Banned Shia Muslims: Are They a Threat to Nigeria and the Sahel?

ECOWAS leaders have pledged $1 billion to combat the escalating threat of Islamist militancy in West Africa.

Mahamadou Issoufou, ECOWAS chairperson and the President of Niger, accused the international community of creating Libya’s current political crisis, as Islamic terrorist groups in Libya with links to Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq strengthen their foothold in the Sahel region.

“It is the international community which is the cause of the Libyan crisis,” he said. “The Libyan crisis of which we are suffering the consequences in the Sahel region as well as in the Lake Chad. So now is not the time to divert our gaze away from the Sahel and the Lake Chad.”

This pledge came after the UN urged West African nations to bolster its response to ultra-rising Islamic attacks. Beyond current military efforts, “addressing the humanitarian crisis and drivers of the conflict will be a key issue,” it advised.

Olufemi Vaughan, Professor of Black Studies at Amhert College, Massachusetts, has argued that ethnoreligious division is woven into the history of colonial Nigeria.

“Following Nigeria’s independence from Britain in 1960,” his book reads, “Christian-Muslim tensions became manifest in regional and religious conflicts over the expansion of sharia [law], in fierce competition among political elites for state power, and the rise of Boko Haram. These tensions are not just conflicted over religious beliefs, ethnicity, and regionalism; they represent structural imbalances founded on the religious divisions forged under colonial rule.”

The US government has predicted that Nigeria will be a failed state by 2030. In a 122-page case study of the nation-state, the US government cites many factors for the inevitable decline of “Africa’s giant” into civil war.

“In its relatively short modern history, Nigeria has survived five military coups as well as separatist and religious wars, is mired in an active armed insurgency, is suffering from disastrous ecological conditions in its Niger Delta region, and is fighting one of the modern world’s worst legacies of political and economic corruption.

“A nation with more than 350 ethnic groups, 250 languages, and three distinct religious affiliations—Christian, Islamic, and animist, Nigeria’s 135 million people today are anything but homogenous. Of Nigeria’s 36 states, 12 are Islamic and under the strong and growing influence of the Sokoto [Sunni] caliphate.

“While religious and ethnic violence are commonplace, the federal government has managed to strike a tenuous balance among the disparate religious and ethnic factions. With such demographics, Nigeria’s failure would be akin to a piece of fine china dropped on a utile floor—it would simply shatter into potentially hundreds of pieces.”

The US government’s interest in Nigeria’s failure can be argued to be neocolonial self-interest, akin to the world power’s past with invading resource-rich nations for its sown wealth-accumulation. As President Issoufou argued, the international community, including the United States, is to blame for the Libyan crisis and, due to trickle-down effects, the terrorism crisis in the Sahel.

Nevertheless, the US’ case study explicates the tribal, regional and religious acrimony that has haunted Nigeria since its amalgamation in 1914.

From Civil War to Civil War?

Nigeria’s amalgamation joined disparate states together under one major British rule: the majority Hausa, Yoruba and Igbo tribes in the Northern, South-Western and South-Eastern parts of the nation were incongruous ethnoreligious tribes.

Amalgamation under one state would only serve to solidify severe ideological differences, differences which soon led to the Biafran War, Nigeria’s civil war between 1967-1970.

Nigeria, today, is led by President Muhammadu Buhari, a Sunni Muslim who was a pivotal leader during the Biafran War. His government has been accused of numerous cases of persecuting and killing Shia Muslims.

Under his presidency, the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) has been deemed a threat to Nigerian society and government. Formed by Sheik Ibrahim El-Zakzaky, the IMN is a small faction of Shia Muslims who, according to the Nigerian government: “views … Sheikh El-Zakzaky as the only legitimate source of authority in Nigeria … It does not recognise the authority of the Nigerian government, and views its leaders both Muslims and Christians as corrupt and ungodly.

“The main aim of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria is to propagate the ideology in Iran and turn the country [Nigeria] into an Islamic state as was done in the Iranian Revolution of 1979.”

The IMN, unlike Boko Haram, have been non-violent. Countercurrents calls the IMN is a “humanitarian organisation”. While it admits that El-Zakzaky was inspired by the Iranian Revolution, it also accuses the majority-Sunni Nigerian government leaders of persecuting Shia Muslims for sectarian reasons.

With accusations of Iran supporting El-Zakzaky’s work in Nigeria, supporters of the Sheik have accused the Nigerian government of being funded by Saudi Arabia and Israel. Countercurrents reports that both countries orchestrated Nigeria’s attack on Zakzaky “to undermine Iran’s growing ideological clout in the region”.

“The brutal lack of justice against Shia Muslims in Nigeria brings the credibility of the State into question. Injustice is apparent in the prosecution of Zakzaky’s case as evidence is lacking and there is inconsistency within the governments judicial and executive actions,” Shia Rights Watch said.

The ethno-religious tensions between the Sunni Nigerian government and the Shia Muslim population seems to be one more step towards another civil war.