran, pro-Iraq fiercely ideological religious leader emerged as the commander of an army of youths and adults who have bought into a branch of Islamic preaching that considers itself superior even within the faith. Each time in the past that el-Zakzaky was taken to court for the excesses of his members, he always came out of it even far more defiant than he had been. After a two-year trial in 1998, he not only walked free, the state acted as if it had indeed been defeated. El-Zakzaky became more powerful thereafter as the population of his followers grew.
He is not the first of his type. Before him, there was Mohammed Marwa, popularly known as Maitatsine whose confrontations with the Nigerian state resulted in bloodbath, of a scale similar to that of present-day Boko Haram. Maitatsine also questioned the authority of the state and caused divisions among Nigerian Muslims with his controversial interpretations of the Quoran. He rejected the Hadith and the Sunnah, and expressed lack of belief in Prophet Mohammed (SAW). He was opposed to Western modernization and the use of cars, wristwatches and bicycles. His young followers attacked other religious leaders and engaged the police in many battles. Between 1980 and 2004, more than 10, 000 lives were lost to Maitatsine riots, which spread across the North. Marwa himself was killed in 1980, but the radical Islamic Movement which he led known as Yan Tantsine, outlived him and survived for more than 20 years later under the leadership of Musa Makaniki, who succeeded him.
Ustaz Muhammad Yusuf is another re-incarnation of the radical wing of Islam: an offshoot of the Maitatsine. He is remembered as the leader and founder of Boko Haram, the Islamic sect whose members claim they are committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad. (Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lida’awati wal Jihad). Boko Haram was founded in 2002 and it took on the task of confronting government and the progressive world. In 2009, the police killed Yusuf; their excuse was that he was trying to escape from custody but Nigeria has not known peace since then. What began as an objection to Western education and Darwinism has turned into a protracted full-scale war against Nigeria, an attempt to carve an Islamic state out of the country and the conversion of parts of Nigeria into extensions of the sphere of global terror. Today, Nigeria is regarded as a leading theatre of terror, with more than 10, 000 lives lost in the last six months alone.
Religious conflict, sectarianism and the growth of radical religious movements and their problematic cult leaders have always posed a threat to Nigeria’s sovereignty and the capacity of the Nigerian state to maintain peace and security. The principal victims are ordinary Nigerians who get cut in the crossfire and who suffer the consequences of living in a state of fear. What makes it more frightening is the internationalization of the crisis. In the present case, the Shia Government of Iran has declared open support for El-Zakzaky. The Iranian Military also reportedly posted a statement referring to the Nigerian Government as a “puppet regime.” There was a street protest in Tehran on Friday, Dec. 18.
As if to balance these responses, the Government of Saudi Arabia has intervened in support of the Nigerian Government. This Middle Eastern extension of the matter should alert the Federal Government to the need to take every step to ensure that the ideological battles being fought in that region do not open new flanks on our shores as a proxy platform. We cannot afford a sectarian war, in addition to Boko Haram. In the meantime, the Federal Government must object very strongly to the insolence of the Iranian military. We don’t have a puppet regime in Nigeria. We have a duly elected government.
Radical religious leaders often seek martyrdom. The death of Muhammed Marwa and Muhammed Yusuf turned them into martyrs, and worsened the Nigerian condition. Wherever El-Zakzaky is being held, the Federal Government must ensure that nothing happens to him. A man who boasts of millions of followers across the country could become the catalyst for something worse than Boko Haram. He and many of his followers, like the Boko Haram leader, Yusuf, are university graduates. It is a pity that our education system has become a breeding ground for cultists, fanatics and anti-state elements. Whatever is responsible for this: social or economic needs to be addressed.
It should also be noted that radical religious movements from the Izala to the Maitatsine, to El-Zakzaky’s Islamic Movement to Boko Haram draw their membership from the ranks of young Nigerians, male and female, who find heroes and answers in wrong places and circumstances and who become victims of the Lucifer effect- that condition whereby people who should be or are otherwise good become evil. Young Nigerians need to be rescued and turned into good citizens in an open and happy society. Education? Economic empowerment?, Re-orientation? Family values? Distancing religion from politics? Yes… It won’t happen overnight, but we must begin to realize that our response so far is behind the curve in dealing with challenges of impunity and ideological extremism.
Dr. Reuben Abati was Spokesman and Special Adviser, Media and Publicity to President Goodluck Jonathan (2011 – 2015). He tweets from @abati1990.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the writer.