LAGOS, Nigeria (AA) – Long before Nigeria’s recently incarcerated top Shia cleric – Ibrahim El-Zakyzaky – became the military’s public enemy number one, he was known as a hardline Sunni activist.
Sixty-two-year-old Zakyzaky, who founded the Islamic Movement of Nigeria in the early 80s, was said to mimic the late founder of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, Hassan al-Bannah, and the group’s spiritual guide and theorist, Sayyid Qutb.
According to a Nigerian intelligence agency dossier seen by Anadolu Agency, the Shia cleric used to quote Bannah and Qutb to justify his repudiation of Nigeria’s secular leadership.
However, a trip to Iran following the country’s 1979 revolution which brought Ayatollah Khomeni to power changed Zakyzaky’s path. Today he is widely credited with introducing Shia ideology to Nigeria’s millions of Muslims.
“There were no Shia in Nigeria prior to when Zakyzaky went to Iran and converted to the Shia religion in the 1980s,” Fulan Nasrullah, a Nigerian political historian and security analyst said.
However, some U.S. analysts and intelligence agency operatives hint at ulterior motives for the cleric’s religious conversion, with some dubbing him an alleged asset of Iran, supposedly bent on pursuing the Shia country’s foreign-policy objectives in Africa.
According to a research paper by the New York-based Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy: “Although a former Iranian diplomat described the IMN [Islamic Movement of Nigeria] as an ‘Iranian proxy,’ the IMN claims it only receives ‘simple handouts’ from its members.
“Nonetheless, evidence shows the IMN largely serves as an extension of Iranian foreign policy in Nigeria, especially in spreading ‘Khomeinism’ among the country’s Muslims”.
While one cannot pinpoint with certainty the exact reasons behind Zakyzaky’s ideological shift, one thing is clear: Shia followers in Nigeria have grown in their tens of thousands over the decades since the cleric formed his organization.
According to estimates, Nigeria has around 85 million Muslims. Nnamdi Obasi, senior analyst with the International Crisis Group, says: “No [official] statistics are available, but Shia are thought to make up two or three percent of Nigeria’s 178 million people”.
The U.S. think-tank, Pew Research, estimates Shia in Nigeria to be between three or five percent of Nigeria’s population, or 12 percent of the Muslim population. Zakyzaky himself claims the number is now close to three million.
– Early life and education
A short biography posted on the Islamic Movement of Nigeria’s official website says the firebrand cleric did not attend any formal school until he was 16 when he began his education at a provincial Arabic school in Kaduna state’s Zaria city.
He eventually enrolled in a bachelors program of economics at the Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria in 1976, where he became an active member of the Muslim Student Society (MSS).
It was at this university that he became popular by calling for the overthrow of Nigeria’s then “Western-style” political establishment and the “corrupt” – mainly Sunni Muslim – leadership whom he derided as “puppets” of the West and Israel.
The MSS platform also gave Zakyzaky the opportunity to participate in nationwide demonstrations in support of the inclusion of Shariah law in the Nigerian constitution. In 1979, he was elected as vice-president of the society.
In 2014, the military killed three of Zakyzaky’s sons among 34 members of his movement during clashes. His movement’s website says he has a wife and nine children.
– Past and current charges
The Nigerian authorities have long identified Zakyzaky as a radical. Before his current confinement, he was detained several times before.
According to his own movement’s website, Zakyzaky has been jailed by all successive Nigerian regimes since the rule of military dictator Olusegun Obasanjo in the 1970s. “His total prison experience is nine years in nine different prisons across the country – the most famous being Enugu [1981-1984], the notorious Interrogation Center of NSO, Lagos [1984-1985], Kiri-Kiri Maximum Security , Port Harcout [1987-1989 and 1996-1997] and Kaduna [1987 and 1997-1998],” the website says.
Analysts believe that it was during these bouts of his prison time that his popularity grew and some believe even his conversion to the Shia sect was solidified.
Zakyzaky, who remains in government custody, is expected to be prosecuted over the Dec. 13 violence in Zaria city.
Dozens of his Shia followers were killed during clashes that the Nigerian military claims erupted when their army chief’s convoy came under attack in the northern city. According to the Human Rights Watch, over 300 people were killed in the incident.
– Zakyzaky’s power base
Zakyzaky’s followers are mostly found in the northwestern states of Kaduna, Kano and Sokoto.
“Socio-politically, they are not [so] influential…They do not believe in the current system of governance in Nigeria. However, a few influential persons have joined it, such as the current Minister of Education Adamu Adamu,” the Nigerian analyst, Nasrullah, adds.
However, while the cleric’s power base is said to be limited, it is able to draw hundreds of thousands of participants across northern Nigeria and the West African region during religious ceremonies.
The main events where Zakyzaky is able to demonstrate his street power include the annual Muslim event of Ashura; the al-Aqsa day that more-or-less demonstrates solidarity with Lebanese Shia militant group such as Hezbollah; and the Arba’een trek during which his Shia followers walk several hundred kilometers to the Zaria headquarters of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria.
The cleric and his movement reportedly run over 400 schools and a host of Islamic centers across the northern region. Nigerian security agencies claim the Islamic Movement of Nigeria also has hundreds of paramilitary guards called “Hurrah”, a radio station and a community newspaper called Al-Mizan published in the local Hausa language.
– Future at stake
As Nigeria’s security agencies continue to hold Zakyzaky, stopping just short of branding him a terrorist, thousands of the cleric’s supporters are demanding his immediate release, threatening that their agitation may spread to other parts of the country.
Harun el-Binawi, a member of the intellectual wing of the Shia cleric’s movement, claimed Zakyzaky and his followers were all for peace, and it was the Nigerian military which was in the wrong for killing innocent people with impunity.
About the Dec. 13 violence, he said that Shia youth were only protesting against the 2014 killing of the movement’s 34 members when the clashes took place; there have been no prosecutions for the 2014 deaths.
“To this day, no single soldier or official was brought to justice for the  massacre by the Nigerian government and its military authorities,” Binawi said.
Meanwhile, Nigeria’s National Orientation Agency director, General Mike Omeri, said that all citizens must obey simple civic rules for the sake of peace.
Like many analysts, Obasi pointed out that the main problem facing Nigeria right now is the future relationship between the Shia cleric’s organization and the Nigerian state.
He warned the Nigerian authorities against considering an option to eliminate clerics like Zakyzaky through force.
Obasi said that the absence of Zakyzaky could do more harm than good: “And, as [extremist Sunni African militant organization] Boko Haram has amply demonstrated, a violent minority can bring great grief to the entire country,” he said.
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