Nigeria Massacre: The Islamic Movement and Its Discontents

January 1st 2016

Written by Navid Nasr 


On Saturday, December 12, several hundred —  and possibly upwards of a thousand — people were gunned down in the streets and in their homes in the northern Nigerian city of Zaria.

While the exact number may be unclear, what is certain is that what occurred was nothing short of a massacre. What makes this different than the other horrors that have been visited on northern Nigeria in recent years is that the group responsible isn’t Boko Haram, it’s the Nigerian army. And that fact, along with the group targeted, the Islamic Movement in Nigeria, is what has informed the reaction — and lack thereof —  of the international media and governments the world over, as well as human rights organizations and NGO’s.

Conflicting Narratives

There are, of course, conflicting narratives about what happened. The government of President Muhammadu Buhari has said that the Islamic Movement had set up a barricade just outside of Zaria that prevented General Tuku Buratai from reaching the city for an official visit. They insisted that members of the Movement refused to disperse and let the army through; that they had planned to assassinate Buratai; and that they attacked the convoy at the roadblock. What exactly they would have accomplished by assassinating the general is unclear, nor is it clear how they would’ve carried out such an assassination armed with nothing more than rocks, sticks, branches and one machete.

The Islamic Movement, and spokesmen for its leader, Sheikh Ibrahim al-Zakzaky, of course, have a completely different narrative. According to the Movement, there was nothing untoward or inappropriate, much less nefarious, about the roadblock. It had been announced days in advance — in print, electronic media, and across the airwaves in Nigeria — and the Islamic Movement had apologized for any inconvenience it would cause. Blocking part of the road during the commemoration of Arba’een was meant to prevent traffic accidents and avoid chaos and confusion between motorists and worshippers and nothing more. In fact, the military itself has established similar roadblocks, for the same reasons and in the same region, during military parades. In addition, not one single weapon has been confiscated from the Husainiyya itself, nor from the bodies of any of the hundreds of people who were killed.

The Nigerian government released a video that supposedly backed up its account of an “attack” on their convoy, only the video shows no such thing. The video does show a confrontation — averbal confrontation between the convoy and the members of the Islamic Movement, which, at times, gets heated. In the video, spokesmen from each side meet and attempt to mediate and, despite some raised temperatures on both sides, it ends with the convoy driving through. That’s it. No attack. No physical confrontation. Nothing at all like that. It was hours later when the military returned and proceeded to carry out the massacre.

More video has emerged showing mounds of corpses littering the streets of Zaria, corpses being bulldozed into shallow pits outside of the city, soldiers in the city itself firing shots followed byscreams of horror, and, prior to the massacre, snipers and soldiers encircling the Husainiyya, the center of the community. All of which casts the military in a damnable light and makes its narrative extremely difficult to swallow in whole or in part.

Prior Attacks Against the Movement Raise Questions of Motive

This was not the first time that the Islamic Movement has been attacked. In fact, according to representatives of the Movement, the tempers on the part of its members that are apparent in the video are due to the slaughter of 34 of its members, including three of Sheikh Zakzaky’s sons, at the hands of the military, during last year’s Quds Day commemoration.

Along with the hundreds of ordinary Shi’ites who were slaughtered on December 12th, several specific important members were also targeted and “liquidated” — among them, another one of Sheikh Zakzaky’s sons. It strains the bounds of credulity to believe that four of the Sheikh’s sons have now been killed in the past year at the hands of the military purely by happenstance.

Sheikh Zakzaky’s wife was also reportedly shot in the stomach and grievously wounded and taken into custody, and the Sheikh himself was beaten and shot multiple times and a photo of him, taken after he sustained his injuries and was taken into custody, was circulated by the military, a deliberately provocative act meant to humiliate the Sheikh and incite his followers.

When one pieces together the evidence the picture is one of a planned slaughter against a specifically targeted religious minority and community. The question that remains though is why?

Since no hard evidence for a motive behind the massacre has emerged as of yet, once again we’re left to speculate about a possible motive.

