How a man who converted from Sunni Islam to Shiaism became a challenge for Nigeria’s government.
In the mid-1970s, a group of Muslim students in Nigeria went around universities vandalising bars and calling for the implementation of Islamic law. Among the young cadres was a man named Ibrahim el Zakzaky.
Now 66 years old, Zakzaky has emerged as the leader of Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN). He's in police custody facing accusations of leading a violent group that has clashed with Nigerian law enforcement agencies, including the army, on multiple occasions in the last few years.
But his supporters say the organisation, which is made up of minority Shia Muslims, is peaceful and has been targeted for upholding religious beliefs that differ with the Sunni principles on semantics. Zakzaky’s health is failing and he’s not been given proper medical attention, his daughter said in a recent interview.
Since 2014, Nigerian state forces have killed several hundreds of IMN activists, including Zakzaky’s six sons and senior leaders in his movement. In 2015 alone, more than 300 IMN workers were killed when they tried to block the convoy of the Nigerian army chief.
Almost non-existent just three decades ago, Shia Islam has spread to parts of Africa’s most populated country. And that’s mainly been credited to Zakzaky’s proselytism.
But there was a time when he was a devout Sunni Muslim who aspired to establish Islamic law in Nigeria.
From Zakzaky to Sheikh Zakzaky
Born in 1953, in the old walled city of Zaria, Zakzaky was a restless Sunni Muslim who grew up amid a period of turmoil.
Nigeria gained independence from the UK in 1960 with hopes that its oil wealth would help it progress ahead of its struggling African peers. For many people, especially youngsters, those aspirations were dashed in January 1966 when the military took control of the country in a bloody coup.
Aside from the many ethnicities and languages, Nigeria’s 190 million people are divided between Muslims who live mostly in the north and have long held a grudge against the more prosperous Christians in the south.
For much of their history, Nigerian Muslims have practised moderate Sufi Islam, adopting an inclusive worldview and avoiding rigid doctrines that are prevalent in Saudi Arabia. By the time Zakzaky enrolled in the University of Ahmadu Bello - named after a prominent Muslim leader of the North - in Kaduna state, political Islam was making inroads.
The ideology espoused by Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood seeped into several Muslim majority countries. The group - the Muslim Student Society (MSS) of Nigeria - which attacked wine shops in universities during the 1970s was also inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood.
El Zakzaky rose swiftly through the MSS’s ranks and became its secretary general.
“He is a charismatic leader and an eloquent speaker who knows how to move a crowd and inspire young people,” says a Nigerian history professor who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.
“He understood the passion, aspiration and dream of Northern Nigerian youth in the 80s and 90s.”
Nigeria remained under the control of successive military regimes up until 1999, albeit for a brief period of 1979-83 when democracy was restored for a few short years.
That was also the time Nigeria, which is Africa’s largest oil producer, suffered from rampant corruption. There was a growing anger against the established elite, which consisted of military officials.
Regional politics was also at play. The 1979 revolution in Iran gave new ideas to the Muslim students. At the same time, Saudi Arabia funded scholars and religious schools to promote its own influence.
That caused a split in the MSS ranks as one of its leaders Aminuddin Abu Bakar sided with Riyadh while others joined Yan Shi’a, looking towards Tehran for inspiration, wrote prominent historian John Hunwick.
That was around the time El Zakzaky travelled to Iran and returned a convert to Shiism - even though he kept his new-found belief largely to himself.
Nigerian Muslims have historically been Sunnis. El Zakzaky was not the first to introduce Shia Islam in the country.
For more than a century, Shia Lebanese traders travelled to Nigeria and some of them settled here. They mostly kept to themselves.
Starting in the early 1980s, El Zakzaky and his followers were constantly harassed by military regimes and he spent nine years in prison. “He turned to Shiism after he was expelled from Ahmadu Bello University in 1982 and eventually went to Iran to complete his studies,” Jibrin Ibrahim, a senior fellow at the Abuja-based Centre for Democracy and Development, told TRT World.
It’s important to note that El Zakzaky didn’t openly declare his Shia theological conviction until 1994. And when he did, it led to a split in his group.
There are also conflicting claims of how El Zakzaky was able to make a following of what his group says are three million members. Some experts say the IMN used a mix of preaching and welfare packages to covert people in the rural areas.
The Iranian government has repeatedly pressed Abuja to release El Zakzaky who has been in custody since 2015 when hundreds of IMN workers were killed in a crackdown.
Unlike the countries in East Africa such as Sudan and Somalia, where Riyadh and Tehran vie for strategic control closer to their borders, the fight in Nigeria is more sectarian, writes Gerald Feierstein, a former US diplomat.
“Both sides in the Saudi-Iranian proxy conflict are now investing in and supporting rival groups throughout the region in order to gain both an ideological and strategic foothold in West Africa’s Muslim communities,” he explained.
But when it comes to El Zakzaky, the Nigerian government of President Muhammadu Buhari is coming under increasing criticism for extrajudicial killings and the continued persecution of his followers.
In a country already reeling under terrorism and sectarian divides, a Shiite uprising could be devastating.
“Continued incarceration of El Zakzaky is creating another security challenge which, if not contained, would be more devastating and dangerous than Boko Haram insurgency,” said the historian.
“Government should negotiate and hand over El Zakzaky to Tehran so that he can be given immediate medical attention and perhaps political asylum.”