What informed the radicalization of a first-rate economist and orator of the purest category? Who and what is responsible for his ditching the brand of Islam passed down to Prophet Mohammed (Peace be upon him) for a variant seen as not conforming to the teachings of the Quran, the holy book of the Muslims. SECURITY MONITOR DIRISU YAKUBU of our Northern Operations finds out what exactly is the attraction in violence for a man who in the last few decades defied the laws of the land to engage security personnel in a battle for supremacy, even at a personal loss, very difficult to quantify in monetary terms? These are the questions on the lips of many Nigerians today following the recent clash in Zaria between the Nigerian Army and Sheikh El-Zakzaky’s Shiites Muslims which unfortunately led to the death of many. For pundits in the land, the extra-judicial killing of Mohammed Yusuf, founder of the dreaded Boko Haram sect is to blame for the brutal campaign later embarked upon by his followers which until recently swept through the North-Eastern states of Adamawa, Borno, Yobe amongst others.
Bar none, Sheikh Ibrahim El-Zakzaky, leader of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria, IMN, is the most trending character in the traditional news tabloids and online platforms in recent times. The controversial cleric, fresh from dismissing the Boko Haram sect as the brain behind the death of five followers of his movement during their symbolic trek from Kano to Zaria few months ago, is in the news for yet, another clash with military authority, similar to that of 2014 in geographical affinity. But unlike in the past when his confrontations with agents of the state were dealt with in kids glove, the recent tragedy in Zaria involving the Shiites sect and the Nigerian Army has elicited international response, with many urging the government of Muhammadu Buhari to tread carefully on the matter, or risk raising another band of terrorists in the mould of the now heavily decimated Boko Haram insurgents. So worrisome is the matter at issue that pro-Shiites demonstrations took place in at least four states of the federation, with SECURITY MONITOR investigations depicting more in the offing. As a result, the Buhari administration must seeks ways of nipping in the bud, the impending doom which outcome remains unpredictable for now.
Late last year, the convoy of Lt. General Tukur Buratai, the Chief of Army Staff (COAS) was blocked and reportedly attacked in Zaria, Kaduna State by members of IMN, acting purportedly on the directives of El-Zakzaky. According to reports, Buratai was in Zaria to attend the passing out parade of the 2015 band of regular intakes of the Nigerian Army and in line with tradition, was expected to pay homage to Dr. Shehu Idris, the Emir of Zazzau. However, his convoy was prevented from continuing its journey by members of El-Zakzaky’s sect forcing some officers to come down to plead with them. Apparently carried away by the humility of the military, the sect stood their ground and insisted that unless a counter directive from their leader was issued, there would be no way of passage for Buratai and his men. The Army alleged that members of the sect thereafter resorted to throwing dangerous weapons at the convoy and attempted to assassinate the COAS, leaving them with no option but to act appropriately in line with the Army’s Rules of Engagement. A statement credited to Acting Director, Army Public Relations, Colonel Sani Usman, said El-Zakzaky and his crop of followers not only breached public peace but consider themselves above the laws of the land. He lamented the sad event this way: “Yesterday’s (December 12 2015) incident involving clashes between detachments of the Nigerian Army, accompanying the Chief of Army Staff and followers of Sheikh Ibrahim El-Zakzaky, suspected to be members of the Shiite sect in Zaria, leading to loss of lives as a result of the Shiite group members’ blocking roads and not allowing other passers-by to go about their lawful businesses and activities, was most unfortunate,” adding that regardless of what the sect thought of themselves, the laws of the land remain supreme at all times and in all circumstances.
Colonel Usman noted with pity the fact that the Sheikh massed his followers along a federal road and forced other road users to either return to their abodes or watched the sect helplessly in their ‘so-called’ religious procession and outright lawlessness. “The Nigerian Constitution” said Col. Usman “guarantees the rights of any group of persons and Sheikh El-Zakzaky’s followers to hold a peaceful march or procession unhindered, but it also guarantees other people’s rights of way on public highways. It is important to note that over the years, this group has subjected ordinary citizens using public space irrespective of inconvenience and hardship on other law abiding citizens and motorists.” At the end of the hostilities, scores of the sect members were killed, including Muhammadu Turi, Mustapha Saheed and Saheed Aliyu, Deputy Leader, head of the medical team of the sect and son of the Sheikh, respectively. The Army, reports claim invaded the Gyallesu-Zaria home of the fiery preacher and the Hussainiya spiritual centre of the sect and destroyed both as heavy shooting and explosions rented the air for hours. In the end, hundreds of bodies were said to have been deposited at the Ahmadu Bello University Teaching Hospital, Shika, Zaria. As it were, El-Zakzaky’s relentless clash with military authorities has again put the nation on the edge, as many have expressed fears of possible backlash if government fails to curtail the situation.