The Iranian Boogeyman

One such motive is the Islamic Movement’s connections to Iran. Sheikh Zakzaky supports, and in turn is supported by, the government of Iran. Moreover, significant portions of the Palestinian movement and the Lebanese Islamic Resistance are staunch supporters of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria. In fact, Sheikh Zakzaky’s son who was killed in this massacre was actually in Lebanon just a week prior to the attack as part of a conference on Palestinian liberation. And he was not the only member of the Movement who was there attending that conference. Every year in Zaria the Islamic Movement holds a massive Quds Day commemoration — an event that draws scorn from significant factions in both the northern Muslim community and in the broader country itself whom feel that the Movement is a branch of Iranian influence in Nigeria.

This policy of curtailing and rolling back perceived Iranian influence is fostered by, and comes at the behest of, three governments who exercise a great deal of power over the Nigerian economy, society and body politic: Israel, the US, and Saudi Arabia.

Nigeria and Israel

Arutz Sheva has this to say about Israel’s relationship with Nigeria:

“…the two countries enjoy fruitful relations, with free flowing trade, commerce and collaboration in a number of areas… today Nigeria is in the top 20 destinations for Israeli exports. Between 2012 and 2013, Nigeria’s exports to Israel rose from $165m to $276m. There has also been reciprocal visits by high-level government officials and exchanges of technical and professional knowledge through MASHAV, the Israeli Centre for International Cooperation…”

“Today, over 50 Israeli companies actively operate in Nigeria, both directly and through joint ventures, in areas such as agriculture, construction, communications, hi-tech, infrastructure, water management, education and health… Netanyahu believes he can now rely on Nigerian support at the United Nations.

“…There are a number of Israeli corporations operating in the country, such as Motorola Israel, and the Nigerian-Israel Chamber of Commerce, based at the Israeli Embassy in Lagos, says that Nigerian businesses are also investing in Israel, with 5,000 Nigerian businesses and organisations scattered across the country.”

It is not by coincidence that Nigeria abstained from the UN vote on Palestinian statehood in December 2014.

Nigeria and the US

Back in July, Buhari visited the US and met with president Obama, further strengthening the two countries’ ties. According to The Hill:

“The Nigerian president has already said that he will seek resumption of training of Nigerian troops by U.S. special operations forces, which was halted last year by the Jonathan administration. Given the growing virulence of what is clearly a regional threat posed by a declared ISIS-affiliated terrorist group, it is in the interests of the United States to not only find a way to resume the military partnership, but to ramp up efforts to build up the intelligence and police capacities of Nigeria and other regional coalition members.”

Nigeria and Saudi Arabia

Before we dissect the third major international player in Nigeria, it is important to point something out. The Shi’ite movement does not constitute a majority of Nigeria’s population or even a particularly large minority. Nigeria’s total population is 175 million, roughly 85-90 million of whom are Muslim, but only 4 million of those are Shia. It’s still a small minority in the country, but it’s grown in recent years by quite a bit. But within the broader Nigerian Muslim community, there’s a great deal of hostility, hatred and mistrust directed at the Islamic Movement Just a look at social media in the aftermath of the attack demonstrates the incredibly negative attitudes held by many Nigerian Sunnis towards the Islamic Movement:

“Members of this semi-terror group acted rudely and in an illiterate manner full of disrespect.”

“With full sense of honor and assessment of professionalism, I commend the military’s conduct in professional way.”

“I pray for Allah (SWT) to make this initiation of the end of this Un-Islamic, deadly and arrogant sect.”

“Bravo to our gallant militry men! its highly time u crush dis wicked hrtless useless stinky sect cald shi’a. kill d bastrds dey r treat to nigeria n nigerians!”

“I believe these people have no respect for the law of our nation.”

“Kawai zakzaky should be killed like his fellow bestowals are huta . Inba ma jahilci ba y should a bloody civilian see an armed military personal and decide to fight brutal with him. That serves dem right.”

This is just a small sampling of the truly disturbing comments from Nigerian Sunnis online whom have enthusiastically endorsed this massacre.

