There's a dangerous sectarian crisis brewing in Africa's largest economy

On December 12 and 13, violence broke out in Zaria, in Nigeria’s northern Kaduna state, between the military and members of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN).

The IMN is the leading Shiite Islamist movement in Africa’s most populous country and largest economy. And its leader, Ibrahim Zakzaky, who was injured and arrested during the violence, is the country’s most prominent Shiite cleric and a notable supporter of Iran’s state ideology.

Facing both the ISIS affiliate Boko Haram (a Sunni fundamentalist group) and a hostile government, and buffered through the support of one of the Middle East’s rising powers, the Islamic Movement could take a more ominous turn — especially if Zakzaky is out of the picture or if his imprisonment rallies other prominent Shiite leaders around the world.

It’s still not clear what caused the clash between IMN and the military, International Crisis Group’s (IGC) senior Nigeria analyst Nnambi Obasi wrote, noting the fighting reportedly killed more than 100 people. As Obasi noted, the government is accusing the Islamic Movement of attempting to assassinate the region’s army chief, and the Movement claims the Nigerian military had targeted a peaceful demonstration.

An analysis from Lagos-based SBM Intelligence suggests that members of the Islamic Movement had blockaded a highway, impeding a local military chief’s motorcade. The situation rapidly escalated after IMN members refused to move and began throwing rocks at the military chief when he exited his vehicle.

Whatever its origins, the violence ended with the country’s most visible Shiite leader imprisoned and severely injured. Photos from the incident appear to show bloodied images of Zakzaky, a longtime Islamist activist and cleric trained in Qom, Iran who founded the IMN in the early 1980s.

According to the International Crisis Group, soldiers reportedly raided Zakzaky’s home and may have killed his wife and one of his sons. Cheta Nwanze, the Lagos, Nigeria-based head of research for SMB intelligence, told Business Insider by email that Zakzaky had been shot, and as of December 17 was “lying critically ill at a military hospital in Kaduna.”

Zaria nigeriaGoogle MapsLocation of Zaria within Nigeria

In the years after Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, Zakzaky built up an organisation that’s almost solely responsible for the spread of Shiism in Nigeria. He is an eloquent, English-speaking proponent of Iranian state ideology: In 2009, he gave an English-language lecture in London in honour of the 20th anniversary of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s death.

“Some people think that just as we have Imam Khomeini in Iran, other Muslim countries should have their own Khomeini-type leader,” Zakzaky said of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s founder. “Look, the world, the whole world, the entire world needs only one Khomeini, and it has one.”

As Phillip Smyth, a leading expert on Shiite militant movements, explained to Business Insider, Zakzaky is an adherent to the idea of Vilayat-e Faqih, the concept by which the Supreme Leader of Iran represents the hidden Imam’s “living counterpart” on earth.

“From an ideological standpoint if I say I’m a supporter of Vilayat-e Faqih, it means that I’m a supporter of the social and political and religious decisions that come down from [Iranian Supreme Leader] Ayatollah Ali Khamenei,” says Smyth. “[Hezbollah leader Hassan] Nasrallah says the same thing. You know what you’re getting here.”

The Nigerian security forces have injured and arrested an internationally prominent Shiite leader and the founder of a sectarian organisation with reported ties to Iran. To be sure, it’s unlikely that this will be enough to touch off a broader Sunni-Shiite war in a country with over 90 million Muslims.

But the violence highlights just how much of a challenge Iran and its proxy groups pose, even in places far from the Middle East’s violence sectarian fault line.

ZakzakyYouTubeIbrahim Zakzaky speaking in London in 2009.

The Islamic Movement was founded in the early 1980s, shortly after the Islamic Revolution and at a time when there were barely any native-born Shiites in Nigeria. Today, there are as many as 4 million Shiites in the country and the IMN operates as a “state-within-a-state,” Nwanze told Business Insider.

