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Islamic Movement of Nigeria: A Catalyst for Change or Source of Conflict?

Updated: Nov 29, 2023

Editor in Chief

The National Mosque in Abuja, Nigeria - Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Conflict between Sunni and Shia Muslims has dominated Islamic communities for over one and a half thousand years, originating from a succession dispute after the death of Prophet Muhammad. Presently, tension between the two sects can be observed across the Islamic world, notably in Arab nations where Sunnis are increasingly wary of Iranian influence. Little attention, however, is paid to the tension brewing in Africa, a continent where Sunnis have traditionally dominated Islamic culture and politics. Although Shia presence on the continent has existed since the emergence of the sect, notably in Egypt where the Fatimid Caliphate ruled for two centuries, African Shias have always been a small majority.

Yet since the 1970s, a growing Shia community has been radically altering the politics of Nigeria. The sub-Saharan nation has long been battling an internal conflict against Islamic extremism. Boko-Haram infamously launched a brutal campaign of violence across the north, however, now many of the victims of this conflict find themselves engaged in battle against the very government claiming to protect them. Organising and leading the Shia community is the “Islamic Movement of Nigeria”, a politically active organisation inspired by the 1979 Iranian Revolution and in opposition to the secular Nigerian constitution. Consequently, this has resulted in its banning and labelling as a terrorist organisation by the government, despite its mostly non-violent nature.

Origins of the Islamic Movement

Founded in the early 1980s by Ibrahim al-Zakzaky, an economics student at the Ahmadu Bello University in Nigeria’s northern Kaduna State, the Islamic Movement emerged as a radical new political force. al-Zakzaky had been active in student Islamic activism, seeing Islam as Nigeria’s best defence against foreign influence over the nation. Despite Nigeria's independence from the British Empire in 1960, its newfound sovereignty was continuously challenged by post-colonial influence by Britain and foreign manipulation from competing powers.

The Nigerian Civil War blatantly exposed this as both Britain and the Soviet Union intervened in propping up the Nigerian government and military whilst rival powers and Western mercenaries backed Biafran separatists. For young Nigerian political activists, especially Muslims, the Cold War’s attempt at dividing the world into a dichotomy was unappealing. They would not expel Anglo-American influence only to be subservient to a new Soviet master. Then in 1979, the Iranian Revolution happened. Global news coverage of Islamic revolutionaries denouncing both the Western-backed Shah and communism resonated with al-Zakzaky who began to rally his fellow students to the cause of revolutionary Islam under the banner of the Islamic Movement.

At first, preaching Islam as an alternative to capitalism and socialism, after visiting Iran in 1980, al-Zakzaky fully incorporated Khomeini’s personality and ideology into his worldview. Despite publicly declaring the Islamic Movement “non-sectarian”, Shia Islam took centre stage with the traditional Sunni leadership in Nigeria - most notably the Sultan of Sokoto - accused of working with the secular government to undermine Islamic values.

The Islamic Movement continued to grow, establishing its institutions across Kaduna State. Al -Zakzaky’s calls for introducing Sharia Law in line with Shia teachings and rejecting Nigeria’s secular constitution and governance immediately created tensions, resulting in protests against secular institutions during the early ‘90s. Averse to any form of civil disobedience, the military dictatorship under General Babangida ordered local authorities to jail al-Zakzaky multiple times. However, attempts to suppress the movement and Shia Islam failed.

The Shia population has grown from almost non-existence before the 1970s to approximately 3 to 7 million people, with around 50% of Nigeria’s population adhering to Islam. The Sunni majority has seen a minor but consistently rising conversion to Shia. Whilst not all Shias align with the Islamic Movement, it is widely considered by government and non-government actors to be the largest representative of the community. Thus, many Nigerian Shias have found themselves unwillingly associated with an escalating political conflict, one that has resulted in the deaths of thousands.

Islam dominates Nigeria's northern regions | Source: Afrobarometer Survey (2012)

Upheaval and Oppression

Today the movement operates well-organised administrative branches across most of Nigeria, operating schools, mosques, hospitals and even providing social welfare to Shia communities requiring aid. The movement’s rise to prominence combined with al-Zakzaky’s open hostility towards the Nigerian government has resulted in a fierce crackdown. The tension between Nigerian security forces and the Islamic Movement reached a breaking point in 2014 when, following two bomb attacks - allegedly perpetrated by Boko Haram - an annual al-Quds Day procession in support of Palestine erupted into conflict. Security forces opened fire on demonstrators resulting in the deaths of 34 people including three sons of al-Zakzaky.

Despite widespread condemnation from the Islamic world and human rights groups, the conflict continued. Nigerians across the country were shocked to hear activists and media groups expose that on Saturday, 12 December 2015, at least 1000 Shias had been massacred by the Nigerian Army, with 347 bodies secretly buried in a mass grave. The horrific incident occurring in the city of Zaria was described by Amnesty International as a

“mass slaughter”, and involved the killing of children and burning of corpses openly in the streets.

Conflicting narratives over both incidents have occurred with the military blaming Shia aggression against soldiers and alleged terrorist attack attempts as justifying the mass shootings. However, eye-witness reports counter this, claiming that Shias were unarmed and non-violent. Al-Zakzaky has accused the Nigerian government of colluding with Israeli intelligence to assassinate Islamic Movement members, citing a Zionist plot to control Nigeria. Both narratives are counter-productive to providing a solution to this mass violence.