However, the sect denied any wrong doing even as it accused the Army of highhandedness given the manner scores of their members were extra-judiciously murdered by the former. Reacting to the alleged attempt on the life of the Army Chief, the sect denied the allegation noting that government is bent on the total annihilation of the movement with no regards to the sanctity of life and humanity. “We state categorically that the claim by the Army that members of the movement attempted to assassinate the Chief of Army Staff was a blatant lie as the Army came back to launch their attack more than an hour after Buratai had passed. Clearly, the Nigerian government, through its military, is now on rampage, in all out war with the Islamic movement, its members and structures. The scale of this attack would suggest it was meticulously planned by authorities and is now being executed ruthlessly,” the Islamic movement wrote in a statement, which added that the “alleged attack on the Chief of Army Staff was just an alibi.” With calls by local and global leaders for a thorough probe into the recent killings in Zaria; it is apt to look into the life of the man behind the mask, the cleric and spiritual leader of the Shiites in Nigeria, Ibrahim El-Zakzaky.
The Man, Ibrahim El-Zakzaky
Sheikh El-Zakzaky obtained a Bachelor of Science Degree (Second Class, Upper Division) in Economics from the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. His indoctrination according to some-highly placed public intellectuals who confided in SECURITY MONITOR, started from his university days. He would gather a handful of Muslim faithful to listen to him speak on subjects of life on earth and the hereafter but not without some inciting remarks about the government that soon attracted the attention of the school authority. He was subsequently expelled by Professor Ango Abdullahi, then Vice Chancellor of ABU, Zaria and his degree withdrawn by the university. Armed with an infectious oratory, he won himself substantial number of followers within and outside the shores of the revered institution. El-Zakzaky became confrontational in his sermons, often time, telling his followers not to take instructions from the Nigerian State but from God only. A senior lecturer at the Bayero University, Kano who confided in this medium said but for some divine intervention; he would have abandon schooling to learn at the feet of the fiery preacher. “El-Zakzaky was eloquent and he knew it. Give him 30 minutes to speak to people and he can make you follow him blindly. Because of his vociferous preaching against constituted authorities which we were made to regard as infidels, I despised my roots and hated everything that had to do with my family. It was only providence that made me remain in school but I never took my studies serious. We had cases of many dropping out of school or graduates tearing their certificates,” recalled the don with a sense of nostalgia.
It is this impeccable oratory; this medium gathered that created a cult-like followership for the controversial preacher in the last few decades. Fluent in 9 different languages, it’s easy for him to get into the thinking faculty of his sheep and through moral suasion, prevails on them not to regard anything secular as worthy of their time and respect; a development that is largely to blame for the lawless acts of his followers, especially when dealing with security agents. Here, the lecturer noted that in the “eyes of every member of the sect, the only legitimate leader that should be listened to and whose directives should be carried out is El-Zakzaky. This probably derived in part from the visit he paid to Iran during the Ayatollah revolution,” stressing that in the reasoning of a Shiite, “El-Zakzaky is the head (leader) of Nigeria.” But aren’t the symbolic treks often embarked upon by members of the sect in tandem the teachings of Islam, this reporter asked the don, to which he responded, “The processions from far and near is a way of testing strength to know whether the time is ripe for the revolution.” Dr. Habib Ahmed, former lecturer in the department of Public Administration, ABU, Zaria, collaborated this view in a chart with this reporter when he said, “He (El-Zakzaky) is enslaving his followers because there’s nothing Islamic about the treks he’d often misled them to do in the past and now.”
Shia Muslims: History and Operational Methods
Historically, Shia is about the oldest sect in Islam. After the death of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) a prophet and a political leader, the Islamic faith continued to grow under the rightly guided Caliphs (Muslim rulers). It was during this period that present day Syria, Iran, Iraq, Egypt and Palestine came under the control of Islam. However, the Jews who were expelled from the city of Madina by the Holy prophet because of their alleged treachery and were watching these developments with agony decided to react by sponsoring some of them to profess Islam in order to have the license to sow seeds of discord among Muslims. These ‘converts’ under the leadership of one Abdullah Ibn Saba, succeeded in masterminding a rebellion against the third Caliph called Othman. They first laid bare his shortcomings, amplified and disseminated them around the Caliphate. Thereafter they called for his resignation; but when he refused, they killed him. The Muslim Ummah thereafter selected Ali, a cousin of the Holy Prophet to lead them after Othman’s death, but the same people, who now called themselves Shiat Ali (followers of Ali) or simply Shiites, frustrated his efforts to track and punish the killers of Othman. They therefore made Shia a symbol of love for Ali and other relations of the prophet and hatred for the other caliphs and the rest of the prophet’s companions whom they claimed betrayed the trust of Prophet Mohammed.
