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|Author||Dr. Shedrack Best|
|Publication||Searching for Peace in Africa|
The Islamist challenge and the increasing militancy of religious campaigns, have remained an exclusively northern Nigerian phenomenon, largely due to historical, cultural and geo-political reasons. Southern Nigeria has yet to experience northern-type militancy. Even though there may be people in the south who share Islamist sentiments, they are not linked with the northern movement led by Yahaya el-Zakzaky.
Religious Fundamentalism in Nigeria
Three movements exemplify the intra-Islamic strife in contemporary northern Nigeria. These are the 'Maitatsine' Movement, the 'Izala' movement, and the 'Shiites'. But Islamic activism and protests against state authority in Nigeria date back to the pre-colonial era. The most significant of these protests occurred during the Dan Fodio jihad, which began and spread through most of northern Nigeria in the early part of the nineteenth century. The objective of Usman Dan Fodio, leader of the jihad, and his fellow reformists, was to depose the ruling Hausa dynasties, who were accused of ruling without adherence to the principles of Islam. The jihad challenged and questioned the management of religion and political power in northern Nigeria. It subsequently removed the ruling group and thereafter planted Fulani-led emirates across the region. From 1900 the British largely replaced these regimes.
Under British rule, the greatest Islamic threat to statehood and the colonial authorities was the rise of 'Mahdism'. This was a trans-Saharan anti-colonial movement. It originated from a messianic doctrine similar to that of Judaism. Muslims believed that at the turn of each century, a Mahdi would emerge with the powers to strengthen Islam and make justice triumph. He would also attract a large following among Muslims. Many Muslims waited for the Mahdi for deliverance. Some Mahdists regarded the forces of Lord Lugard (the first British Governor-General of Nigeria who amalgamated the north and south in 1914) as Satan. They saw any pact with the British and subsequent rule by Christians as worse than death. Thus, after the capital of the Fulani empire (Sokoto) fell to the British, sultan Attahiru fled to Sudan in a 'hijra,' rather than live under 'Christian' rule2.
In July 1907, some other Mahdists regrouped, appointed a leader, and attempted to re-take Sokoto from the British. Others compromised on the assurance that the British would not interfere with their ways of life. For a long time during the early years of British colonialism, the Emirs and the British officers lived in permanent fear of a Mahdist uprising, basically because of the movement's threats and challenge to the colonial state.
This remained the case up to independence. Other forms of opposition existed between members of the 'Qadiriyya' and 'Tijaniyya' brotherhoods, both of them trans-national Sufi sects. These sects constitute the dominant religious sects in northern Nigeria particularly, and Nigeria in general. Before 1978, when the Izala movement was formed, virtually all Muslims in Nigeria belonged to one of the two sects.
In Nigeria, conflict between these two groups became intense in the 1950s. This, in part, led the late premier of the northern Region, Sir Ahmadu Bello, to establish the Islamic Advisory Council to lessen friction between them. The Council later declined in significance following the end of Nigeria's First Republic after the military coup of January 1966. Both sects have had close relations with successive regimes in Nigeria. Indeed, the top echelon of the leadership in both sects has benefited from the government in various ways. Unlike radical groups such as the 'Shiites', they seem comfortable with the secular notion of the state and there is little support for an Islamic state and constitution for Nigeria among their members. As such, they have been the targets of revivalist Islamic movements, who tend to identify them with the complacency of the state, and accuse them of moral bankruptcy. The revivalist movements also appealed to youths, and the state is a key subject of attack.
At present, there are three prominent religious revivalist and activist groups operating in northern Nigeria: the Izala, the Maitatsines, and the 'Shiites'.
The Izala, or the Jama'at Izalatil Bidiawa Iqamatus Sunnah (Movement Against Negative Innovations and for Orthodoxy), is principally concerned with the purification of Islam and abolition of practices that are not original to the Koran and Sunnah, the practice of the prophet Muhammad. The movement was begun by sheikh Ismaila Idris in Jos. It later enjoyed the support of important figures such as the late sheikh Mahmoud Gummi. The Izalas do not regard the creation of an Islamic state as a primary concern. They are an ultra-orthodox movement wanting a return to the true practice of the faith. Because a large section of the Izala leadership is drawn from the civil service, the group has not been engaged in any conflict with the state. Their conflict is rather with other Muslims and other Islamic sects.
