Recent clashes between pro-Iranian Shias and the police in cities across northern Nigeria portend a looming Sunni-Shia conflict in the West African country, which has been battling a jihadi insurgency for almost a decade. Against the backdrop of the sectarian violence already raging in the Middle East, such a threat in Nigeria would be catastrophic and must be averted through dialogue before it spirals out of control.
On 5 November, the police used live bullets on members of the pro-Iranian Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN), killing at least three people during a symbolic pilgrimage in Kano known as Arbaeen. This incident occurred less than a kilometre from my house. My family and I heard the gunshots. One of those killed, Hussaina Dauda Nalado, was one of my students at Bayero University, and her father is a colleague of mine at the university.
The annual Arbaeen procession has been a regular flashpoint between state authorities and the IMN, amid tensions that have been ongoing since the 1990s and have increased in recent years. The most violent clash so far occurred in December 2015, when hundreds of IMN members were killed in a spar after the convoy of Nigeria’s chief of army staff drove into a roadblock set up by IMN members.
There are several reasons for the frequent clashes between the IMN Shias and the authorities. Firstly, IMN members do not recognise Nigerian law or its authority. Rather, they pledge allegiance to Iran and its spiritual leaders. The IMN does not seek police approval before staging its processions.
Secondly, the IMN holds certain views and conducts certain activities that Sunni Muslims consider un-Islamic; they publicly question the faith of some wives, close friends, and associates of the Prophet Mohammad. Sunnis regard this as blasphemous.
Thirdly, members of the IMN undertake regular processions that spark confrontations with the police, who try to stop marchers from carrying out illegal assemblies and from assaulting nonmembers. In Arbaeen, IMN activists trek from Kano to Zaria – a journey of some 120 kilometres – to pay homage to their leader. In other marches, such as those on Quds Day and Ashura Day, members block public access to roads.
Another trigger of tensions is the alleged forceful takeover of Sunni mosques by Shias, which caused several violent conflicts in Sokoto and other parts of the north, especially in the 1990s. Added to this is the disproportionate use of force and extrajudicial killings of IMN members by the security forces and mob action by youths. The Nigerian police opens fire on Shias at the slightest provocation.
The IMN has been outlawed by the Kaduna state government and its headquarters razed. The movement’s leader has been in detention since his arrest in December 2015, despite a court order for his release.
Meanwhile, no youth or police officer has been prosecuted on the allegation of killing IMN Shias. Even though an inquiry recommended that army personnel responsible for the December 2015 deaths be brought to justice, this has yet to happen, despite protests by the IMN and calls by the international community. The Nigerian president even refused to condemn the massacre in Zaria. Ordinary citizens either support this carnage or are simply reticent about it.
This situation could be a recipe for full-scale violence. The IMN is frustrated. Its members have repeatedly raised the alarm on an alleged unholy alliance between the Sunnis and a Sunni-dominated government to annihilate them, and nobody seems to be listening. It is only natural that members of the group would seek to act in the face of massacre and persecution; they might be considering their options.
One such option could be for the IMN to arm itself to fight back. There have already been glimpses of this possibility. The Nigerian Army told reporters in May 2013 that it had confiscated Hizbullah weaponry in a house in Kano. Three Lebanese nationals were arrested in connection with the incident. Several other people linked to the IMN have reportedly been intercepted by the authorities since then.
If the IMN becomes armed, the conflict that could ensue would be calamitous. The group has tens of thousands, if not millions, of members; it has a strong chain of command and authority, and is likely to get support from Iran.
Rather than let this disaster befall a nation-state already embroiled in other crises, it is time to take steps to resolve this tension. One way to do this is by facilitating a dialogue between the group, on the one hand, and the security forces and the government, on the other. The aim of this dialogue would be to convince the Shias to start obeying the laws of Nigeria and recognise its constituted authorities, to register their organisations, and to stop disparaging figures considered sacred by other Muslim groups.
The Nigerian government, for its part, should treat the IMN fairly as a religious group and not attack its members at the least provocation. Those suspected of killing IMN members must be brought to justice.
In the long run, Sunni and other religious groups could be brought on board too. The aim would be for the groups to formally agree to live in peace, stop hate speech, and recognise the authority of the Nigerian government. The ravaging experiences of sectarian conflict elsewhere in the world should be reason enough to nip Nigeria’s current Sunni-Shia tensions in the bud before they escalate further.