The history of the Shiites’ clash with the Nigerian authority dates back to decades aback even though their plan was averted and largely curtailed. Way back in the 1990s, they constituted a disturbing threat to public peace in Kaduna state. For a period, any Islamic preacher who faulted Ibrahim El-Zakzaky or Ayatollah Khomeini (the symbol of the 1979 Iranian revolution) was attacked and beaten in his house in the presence of his wife and children. Infuriated by their actions, the government of Col. Hameed Ali (then, governor of Kaduna State) on the orders of General Sani Abacha staged a clampdown on them, with some of their leaders including El-Zakzaky, arrested and prosecuted. This action almost fizzle them out of reckoning as the hitherto violent group recoiled into their shells, apparently to re-strategize and wait for the opportune time to re-launch. Following the return to democratic rule in 1999 and hiding under the levers of freedom of association, the group resumed its sermons of hate speech even against fellow Muslims who share not their beliefs.
The main activities of Shiites are demonstrations which they organize on specific occasions like the Quds, Ashura and Idel-Moulud days. In the course of these events, they block major roads in cities across the North and intimidate the public including the Police w hose permission they do not seek. In July 2014, the sect clashed with the Nigerian Army, leading to the death of scores of its members, including three children of Sheikh El-Zakzaky. In addition, these ‘believers’ organize an annual pilgrimage to Zaria for which they trek in large groups from certain points to meet their leader (El-Zakzaky). In the process of this long trek, they block major highways and create a lot of havoc for road users. Like the Boko Haram, the Shiites have no regard for secular laws, regardless of its impact and advantage. For instance; after a series of bombings in Kano metropolis, the Government of Kano State under the leadership of Rabiu Musa Kwakwanso banned the use of commercial motorcycles after six O’ clock in the evening and carrying passengers on same. The public complied and defaulters were openly arrested and punished. The only group of people that did not comply, according to intelligence reports were the Shiites. Even when the implementation of the ban was at its peak they rode motorcycles in the night on major roads in Kano sometimes carrying more than one passenger and none of them would be arrested, for fear of escalation of the already-fragile situation occasioned by the Boko Haram ceaseless bombings and shootings.
Since most of their leaders including Sheik El-Zakzaky are graduates, they are to be found in all sectors of the economy with the current Education Minister, Adamu Adamu, a prominent figure and member of the group. Although they publicly condemn the Nigerian political system and do not often participate in partisan politics, the group may have been enjoying the support of certain politicians. The story is told of a former governor of one of the Northern states who patronized a Civil Engineering firm controlled by professionals belonging to the sect. The group’s activities were allegedly sponsored by proceeds of the many contracts he awarded them in addition to the gratifications from Iran and other wealthy members. El-Zakzaky lives in affluence, a sharp contrast to his teeming followers whose squalid living condition is an open secret. Added to these is the large number of guards that accompany him wherever he is going. These guards who are mainly unemployed youths also man illegal checkpoints on roads leading to his house in the Gyallesu quarters of Zaria. They allegedly forced Ramalan Yero, former Governor of Kaduna State to trek after a two-kilometer stretch after his convoy was blocked somewhere at Gyallesu, Zaria in 2013. Added to their open display of weapons, these guards often subject people living in the area, their families and visitors to constant harassments. Even after registering series of complaints to the police and Zaria emirate, SECURITY MONITOR gathered that nothing was done to come to the rescue of these innocent Nigerians. Few weeks before the December 2015 clash with the Army, there was a widely reported clash between Shiite guards and residents of Gyallesu that claimed a number of lives.