The Maitatsine is a radical, anti-status quo movement driven by Islamic fundamentalism and the socio-economic disadvantages suffered by its members vis-à-vis the well-to-do in society. It was founded by Alhaji Marwa Maitatsine, who was killed in Kano during the 1980 disturbances in which 4,177 people perished within less than a month of fighting. The Maitatsines represented a major challenge to the Nigerian state and to other Muslims. It is believed by many Nigerian Muslims that the movement is a heterodox grouping which deviates from orthodox Islam. The members exhibit intense hatred for agents of the state such as the police and members of the armed forces, largely because of repeated violent encounters with the police.
Muslism Brotherhood /Shiite
The Muslim brotherhood movement is popularly described as 'Shiite,' despite the objections of its members. Indeed, the 'Shiite' description is a label given to the movement by journalists and commentators. Rooted in the Sunni Islamic movement, they are linked to Iran through their leader's training in that country and are said to receive some support from Iran, even though it has been suggested that Libya and Sudan are also probable supporters of the movement.
In Nigeria the 'Shiites' are led by Mallam (teacher in Arabic) Yahaya El Zakzaky, whose reputation for radical Islam dates back to his undergraduate days at Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria in the 1970s. At university he led the Muslim Students Society (MSS) for some time, during which period he sponsored some demonstrations in Zaria in the 1970s. He was consequently expelled along with other students by the university authorities in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Given that this period coincided with the Iranian revolution, Iran extended a warm welcome to these students and they were invited to attend conferences, rallies and various training events relevant to Islamic rhetoric and revolution, for a subsequent Iranian-type revolution in Nigeria. A report of the Nigerian Security Organisation noted that the training received by El Zakzaky in Iran included 'planning and executing student unrest.'
The earlier link between the 'Shiite' leadership and university students provided the group with an intellectual and revolutionary foundation, which was superior to the Maitatsine-type movement, for instance. The 'Shiites' quickly became established in key northern universities such as the Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria, Bayero University in Kano, and the University of Sokoto (now Usman Dan Fodio University). This explains why their strongest operational centres are to be found in Zaria, Kaduna, Kano, Sokoto, and Katsina. The movement's leadership is highly educated and usually young: the typical leader is a university graduate. However, the educated members provide only the leadership.
The 'Shiites' disregard for state authority is exhibited in a number of ways. Among them are the denunciation of the state and government, disregard for party elections, contempt for the constitution and refusal to recognise its laws, refusal to respect the national anthem and national pledge (they will normally not stand as Nigerians do when the national anthem is being sung), and disregard for Nigeria's national flag. In other words, they reject all the symbols of Nigerian statehood.
The earliest manifestation of this movement in Nigeria was seen in 1979, organised under the banner of the Muslim Students' Society (MSS). In that year, El Zakzaky led a demonstration in Zaria. In May 1980, he led another demonstration in Zaria, with ten bus-loads of demonstrators chanting 'down with the Nigerian constitution' and 'Islam only'. These slogans were also written on public buildings in Zaria, Kano and Sokoto, particularly on the walls of university buildings. El Zakzaky later circulated pamphlets titled 'Calling on Nigerian Muslims', through which he condemned the Nigerian constitution and urged Muslims to recognise only the Shari'a, and to rise against the Nigerian state.
Although much had been known about El Zakzaky and his activities, not much was known about the organisation he led before the 1991 fracas in the far northern city of Katsina. In that year, the leader of the 'Shiites' in the ancient city of Katsina led the group in a series of violent demonstrations. The crisis was ignited by the publication of an article in a weekly magazine called The Fun Times which suggested that the Prophet Muhammad and Jesus were associated with women of easy virtue. Muslim activists regarded this as blasphemous. Their reaction was similar to that of many Muslims to Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses. They accused the paper of a blasphemy, which they, suggested, could only originate in a Christian-headed paper backed by the government. In spite of the apology offered by the paper, the religionists burnt copies of the Fun Times, and set the building housing the magazine ablaze, effectively challenging the military governor of Katsina State to react.
The trial of the 'Shiites' in Katsina was dramatic. They refused to engage the services of lawyers, and yet defended themselves very brilliantly - a reflection of the highly intellectual base of the movement. They displayed contempt for the legal system, the law enforcement agencies, and the law itself, believing them to be contrary to the will of God.
In 1994, the 'Shiites' in Bayero University, Kano, one of their strongholds, caused a major uproar when they passed death sentences on four university lecturers. Their blood was declared halal, meaning it was lawful for Muslims to kill them. The lecturers were accused of boycotting classes and going on strike against a decision of the university, thereby causing students to loiter about, ultimately leading to immoral acts such as female students visiting male hostels. It took three weeks of appealing to the leader of the 'Shiites' before he pardoned the lecturers. The pardon was announced at the same mosque where their death sentences had been passed.