There’s fertile terrain for this sort of thing in Nigeria —  in northern Nigeria in particular —  due to the last international power to bear indirect responsibility, at the very least, for the Zaria Massacre: Saudi Arabia.

It shouldn’t be taboo or beyond the pale for Shia Muslims, wherever they are in the world, to look to Iran as their spiritual or political north star. It shouldn’t be. However, after 1979, concurrent with the Islamic Revolution in Iran, there was also a deliberate fomenting of Wahhabi ideology all over the Islamic world, including Europe, North America and Australia. And this ideology was propped up and propagated by Saudi money, Saudi imams, Saudi-taught imams and Saudi religious textbooks. Nigeria is no exception to that. There are Saudi satellite channels in Nigeria that stop just short of calling for genocide against the Shia. The social media comments are merely a reflection of that anti-Shia sentiment, the root of which is clearly Saudi ideology.

Further proof of the Saudi ideological influence in northern Nigeria generally, and in the current Nigerian government can be found in recent statements released in the aftermath of the massacre by Muhammad Sanusi II, the Emir of Kano, and by King Salman of Saudi Arabia.

Sanusi had the following to say:

”Nigeria did not know the ideology of insulting some companions of the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) and or a section of his wives, therefore it should be rejected by all right thinking Muslims…”

This is classic Wahhabi sectarian incitement, made doubly dangerous due to the fact that it’s giving post-facto legitimacy to a horrific massacre carried out by the country’s military; the institution that’s supposed to be safeguarding the lives and liberties of all of the country’s citizens.

And then, of course, there is the king of Saudi Arabia stating that the massacre was part of a legitimate struggle by the Nigerian army against “terrorism”  — again, bestowing post-facto blessings on the massacre.

We have discussed the international players whose influence may have helped to create the atmosphere for the massacre  — Israel, the US, and Saudi Arabia. But we should not overlook a crucial component of this puzzle and cause of great concern to the Islamic Movement: the Nigerian government and establishment itself.

The Islamic Movement Has Reason To Worry

The reason the Islamic Movement in Nigeria has to be worried is that not just Boko Haram, not just the military, not just the government, but significant parts of the broader Sunni Muslim community in Nigeria really want to see it and its members eradicated.

Curiously, the Wahhabized Sunnis of Nigeria don’t hate Christians with the same fervor that they hate Shia. This, in large part, has to do with the fact that the Shia religion has spread in Nigeria due to conversion. There were zero Shia Muslims in Nigeria in 1978. The reason that there are now four million is through conversion; they renounced their previous affiliation with Sunni Islam. Conversion is equal to apostasy, renouncing the faith, in the eyes of many Muslims. This is a very serious matter. And since the late 70s and early 80s, a predominant belief in Sunni Islam has been that Shia Muslims are not really Muslim and, therefore, apostates. Added to this is the fact that Shia Islam has steadily grown, rising from zero to four million in just 36 years. This further incites rage, resentment and hatred amongst Nigerian Sunni Muslims.

The Islamic Movement publishes a newspaper in the Hausa language, Al-Mizan. It is a widely read newspaper, very critical of the Nigerian government (both under Goodluck Jonathan and Muhammadu Buhar), very critical of certain strands of thought in Nigeria, and very critical of the army and it’s actions across the country. The Islamic Movement wants a different Nigeria. It wants a different political system in place that’s answerable to all of Nigeria and all of its population. This makes it a threat to the political establishment in Nigeria and to the Sunni Muslim religious establishment in the North.

So here we have all the players arrayed against the Islamic Movement in Nigeria: the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia, but also the Nigerian establishment and political class. All, for their own reasons, were perfectly okay with the massacre and would love to see it replay on a larger scale. The US because chaos is good for business, for the oil business specifically. Israel and Saudi Arabia because they view the Islamic Movement as an extension of Iranian religious and geopolitical influence. And the Nigerian establishment because the Islamic Movement has placed itself directly in opposition to it.

The Islamic Movement in Nigeria has quite a formidable array of opponents lined up against it. Time will tell if it will be able to withstand their combined might and continue to grow and to forge the future of Nigeria.



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