The rise of Boko Haram and its brutal conquest across northern Nigeria resulted in high levels of distrust towards new Islamic groups.

Whilst Boko Haram have been as brutal to Shias as they have been to Christians and Sunnis, there is undoubtedly suspicion in the military that the Islamic Movement could transform into another uncontrollable insurgency. Boko Haram and the Islamic Movement share disdain for Western influence over Nigeria, secularism and liberal democracy, both have attempted to construct their own societies independent from government authority. The Boko Haram insurgency at its height controlled significant territories across Niger and Nigeria, displacing millions through coordinated chaos. Fear thus engulfed the region, catalysing a brutal military response to any new potential threats.

This fear is further compounded by the Islamic Movement’s similarities to the Iranian-backed Hezbollah. Hezbollah has over decades constructed what the Council on Foreign Relations calls “a state within a state”. The Shia militant group controls territories throughout Northern Lebanon independent of government jurisdiction, enforcing Sharia Law through its own Judicial Council. Its political wing, the Loyalty to the Resistance Bloc, maintains influence in the Lebanese parliament whilst its armed forces engage in conflicts, independent of Lebanese foreign policy. Hezbollah’s grip over Lebanon promotes Shia political power in a sea of competing ethnic and religious groups; likewise in Iraq, the Shia-dominated Popular Mobilization Forces conducts similar activities.

Al-Zakazky meeting with Iranian Ayatollah, Ali Khamenei | Source: Ali Teymoori

Al-Zakazky has openly proclaimed the Islamic Movement’s inspiration in following a “Khomenist” inspired political path, establishing a lightly armed “Hezbollah-like” guard corps. The Islamic Movement’s calls for Shia autonomy are understandably viewed as a slippery slope descending into an independent force ungovernable from Abuja.

These concerns however do not justify the human rights violations committed by the Nigerian military. The banning of the movement in 2019 has paved the way for authorities to occupy Shia communities. Last May saw the destruction of hospitals, schools and residential buildings across Kaduna state that were alleged to belong to the Islamic Movement. In reality though, these properties belonged mostly to Shias unaligned and uninvolved in active politics; now facing persecution and the loss of their homes they are left without few options. Rebuild whilst risking further alienation from the government, or band together with other Shias, mobilizing in protest through the Islamic Movement.

Thus, government attacks to weaken the movement have instead backfired; the Shia population is continuing to grow, creating greater manpower for al-Zakazky. Extrajudicial killings and a full-frontal assault against the Shia community will only radicalise the Islamic Movement, deepening its resentment of Abuja and Kaduna authorities.

Potential for Islamic Extremism

Boko Haram existed on the fringes of Nigerian society until 2009 when troops surrounded the home of its leader, Mohammed Yusuf, summarily executing him. Until this point Boko Haram had conducted its operations in remote north-eastern regions, rarely engaging in open violence. However, the execution of their leader fanaticised members, justifying to its most militant figures that open war was the only response in alignment with ISIL and later al-Qaeda. Although violent incidents have occurred in the past, the Islamic Movement has consistently resisted militancy. Al-Zakazky’s commitment to non-violent politics in the face of fierce persecution should be treated by the Nigerian government as an opportunity to resolve conflict. But will al-Zakazky’s successors maintain his commitment?

If al-Zakazky were to be killed by security forces, his death, like Yusuf’s, could set a dangerous precedent. Instigating younger Shias to pursue a terror campaign like Boko Haram. A previous split in the Islamic Movement resulted in radical anti-al-Zakazky Shias publicly beheading a Christian trader in 1994. Thankfully this Salafist-inspired splinter group failed to garner a following, yet what happens if a similar splinter were to happen today?

For the time being the Islamic Movement is willing to work with other religious groups, in 2017 the movement pledged to defend Christian churches from Islamic extremists and in 2019 Catholic Cardinals in Abuja denounced the banning of the group. Claiming the decision as “unjust” and citing concerns over the potential for other minority religious groups to receive similar persecution. The Nigerian government’s approach to the movement is eerily similar to its actions against an early Boko Haram. Will the Islamic Movement transform itself into an organised militant terror organisation? Probably not. Yet reports of training camps by Nigerian intelligence are dampening hopes for de-escalation.

Sharia Law and Sunni autonomy are already practised legally in Northern Nigeria; Shias are justified in their desire to practise their faith freely without disruption. If the Nigerian government wishes to avoid further religious conflict it must restrain the military and Kaduna authorities, open dialogue with the Islamic Movement and revoke impunity for soldiers and commanders who have engaged in human rights abuse. De-escalation from the government and the opportunity for the Islamic Movement to engage in political dialogue would de-radicalise Shias who have lost hope in non-violent action and provide opportunities for other Shia political groups to emerge.

The Islamic Movement’s power comes from its monopoly over Shias, this monopoly is fuelled by government attacks against the group driving recruitment. There is an opportunity to resolve the conflict before it escalates into extremist asymmetrical warfare, but only if Shias are allowed to freely practise faith and non-violent politics without unlawful intervention.


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