In December 1994, the 'Shiites' again made news in Kano, in what came to be known as the 'Gideon Akaluka episode'. This crisis was caused by the discovery of a page of the Koran on the premises of an ethnic Igbo Christian trader called Gideon Akaluka. The page was said to have been used as lavatory paper and it was concluded that the Igbo trader had desecrated the Koran, and should consequently be given the death sentence. Akaluka was arrested and kept in custody by state agencies. The 'Shiites', not satisfied with the justice system, broke into the prison and beheaded Akaluka. They then impaled his head on a spear and danced round the city of Kano, chanting Allahu Akbar. They also published a picture of the head of Akaluka on a stake in their propaganda paper, Al Tajdil, as well as a picture of the leader of the 'Shiites' addressing the faithful after the execution had taken place. Although the government was initially silent, it was later revealed that the military governor of Kano State had ordered the secret execution of those who had executed Akaluka. It was kept secret to prevent a swift reaction from 'Shiites' in other parts of northern Nigeria. The same military governor who ordered the executions later died in a plane crash, which the members of the movement believed was due to a divine curse.
Perhaps the biggest clash between the 'Shiites' and the state in recent years followed the arrest and detention by the government of the national leader of the movement, El Zakzaky. The arrest followed an attempt by El Zakzaky to step up his movement's campaign by using an unauthorised radio station to propagate the ideals of an Islamic state via revolution. The signals jammed those of the famous Radio Nigeria Kaduna and investigations by state operatives traced the broadcast to the hideout of El Zakzaky in Zaria. With a reinforcement of police from Abuja, El Zakzaky was arrested on September 12, 1996. The arrest, especially under the repressive environment of the Abacha era, led to a spontaneous reaction of 'Shiites' across northern Nigeria, particularly in Zaria and Kaduna. The clashes resulted in the death of twelve persons in Zaria. In Kaduna, the 'Shiites' took on the police and were undeterred by the shooting down of their members, as they picked each corpse, dropped it in a bus, and continued their protest. They killed a police officer, captured a police station, and carted away its arms. The fight was kept alive by the principle of martyrdom and the belief that those who died in such a fight were assured entry into heaven.
In February 1998, there was again 'Shiite' instigated violence in Kano. This followed the attempt by other Muslims in Kano to say their Eid-El-Fitr prayers at the end of their thirty-day fasting period of the holy month of Ramadan. The 'Shiites,' who normally start their own fasting later than others, depending on when they sight the moon in Iran, were opposed to the other Muslims in Kano making their devotions at that time, believing it to be a distortion of the practice of Islam. They accused the emir of Kano, the traditional leaders of the Muslims of the area and an heir of the emirate system of Da Fodio, of misleading Muslims in a manner that led to improper worship. The attempt by the 'Shiites' to disrupt the prayers, and the force used by the police to stop them, led to a clash which culminated in the death of four people and the injury of many others.
El Zakzaky was kept in detention by the Abacha government for two years after his arrest in 1996. The 'Shiites' continued to protest against his detention and demanded his unconditional release. In January (23 to 30 1998), the 'Shiites' observed Jerusalem (Quds) day. This day was initiated by the late Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran, to propagate an Islamic revolutionary approach to the occupation of Arab lands by Israel, in a challenge to most Arab leaders. It is usually observed on a Friday during the month of Ramadan. In Nigeria, the 'Shiites' explain that the day is set aside for all oppressed people of the world to come out and confront their oppressors.
In January 1998, there were mass demonstrations in Kaduna and Katsina, involving large numbers of women and children. The use of these social forces finds justification in the fact that every demonstration is viewed as a jihad, and a jihad is for all. Women and children have to contribute their quota. This is defended by opposition to Bid'a, an Arabic phrase meaning a non-Islamic 'innovation.' A second principle that makes protest inevitable is that of Muzahara, which requires a Muslim not only to merely disagree, but to openly express and show such discontent. Demonstrations are one way of doing so.
The focus of the January 1998 protests was the oppressive nature of the Abacha administration and the open strategy of deceit employed by the government. They pointed to the unfulfilled promises of the Abacha administration, adding that general Abacha had resorted to diverting the attention of Nigerians to alleged coup plotting against his government. The government was also accused of fuelling the many communal and religious clashes in Nigeria. The protesters lambasted the collaborators of the regime, and demanded the release of all detained and oppressed people. They accused the Abacha regime of impoverishing the populace, and added that certain Western nations were working towards the annihilation of Islam in Nigeria.