The Call for Justice
Last week, Senator Shehu Sani (APC, Kaduna CE) condemned in strong terms the increasing lawlessness of the Shiites Muslims describing as illegal their incessant resort to roads blockade time and again. According to the Comrade Senator, “It’s absolutely wrong for members of the group to deny the convoy of the Chief of Army Staff the right of passage,” adding that the Army too responded primitively and out of order. “Killings and arson is not the legal, civilized and proportionate response to road blockade,” he stated, insisting that the behavior of the military was nothing “but an indiscriminate and disproportionate use of force.” Apparently aligning his position with those faulting the no response of President Buhari thus far, the lawmaker asserted that “silence and neutrality to this amount to nothing but aiding and abetting a clear and undisguised abuse of fundamental human rights.” Although, virtually all Muslims in the country bar a negligible few, continue to unite in the condemnation of the sect recent clash with the Army in Zaria; a leading Islamic scholar in the land urged the Nigerian government to do everything possible to resolve the current face-off between the Army and the Shiites, saying if this is not done, the group would be radicalized. This is the position of Sheikh Abdul-Rahman Ahmed, the Chief Missioner of Ansar-Udeen Society of Nigeria. Speaking with journalists in Abuja, 72 hours after the unfortunate incident, the cleric said all over the world, two wrongs do not make a right, noting that though the Shiites sect were wrong to have mounted a road block in the first instance; the Nigerian soldiers, he argued did worse by their resort to the use of arms, which ultimately culminated in the death of many. His words, “The military could have done much better than taking laws into their hands. If Ibrahim El-Zakzaky and his Shiites group have (sic) violated any known Nigerian law, there are better ways of bringing them to book, but being brutal the way the Nigerian Army was, leaves much to be desired; it has not done much to the image of the Nigerian Army, which is already battered.” Reminded that the Army was provoked beyond the limit of endurance; Sheikh Ahmed said the resort to arm is capable of making another version of Boko Haram out of the Shiites. “You will recall” he said, “that Boko Haram, before the unfortunate extra-judicial killing of its leader, Yusuf, was not a violent group; it might be a deviant group, but certainly not violent. It was the extra-judicial killing of its leader that changed the cause of their deviancy, and they became violent, militants. For so long, we never imagined that they could hold the nation to ransom for so long.” But besides the fear expressed above, the clergy man argued that another uprising at this time poses existential threat to the corporate existence of the Nigerian state. “How would the international community view the country, where in the North-East, there is Boko Haram, in the South-East, there is agitation for Biafra, and this one (Zaria killings) is coming from the North-West. In the midst of all these, how do we attract foreign investors?” he asked rhetorically.
Like Sheikh Ahmed, Ishaq Akintola, Professor of Islamic Studies at the Lagos State University (LASU) is worried that a professionally-trained Army couldn’t resist the temptation to pull the trigger, saying as it is today; government must urgently seek ways to pacify frayed nerves. In a chat with journalists recently on the matter, the don wondered why the cleric and his band of followers were allow to grow at a geometric rate so much that they are now reportedly in the civil service, banking, manufacturing and other layers of our national life. He argued that given the sect’s antecedents in the past; they should have been called to order before now. “The Army is aware that members of the El-Zakzaky’s sect often exhibit traits of excesses, and this was why the Army should have exhibited some form of restraints. However, I believe that El-Zakzaky supporters and members of his sect should have been called to order even long before now because it had been reported that some of their actions like blocking roads have been causing inconveniences to others,” reasoned the highly-respected Islamic cleric.
Meanwhile, Kaduna State Governor, Mallam Nasir El-Rufai insist only the prosecution of Sheikh El-Zakzaky over the killings of members of his sect by a detachment of the Army would prevent a reoccurrence. The governor made the call after his Borno State counterpart and Chairman of the Northern States Governors Forum (NSGF), Kashim Shettima read the forum’s communiqué , seeking a way out of the impending danger ahead. Readers would recall that Shettima summoned an emergency meeting of all Northern governors following the Zaria killings in what has been interpreted as a proactive step to stem the spread of the crisis. For the NSGF, time has come for member states to come together to stamp out every appearance of unrest in the region, noting in the communiqué that all hands must be on deck to achieve peace, regardless of the cost. “The governors frowned at arbitrary blockage of highways through unauthorized processions causing inconvenience to other citizens. Henceforth, processions must necessarily be with Police permit and protection as prescribed by the law,” read a portion of the communiqué. Attended by the host, El-Rufai, Aminu Tambuwal, Abdulaziz Yari, Idris Wada, Atiku Bagudu, Mohammed Abubakar, Aminu Masari and Kashim Shettima, governors of Kaduna, Sokoto, Zamfara, Kogi, Kebbi, Jigawa, Katsina and Borno States respectively, the emergency meeting has been described by analysts as a demonstration of will on the part of the governors to find as lasting solution to the issue at hand.
