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March of the Shiites

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Nigeria Shiite Muslims hold religious flags and banners in a procession celebrating Prophet Muhammad’s birthday and also demanding the release of Shiite leader Ibraheem Zakzaky, on posters, in Kano, Nigeria, Thursday, Dec. 24, 2015. The demonstration was in part provoked after a recent attack by Nigerian soldiers who fired on unarmed Islamic Shiite children with no provocation, killing some hundreds of the minority group in the West African nation, according to a report from Human Rights Watch. (AP Photo/Muhammed Giginyu)

It is a lot of journalists to fish in troubled water. It is his duty to mind other people’s business. When the government declares a curfew, the journalist would go out to cover it. When there is war, the journalist would be there to bring the shooting game of death to the public. Sometimes, people do get killed on the beat.

On Monday, Precious Owolabi, one of our youngest colleagues stepped out on the line of duty as a reporter for Channels Television, to cover the angst of the Shiites against the Nigerian State on Monday, July 22. Unlike other demonstrations by the group in the past, this time around, some members of the group had come with arms.

Usman Umar, the Deputy Commissioner of Police in charge of the Abuja Federal Capital Territory, who had approached the phalanx of the Shiites protesters to calm them and appeal that they should not cross the line of control, was fired on. As he fell, stones were rained on him. The police fired back and under the cover of fire, they were able to retrieve the body of their commander. In the melee, a bullet also caught Owolabi.

He has joined the statistics of Nigerian journalists who died in the line of duty including the likes of Dele Giwa and two Nigerian journalists killed in Liberia by the Charles Taylor rebel group, Tayo Awotunsin and Krees Imodibe. A top Nigerian journalist was also killed during the Maitatsine riot of 1980 during the regime of President Shehu Shagari.

It is apparent that Owolabi’s death, like those of the other victims of last Monday’s crisis, was avoidable. And they were also totally needless. The violence may also be an indication that the Islamic Movement of Nigeria, also known as the Shiites, is ready to change the tempo of their struggle to enforce the freedom of their leaders, especially Ibrahim Yaquob El-Zakzaky and his wife. Next Monday, a high court in Kaduna would deliver its ruling whether to grant bail to El-Zakzaky or not. The protesters apparently are not ready for the methodical process of the court.

There is no doubt that the Federal and Kaduna State governments may be in possession of information that may make freedom for El-Zakzaky risky and even dangerous for the republic. However, keeping him indefinitely may not be a strategy that can be sustained permanently in the long run or else the government is able to secure a conviction for him at the open court.

In a democratic dispensation, the government, even if reluctantly, must obey the dictates of the courts. When the government holds the pronouncements of the court in contempt, it directly threatens the pillars of the Republic.

Before the coming of El-Zakzaky, Nigeria has been dominated by the Sunni branch of Islam which is the majority in the world.

Despite their relentless muscle-flexing, the Shiites are a tiny minority among Nigerian Muslims. El- Zakzaky was to bring them into the reckoning. He attended the School of Arabic Studies (then known as the Islamic Law School) in Kano before proceeding to the Ahmadu Bello University, ABU, Zaria, where he graduated in 1979.

El-Zakyzaky, who hails from Kogi State, became a dominant presence in the Muslim Students Society, MSS, during his days at ABU, emerging as the national president of the organisation.

Since his graduation, he has remained rooted in Zaria where he established his Islamic movement, advocating radical departures from the traditional mores favoured by the Hausa and Fulani gentry. He must have been inspired by the Iranian Revolution which brought to power the radical cleric, Ayatollah Khomeini, and his revolutionary mullahs after the toppling of the Shah of Iran, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi in 1979. It was at the time he acquired an internationalist view of Islam, becoming associated with the Mullahs of Iran, converting into their own brand of radical Shiite ideology.

Ironically, the Nigerian state did not see the Shiites as much of a threat. Most Nigerians Muslims remain anchored into the Sunni orbits and its various denominations. Therefore, El-Zakzaky was able to make an impact in Zaria and some other parts of Kaduna and Sokoto states and not much else.

But the ideology they preach and their radical activities in Zaria woke up the elites of the core North who were mostly inheritors of Usmanu Dan Fodiyo’s brand of Sunni Islam. El-Zakyzaky denounced the Sultan and the emirs, stating that the highest authority recognised by Islam is the Imam. He denounced also the authority of the Nigerian state and its agents; the military, the police and the civil authorities that embodied its essence.

In Zaria, they turned their enclosed main ground into a republic within a republic, with its uniform guards and set of rules. The authorities in Kaduna, the state capital, watch them with consternation and sometimes with horror.

Before El-Zakyzaky was born in 1953, the Northern Region of Nigeria has seen different variants of radical Islam, especially in the poverty-stricken North-East where Kanuri forces halted the Caliphate armies in the 19th Century.

By the time El-Zakyzaky was getting a grip of his radical thoughts, the youths of the North were fascinated by the Izala Movement led by the contemplative Sheik Abubakar Gumi. The Izalas were Sunnis who were preaching reforms until they became part of the establishment.

The greatest challenge of that era was Mohammed Marwa who led the group called Yau Tatsine which was also called Maitatsine. Marwa hailed from Northern Cameroon and made Kano his home where his radical preaching and Spartan lifestyle attracted sizeable followership. Maitatsine wanted to create its own Islamic state, threatening the secular authorities of Nigeria and denouncing the emirs.

In 1980, they attempted to seize control of Kano city, igniting the bloodiest unrest in Nigerian history since the end of the Civil War. The Maitatsine uprising led to the death of about 5000 people. Marwa too was killed in that uprising.

But the Movement was not spent yet. In 1982, the Maitatsine attempted to size the cities of Maiduguri and Kaduna. The second uprising of the Maitatsine led to the death of at least 3000 people. In defeat, the Maitatsine was not finished yet. They retreated under a new leader, Musa Mekaniki, and took refuge in Gombe.

In Gombe, they confronted the police and the military again were more than 1000 people died in the riot of 1984. In defeat, Mekaniki fled to Cameroon, changed his identity and lived like a local imam in one village.

In 2004, he was captured during the regime of President Olusegun Obasanjo, when Mekaniki visited Nigeria in disguise and under an assumed name. He was thrown into prison. I cannot remember now what finally happened to Mekaniki. It is believed that the Boko Haram terrorist group is a direct offshoot of the Maitatsine Movement.

The Shiites are decidedly different from the Maitatsine and the Boko Haram. First, the Shiites value knowledge and scholarship. Their ideology, radical and sometimes menacing, does not promote mindless violence like the Boko Haram and their ilk. It is believed that the Shiites are heavily supported by Iran, a country that has been ruled by the Shiites Mullahs since 1979.

This is indeed the international dimension of the Shiites Movement. Iran is seriously opposed by the conservative House of Saud which has been ruling in Saudi Arabia for almost a century. Saudi Arabia is the heartland of the Sunni Movement and they are in serious collaboration with the elite of the North and the imams that controls the mosques.

The Nigerian state has to navigate its way out of this catacomb. We should not allow the Shiites to morph into a terrorist organisation.

As of now, the international situation does not favour a total crackdown on the group. We have seen how international terrorism has taken advantage of our inability to contain the Boko Haram gang. Tact and diplomacy may be needed to halt the march of the Shiites. That the group has hired radical lawyer Femi Falana to defend its leaders is an acceptance of the Nigerian state system. They believe that the system can give them justice. That system should also give them an escape route to end their march into perdition. We know if this is not done, they would carry many more victims with them on their march.


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