In Katsina, confrontation between the 'Shiites' and the police led to the death of five persons, including two police personnel. The demonstrations later spread to Kano, using the same methods. In Kano, the Emir was a principal target. The demonstrators wanted to humiliate the monarch, who was supposed to ride round the city of Kano on a horse.
On the eve of the second anniversary of Zakzaky's detention, members of the group across the whole of northern Nigeria protested, and made 'free Zakzaky' inscriptions in red paint on public places: roads, trees, bridges, buildings, billboards, etc. Not long afterwards, Zakzaky was released by the new government, the interim regime of Abdusalami Abubakar. Zakzaky has remained silent since his release, partly due to the fact that the freedom he enjoys is not total. However there are often pro-Zakzaky demonstrations on Fridays at Ahmadu Bello University.
The parties in the conflict over Islam and legitimacy in northern Nigeria are the Islamist movement led by El Zakzaky on the one hand, and the government and leaders of Nigeria and their coercive agencies on the other. The emirate institutions are also included for alleged collaboration with government. Other parties may be secondary. The issues revolve around religion, values, and different approaches to and philosophies of the state and laws that should govern the Nigeria. The 'Shiites' want an Islamic revolution. They opt for an Islamic Republic, hoping that the godlessness and Satanism which characterise governance will be abolished.
The 'Shiites' particularly hate members of the Nigerian police and the law enforcement agencies. They use the principle of Hisba (an Arabic word which recognises and supports public duties in Islam). It provides for training in arms, paramilitary services, defence, general policing, all of which are useable for jihad. The 'Shiites' view the Nigerian police with contempt because they are mixed with 'unbelievers', and to the extent that they are corrupt, they cannot be called 'police'. They actually prefer to kill the police in battle than to kill civilians.
Similarly, the 'Shiites' have no regard for elections, multiparty political systems and competitive democracy. Elections are referred to as Taghuti or demonic, another term borrowed from the vocabulary of the Islamic revolution in Iran, where the word is used for anything related to the regime of the former Shah. The Islamists reason that it is impossible for genuine Muslims to serve in a system in whose constitution they have no faith. Participation in elections is therefore, seen as part of unbelief.
|REPORTS:||Amnesty International: Nigeria - Release of Political Prisoners. March 1999; |
Human Rights Watch: Nigeria - Crackdown in the Niger Delta. June 1999; The Price of Oil - Corporate Responsibility and Human Rights Violations in Nigeria's Niger Delta. Febr. 1999; Transition or travesty - Nigeria's Endless Process of Return to Civilian Rule. October 1997.
|OTHER PUBLICATIONS:||Stabilizing Nigeria - Sanctions, Incentives, and the Support for Civil Society, by Peter M. Lewis, Pearl T. Robinson, and Barnett R. Rubin. Center for Preventive Action, New York, 1998. |
|SELECTED INTERNET SITES:||http://www.ndirect.co.uk/~n.today/mirror.htm (weekly newspaper Abuja Mirror); http://www.kilima.com/mediamonitor/ (weekly publication Nigeria Media Monitor, edited by the Independent Journalism Centre in Lagos); http://www.postexpresswired.com/ (daily newspaper The Post Express); http://www.ndirect.co.uk/~n.today/today.htm (weekly newapper Today); http://tribeca.ios.com/~n123/nigerldr (Federal Republic); http://www.FreeNigeria.org (Free Nigeria Movement, grassroots based global mass movement); |
http://www.igc.org/kind/fon5.htm (Friends of Nigeria); http://www.nigeria.net/nigeria.nsf (General news and information); http://www.odili.net/nigeria.html (NigeriaWeb); http://www.cldc.howard.edu/~ndmorg/ndmpage.html (Nigerian Democratic Movement).
|RESOURCE CONTACTS:||Judith Burdin Asuni - director Academic Associates PeaceWorks; |
Barnett R. Rubin - Director Center for Preventive Action. Email BRubin@cfr.org.
|ORGANISATIONS:||Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria, 13 Agudama Avenue, D-line, Port Harcourt, Rivers State, Nigeria, E-mail: email@example.com. |
Data on the following organisations can be found in the Directory section: Academic Associates PeaceWorks (AAPW); International Women Communication Centre (IWCC); Centre for Conflict Resolution and Peace Advocacy (CCRPA); Committee for the Protection of Peoples Dignity (COPPED).