OPINION: Zaria killings: Isn't this shi'a impunity? By Abdulrazaq Magaji
Iranians are adept at burning bridges and, being the generous hosts they are known to be, they did not hold anything back when it came to indoctrinating the Nigerian students who trooped to Tehran after the revolution that knocked Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, off his peacock throne. The returnee-students came back with ideas that were as novel as they were strange. Events of the era laid the foundation for a new-form of religious militancy in Nigeria.
Among the students that gravitated to Iran was Ibrahim Yaqub, better as Ibrahim el Zakzaky. Those who came across Mallam Ibrahim through his activities in the Muslim Students' Society, MSS, at the main campus of the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, know him as a great organiser. Mallam Ibrahim was two years ahead of my class but, I was privileged to know him, albeit from a distance, before he abandoned his studies in 1979.
By early 1979, some of us among Mallam's young friends had cause to keep our distance following controversial statements attributed to him. We reconnected in the early '90's after which I had cause to interview him in Zaria on several occasions. In fact, it was Mallam who facilitated my interview with Yakubu Yahaya, the Shi'a leader in Katsina, ahead of a confrontation between the group and the jungle expert who administered the state, Colonel John Yahaya Madaki. The assignment was a close shave for the photojournalist who joined me on the trip. Enough of digression!
Back to the late '70's and early '80's! Those were troubling days for residents of Zaria. Days on end, turban-wearing, hot-blooded young men paraded the streets inscribing 'Death to America' and 'Islam Only' (Islam kawai!) in red paint on every available space. At the same time, handbills with similar inscriptions were pasted on any standing object while the message was screamed to whoever cared to listen.
What could pass as the Shi'a's first recorded skirmish with troops in Zaria took place during one of their processions in early 1980. On the occasion, soldiers on sentry apprehended two 'brothers' who defaced a military signpost at the entrance of the Army Depot, frogmarched them into the barracks where the duo got the beating of their lives. The message that soon filtered into town irked Muslims and it must have provided an excuse for some residents to join a group that made no pretensions of its self-imposed duty of defending Islam and Muslims.
Several skirmishes have taken place ever since. The way things are, el-Zakzaky has gone too far to be restrained. And, in the unlikely event he decides to disband the sect, he will most certainly be resisted by the establishment in Tehran who see el-Zakzaky as Africa's Hassan Nasrillah. If truth be told, Nigeria is crucial to the spread of shi'a'ism in Africa and Iran has committed so much resources to the project to now throw up its arm in despair. It is even more unlikely that Tehran will step back now that, through el-Zakzaky and the oddly-named Islamic Movement of Nigeria, it is seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.
Internal and external factors have combined to frustrate and limit Shi'a penetration of Nigeria. First, the internal factor! Whereas there are Muslims who subscribe to God's injunction to keep away from sect, fact is many identify themselves as Sunni which was so named after Shi'a came into existence. One of the differences between the Sunni and Shi'a, fundamental enough to generate bad blood, is the Shi'a practice of attaching undue importance to blood ties in religious hierarchy in apparent contravention of the teachings of Prophet Muhammad.
Specifically, majority Shi'a do not recognise the three Caliphs- Abubakar, Umar and Usman-who preceded the prophet's cousin and son-in-law, Ali. Some Shi'a extremists even suggest that Ali was the intended receiver of God's revelation sent to Prophet Muhammad in 610 AD! Yet, none disputes the fact that the Prophet, in his lifetime, all but anointed a successor when he elected Abubakar to lead the early Muslims in prayers.
On the external front, the United States of America has served as a major bulwark. This external factor manifests in the close-marking the United States of America has continued to give Iran since the 1979 Islamic revolution. But, for this close-marking that has attenuated the spread of Shia'i'sm in Nigeria, the Islamic insurgency currently ravaging the continent could have worsened with what could have been an open war between a predominantly Sunni population and the Shi'a members desperate for space.
All these may be hypothetical but what is beyond hypothesis is that Nigeria is critical to Iran. As the most important black nation on earth and a major player in global affairs, a big Iranian presence in Nigeria will unlock the door to a seemingly impenetrable West Africa. With a foothold guaranteed in Sunni-dominated West Africa, Iran's ultimate aim of spreading Shi'a across Africa will be a matter of time. If it serves a means to an end, Iran never fails to promote and encourage sacrifices to be made in its behalf.
Instances of such sacrifices do not have to be stretched to ancient times. It has been the case with Hizbullah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza and, the Houthi in Yemen! Just as Iran is doing with the unconditional backing for insurgents in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain and with propping Shi'a-compliant governments in Iraq and Syria! In these and several other instances, the inheritors of Imam Khomeini have shown that they do not spare expenses when it comes to making sacrifices.
Those who talk of a Shi'a-inspired insurgency in Nigeria miss the point. The group, at least for now, does not command any remarkable support in the north. Though it is present in several communities in northern Nigeria, Shi'a remains a much-despised fringe sect as many Muslims trace the current schism within Islam, with the resultant bloodletting thence, to its origins. The case against the Shi'a is made worse by critics who argue, rightly or wrongly, that Shi'a was inspired by non-Muslims to spite the Holy Prophet!
Those who hold this view support their position by sayings of the Holy Prophet, apparently inspired by the above quoted verse, where the prophet warned his followers against allowing sectarian tendencies to creep into the religion. Apparently, the Qur'anic injunction and the prophetic sayings did not impress the ancient and modern 'supporters of Ali' who remain resolute in their belief that the prophet must be succeeded by a member of his family. This open act of defiance has been at the root of the contentious voices in Islam.
It is okay for 'brothers' to project Shi'a members as peace-loving and law-abiding individuals. It may suit the fancies of promoters to project Shi'a members as people who can do wrong but who are always wronged by others. Fine, if this is part of the effort to change people's perception of Shi'a and win souls for the group! What does not seem fine to Nigerians is why the same set of peace-loving and law-abiding individuals see nothing wrong and illegal when their agitated colleagues close roads to members of the public, shake dangerous weapons in the face of people, lay ambush for top government functionaries and force them out of their vehicles!
And, must the commission of this illegality be supported by chants of Allahu Akbar? Haba!
Magaji writes from Abuja and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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