As Obasi wrote for ICG, the group operates schools and media outlets, and its members “accep[t] the Nigerian government’s jurisdiction very grudgingly.” Even if it doesn’t possess the characteristics of a violent insurgency, the Islamic Movement has still developed its own parallel structures and authorities within a small pocket of northern Nigeria. Both Smyth and Nwanze believe the group receives some degree of financial support from Iran.

Smyth explains that the IMN, with its host of social and religious organisations and distrust of secular authority, shares many characteristics with other Iranian-supported Shiite groups around the world.

“It sits within the model of many Iranian-backed that are fashioned on Hezbollah in terms of how they operate,” says Smyth, citing the powerful Lebanon-based militant group and Iranian proxy force.

The Islamic Movement isn’t nearly as powerful or as capable as Hezbollah, and its intentions aren’t to strangle or co-opt the state, the way Hezbollah has in Lebanon.

Still, there are a few reasons the group’s prominence could upset the region’s delicate security balance. Ever since Boko Haram pledged allegiance to ISIS in March of 2015, northern Nigeria has been in danger of emerging as a southern front line for the Syria and Iraq-based “caliphate,” which is probably the most murderously anti-Shiite organisation on earth.

As an analysis from SBM Intelligence explains, the Islamic Movement has a “perpetual siege mentality” because of its status as the only Shiite movement in a region that has lately become a crossroads for hardline or reformist Islamic groups. “The Zaria/Kaduna/Kano axis is the melting pot of various Islamic movements in West Africa, many of whom are often violently opposed to, and despise one another,” the analysis states.

The relationship between the government and the Islamic Movement has become even more strained in recent years as well. According to Nwanze, Zakzaky has emerged as something of a moderating force within the group.

“He spoke up against the implementation of Sharia in Nigeria in 2000,” Nwanze told BI. “His deputy, Muhammad Turi was more hardline, and we are afraid that those under him may even be worse.” Turi was killed in a raid on December 14.

The government also hasn’t hesitated to use force against the group in the past. Thirty-five IMW members, including three of Zakzaky’s sons, were killed when the army opened fire on a group of Zakzaky supporters on July 25, 2014, according to the ICG.

The state’s heavy-handedness could stem from a number of factors. For one thing, the Nigerian security services aren’t known for their restraint, discipline, or respect for human rights. Moreover, the discovery of a Hezbollah arms cache in northern Nigeria in 2013, and the arrests of Iranian-linked agents planning terrorist attacks in Kenya in November, might have the Nigerian state particularly on guard against possible Iranian activities in the country.

The government might also be nervous about the possibility of yet another hardline sectarian Islamist groups emerging in northern Nigeria. As the SBM Intelligence analysis notes, Boko Haram is “a sect much smaller than Zakzaky’s group,” meaning the IMN has an existing base of support and organisation to sustain it if it ever transitioned into violent insurgency.

And there’s evidence that Nigeria is emerging as a sectarian flashpoint in the minds of some Shiites outside of Nigeria. According to Smyth, influential Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr accused the Nigerian government of stoking sectarian tensions in a statement released last week. Smyth has also observed a “spike” in discussions of Nigeria among Iranian-linked Shiite militants online.

If the Islamic Movement does eventually metastasize into an insurgency, according to Nwanze it won’t be representing the will of the Nigeria’s Shiite community, which comprises somewhere between 5% and 10% of the country’s 90 million Muslims.

“Shia in Nigeria, contrary to the reputation they have, largely want to be left alone, and are not really interested in imposing their own views on others by force,” Nwanze told Business Insider by email. He also pointed out that “all the violent Islamist movements” in Nigeria’s recent history have been Salafist in nature. A native strain of violent Khomeinism hasn’t arrived in the country yet.

Even so, the 2009 death of Boko Haram leader Mohammad Yusuf in government custody is often cited as one of the turning points in the ISIS affiliate’s violent history. As in Yusuf’s case, Zakzaky’s imprisonment or eventual death could agitate an already delicate situation in ways that few can predict.

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