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Nigerian Government Accuses Local Shiites of Plotting Violent Revolution

Hundreds of Shi'ites demonstrate in Abuja, on July 10, 2019, to demand the release of the leader of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN) Sheikh Ibrahim Zakzaky, a day after clashes with police.

Abdullahi Musa, a Nigerian engineer, does not sleep in the same house for long these days. He frequently moves around different neighborhoods throughout Abuja, where he was born and reared. Musa has been increasingly concerned about his security.

"Nobody is safe in this country," Musa, 33, told VOA. "Nobody has the guts to say he is safe in Nigeria, except if he belongs to the minority who are leading the nation and they are promoting this violence."

Musa is accusing the government of violently repressing Nigeria's largest Shiite group. It's called the Islamic Movement of Nigeria, or IMN. Musa is a member.

Nigerian police officers patrol in the streets of Abuja during clashes with members of the shiite Islamic Movement of Nigeria on July 22, 2019.
Nigerian police officers patrol in the streets of Abuja during clashes with members of the shiite Islamic Movement of Nigeria on July 22, 2019.

This past week at the Federal High Court in Abuja, the government accused the IMN's detained leader, Sheikh Ibrahim El-Zakzaky, 66, of colluding with Iran to plot a revolution and forcefully turn the country into an Islamic Shiite state.

IMN has garnered international media attention in recent years as IMN members continue to demand the release of El-Zakzaky and his wife, Zeenat. The Iranian government has also called for their release.

They have been in government custody under President Muhammadu Buhari's administration since their arrest after a December 2015 raid by Nigerian security forces at IMN headquarters in the northern Nigerian city of Zaria. The IMN said more than 1,000 of their members were killed. A government commission report said the death toll stood at 348. They were buried in mass graves.

Three of Musa's nieces and several of his friends were killed in the raid, and his mother died in the aftermath.

"I believe Buhari is behind the killing of my mother. There must be a day for justice," Musa told VOA. "I have every reason to challenge him and call him a tyrant."

Since the deadly raid, the federal government has taken legal action to criminalize the group.

On July 26, a Nigerian court ruled that activities of the IMN amounted to "acts of terrorism and illegality" and ordered the government to ban the religious group. The government released a statement on Twitter, saying that the prohibition had nothing to do with banning the wider community of Shiite Muslims in Nigeria.

Human Rights Watch said the ban "threatens the basic human rights of all Nigerians."

The ban on the group came less than a week after police violently cracked down on IMN members in Abuja, where they rallied in the streets and called for the government to allow the ailing El-Zakzaky to get medical care. At least 11 protesters, a journalist and a police officer were killed, while dozens of other protesters were wounded or arrested.

On Wednesday, authorities said that IMN members refused to recognize the Nigerian government.

"It's not like that. We don't recognize the president of a country ... it means we have declared our own state, we would have taken up arms, which is not true. We have not declared our own territory," IMN's spokesperson, Ibrahim Musa, told VOA.

"The issue is that of allegiance. If they are talking about allegiance, it's not necessary that you have to pay allegiance to the president of your country."

A December 2016 ruling by the Federal High Court declared the detention of El- Zakzaky and his wife as illegal and unconstitutional and ordered the government to release them and provide them with accommodation since their own home was destroyed in the 2015 raid, according to their lawyer. The government has not complied with the order.

Last year in October, the Reuters news agency reported that Nigerian security forces killed 42 IMN members in Abuja over a two-day crackdown on protesters.

IMN members were heard marching down the street chanting, "We are ready to die for our Zakzaky ... death to America … death to the U.K. … death to Saudi Arabia … death to Buhari."

Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari reads a document during the African Union summit at the Palais des Congres in Niamey, July 7, 2019.
Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari reads a document during the African Union summit at the Palais des Congres in Niamey, July 7, 2019.

Buhari, a Sunni Muslim, has been accused of persecution against the IMN. He has said the IMN created "a state within a state." The group runs more than 300 schools, soup kitchens, shelters and a newspaper. The IMN has anywhere from 2 million to 4 million followers.

Since the organization took off in the early 1980s, the IMN has been at odds with the larger community of Nigeria's Sunni Muslims. About half of Nigeria's nearly 200 million people are Muslims and almost all of them are Sunni.

El-Zakzaky grew up in northern Nigeria where Islam is the dominant religion. As a university Sunni Muslim student, he was part of a campus group that was pushing for Islamic law to be included in the constitution.

El-Zakzaky was inspired by the 1979 Iranian revolution. He visited Iran and upon his return to Nigeria, proselytized the Shiite doctrine to millions of Nigerian Sunni Muslims and established the IMN with support from Iran.

Six of El-Zakzaky's sons have been killed in clashes with Nigerian security forces, and El-Zakzaky has been repeatedly arrested by previous governments.

Some analysts say hostility toward the IMN is part of the wider tension between Sunni and Shiite Muslims around the world as Saudi Arabia and Iran have pushed soft power in Nigeria, offering scholarships and funding initiatives to help poor Muslims there.

Amnesty International, Crisis Group and other human rights organizations have condemned the government's handling of the IMN, saying the heavy-handedness is similar to the government's handling of Mohammed Yusuf, the Salafi Sunni Muslim cleric who was extrajudiciously killed in police custody in Maiduguri in 2009. His followers launched the Boko Haram insurgency to avenge his death.

"We are being pushed to carry arms, but we will not," Abdullahi Musa said. "We are not terrorists. We are not Boko Haram. We are ordinary Muslims trying to practice our religion as we understand it."