Not expected by the public to accept the guilt tag especially with the continued detention of their leader, the IMN has described Governor El-Rufai as anti Shiite governor who has never hidden his hatred for the group. Reacting to the state broadcast by El-Rufai wherein he condemned the group’s violent way of life, the sect said that “It’s clear that the governor is more like an extremist anti- Shiite governor and not a state governor.” In a rejoinder by the President of the sect’s media forum, Mallam Ibrahim Musa, the group added that “The governor took his time in his speech to elaborate on rights to religion and social association, but chose to deny only the Shiites such rights who he sees as his enemies. Clearly, he spent considerable time collecting propaganda details indicting the movement which further buttresses the point that the state governor has his hands soiled by the blood spilled in the mass extra-judicial killings perpetrated by the Army….” On the governor’s decision to set up a Judicial Commission of Inquiry, Musa on behalf of the sect accused El-Rufai of working toward a predetermined outcome, likening the development to putting the cart before the horse. He said, “After leveling all allegations against the movement, the governor went ahead to talk of setting up a Judicial Board of Inquiry. One wonders why he didn’t leave the inquiry to determine who are the assailants and who are the victims…The Army is a federal institution. It would be difficult enough for a state judge to inquire into what they have done when they are not answerable to state officials. How will such a judge now also overturn conclusions already reached by the governor?” it queried rhetorically. As it were, incumbent administration must tread carefully this time as it strategizes on ways of resolving this hydra-headed tragedy in the best way possible, if only to prevent reprisals as expressed by highly-placed Nigerians and citizens of other nations
The Way out
As much as Nigerians (Muslims, Christians, Pagans and atheists inclusive) would like to see the Shiites called to order and made to pledge in clear terms the immediate stoppage of the frequent harassments of members of the public by the group; concerned citizens and security experts say incumbent administration must immediately release the sect leader and charge him to court, rather than keeping him in “protective custody.” This is the position of Professor Akintola and Sheikh Musa with both insisting that a fair trial for the troubled cleric and the Nigerian Army is the path to justice. Also joining the call for justice on the matter is Amnesty International (AI) which has counseled the Buhari government to urgently look into the circumstances of the killings of the sect members, saying anything short of that would make matters worse for the nascent administration. Director of AI in Nigeria, M.K Ibrahim further noted that once the truth is established, government should spare no effort in ensuring that the culprits are brought to book in accordance with the laws of the nation. “Whilst the final death toll is unclear, there is no doubt that there has been a substantial loss of life at the hands of the military. Firearms should only be used as a last resort, if strictly unavoidable in order to protect life,” said Ibrahim who said to forestall future occurrence, “It’s crucial that the authorities refrain from using excessive force and ensure that anyone responsible for unlawful killings is brought to justice in fair trials.” In a chat with this reporter, Barrister Ralph Agama of Bethel Chambers, Abuja, called for the immediate prosecution of the Army and all parties to the tragedy arguing that “the blockade of a road is not sufficient reason to kill anyone let alone scores of people in a democratic state like Nigeria. I expect the law to take its course very soon.”
El-Zakzaky boasts of huge followership not only in Zaria but in other major cities in Northern Nigeria and unlike the Boko Haram sect, boast of highly educated crop of followers. From the commencement of his religious extremism in the 1980s till date, El-Zakzaky has spent a total of 9 years in 9 different prisons across the land. The Shiites’ leader in the opinion of eminent Nigerians is not a man to run aground in the manner of Mohammed Yusuf, whose extra-judicial killings in the hands of the Nigeria Police is largely to blame for the thousands of innocent Nigerians killed in reprisals by the Boko Haram fundamentalist group in the last six years. While certainly no man is above the laws of his land, justice is the most credible option open to government, especially with the invasion of the group’s headquarter and the killing of the only son surviving son of the controversial cleric, who only last year also witnessed the killings of his three university undergraduate sons. Having stated that, Buratai’s humility in engaging the sect in a conversation for close to an hour to be allowed to pass is commendable and for the first time, demonstrate the willingness of a top-notched military officer to embrace the right of individuals and groups to their freedom of association in a democracy. Yet, the killings of about 300 lawless Shiites (according to Human Rights Watch) in the hands of the Nigerian soldiers would certainly not fetch the Army thunderous applause, even from millions of Nigerians who see the sect as an enemy to the nation and her citizens. Human Rights Watch is right to have asserted that “it’s almost impossible to see how a roadblock by angry young men could justify the killings of hundreds of people.” That said, security pundits argue that the time to persuade or compel El-Zakzaky to conform to the provisions of the law is now even as they urge investigating authorities to drill him on what his problems with successive administrations in the land are, and how best same can be addressed without the least recourse to violence. This is a window government must not hurriedly shut, they say.