Why Nigeria's Shiite Conflict Is Flaring Up Again

A man pushes a cart filled with water bottles past a sign reading "Kill Boko Haram Not Shia" in Kano, Nigeria on April 8. Tensions between the IMN and Nigerian authorities in the past year threaten to further destabilize a country already fighting Boko Haram. Sunday Alamba/AP

On October 12, Shiite Muslims marked Ashura, the holiest day of their religious calendar, when devotees mourn the death of the Prophet Muhammad's grandson. But for Nigerian Shiites, the mourning was not just symbolic: Security forces and angry Sunni mobs disrupted processions across northern Nigeria, killing at least 11 people. The country's biggest Shiite organization, the Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN), claims government-backed thugs also looted and burned Shiite homes and businesses. The central government has not responded to the claims, but the state government in northern Nigeria where the violence took place has blamed "mobs" for the violence.

On November 14, further clashes between the IMN and police were reported during a Shiite procession in the northern city of Kano, resulting in several deaths. The IMN said that police killed 18 members after firing on the "peaceful procession," but police confirmed only eight deaths plus an officer.

The violence is the latest example of tension between the IMN and Nigerian authorities in the past year, and it threatens to further destabilize a country already fighting Boko Haram, an extremist group in the country's northeast, as well as other militants attacking Nigeria's oil reserves in the Niger Delta. An October report by Nigerian consultancy SBM Intelligence called the consequences of further conflict between Nigerian security forces and the IMN "far-reaching, devastating and possibly apocalyptic."

The strife began escalating in December 2015, when the Nigerian army killed hundreds of IMN members in Zaria, a city in the northwestern state of Kaduna. The Shiites had set up a roadblock to direct traffic for a religious ceremony; the army interpreted the barrier as part of a plot to assassinate the Nigerian army's top general, Tukur Yusuf Buratai , who was in a passing convoy.

Pediatrician Shuaibu Musa says he was on a 50 mile journey to Zaria from Kaduna on the day the clashes broke out. He received a phone call from a fellow IMN member warning him not to come. "They said armed soldiers had surrounded our husainiyyah [Islamic center] and that they were shooting," says Musa, 50. He lists friends killed or missing after the conflict, including a family of seven who he says were all killed. "I know so many, I can count on and on," he says.

Shiite children demonstrate for the release of Sheikh Zakzaky in Kaduna.
Children of members of the IMN campaign for the release of their leader Sheikh Zakzaky in Kaduna, Nigeria, March 14. Zakzaky has been in detention since December 2015 after clashes between the IMN and Nigerian security forces. Stringer/Reuters

During the clashes, Nigerian soldiers arrested the IMN's founder and leader, Sheikh Ibrahim Zakzaky. Trained in Iran, Zakzaky functions as the group's spiritual and temporal leader, and has been detained for the past 11 months without being charged. He is believed to be still alive but has reportedly suffered substantial injuries during the violence. His detention is being used as a bargaining chip by the Nigerian authorities to prevent violent protests by the IMN, according to Marc-Antoine Pérouse de Montclos, associate fellow at Chatham House. "He's a hostage, basically. It's part of a bargain," he says. "Don't uprise, otherwise we'll finish him off."

Responding to pressure from international human rights groups and Iran, which is overwhelmingly Shiite, Kaduna's state government established a commission to investigate the killings. It found that Nigerian soldiers had used excessive force in the clashes, resulting in the deaths of 348 IMN members. The Shiite group claims that another 850 of its members remain missing.

The IMN and the Nigerian government disagree over whether the IMN is a minority religious organization facing persecution from the Sunni majority or a radical political group undermining Nigeria's sovereignty. On October 7, Kaduna's governor banned the IMN ; membership now carries a maximum sentence of seven years in prison. The ban has since spread to five other states. The IMN says the measure effectively prohibits Shiite Islam; the Kaduna state government disputes that.

Some Muslim leaders are afraid that the Nigerian government's repression of the IMN could radicalize the group, which holds powerful sway over the country's estimated 3 million Shiites. Nigeria's highest Islamic authority, the Sultan of Sokoto, said the Zaria clashes bore a troubling resemblance to a military crackdown on Boko Haram in 2009. The militant group subsequently launched its ongoing insurgency against the government, which has killed thousands of people.

But IMN members say they have no intention to take up arms. On November 2, members of the group demonstrated outside government buildings in the capital, Abuja, demanding freedom for their imprisoned leader, Zakzaky. For journalist Abdulmumin Giwa, an IMN member, that's proof the government's ban is wrong. As he puts it: "No terrorist group would be coming out with peaceful protests.