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Why has Nigeria banned a Shia Muslim group?

31 July 2019

Al Jazeera’s Inside Story programme last night took a look at the Nigerian government’s decision to get a court to proscribe the predominantly Shia group, the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN). Nigeria’s Muslims are mostly Sunni, including most of the northern Nigeria ruling elite, from President Muhammadu Buhari to state governors and military top brass. Many observers are concerned about the perception that the decision to ban the IMN may be for sectarian reasons.

Host Martine Dennis first asked Ibrahim Musa, an IMN spokesman, how they will respond to the ban. He said they will challenge it in court because it is unconstitutional and against the freedom of association, religion and expression. Musa also denied allegations that his group engaged in violence. When asked why the Nigerian state has used violence against the IMN, he replied that they “want to kill” their leader Ibrahim Zakzaky, who has been in detention since the military raided his compound in Zaria, Kaduna State in December 2015.

Musa also said that the violence against them was in order to “create an insurgency”. He argued that insurgency was a money-spinner for a “corrupt” military, that he alleged had made billions of dollars from fighting the Boko Haram insurgency. He said the attempts to instigate violence from the Shia won’t work because the sect doesn’t “subscribe to terrorism”. Musa also denied allegations that they were influenced by Iran.

Watch the programme below:

Dennis then focused on panellists Matthew Page – Associate Fellow, Africa Programme, Chatham House, Anietie Ewang – Nigeria Researcher, Human Rights Watch and Ini Dele-Adedeji – Research Associate, University of York. Ewang criticised the ban as a “threat to fundamentally guaranteed rights” to freedoms such as religion. She thought the court’s “sweeping judgment” wasn’t “legitimate” because it seemed to be based on the alleged criminality of some members of the IMN, which, for her, wasn’t enough justification for a total ban.

Page was of the view that the Nigerian security agencies often commit commit “gross violations of human rights” when dealing with civil disturbances. This he attributed to a “military mindset”, which the president, as a former military dictator, still has.

Dele-Adedeji argued that the IMN were not violent and that they may be “troublesome” and “unorthodox”. Continuing, Page said the issue was not about Islam. He thought that the presence of the IMN predominantly in Kaduna State, governed by Nasir El Rufai, a staunch Buhari ally, had become a “thorn in the side” of the northern elite. He saw the moves against the IMN in the context of a “settling of scores”.

Dele-Adedeji added that the Nigerian government “pretends to be democratic”, but continually flouts court orders. All the guests agreed that the government was mishandling the situation. Page said the government’s approach to resolving internal security threats was “not productive” and needed to be “more nuanced”. It “can’t just involve soldiers going in and killing everyone”.

Ewang agreed that “excessive force” had been deployed in dealing with the Shia. Over 300 were killed in Zaria during the raid of Zakzaky’s compound in 2015. 42 were killed last year during protests in the capital, Abuja. Human Rights Watch has called for accountability in terms of prosecuting the soldiers that killed unarmed IMN members, but those calls went unheeded. Ewang saw accountability as “the only chance to bring the situation under control”.

Dele-Adedeji spoke of Nigerian government “hostility and intolerance” towards the Shia and the IMN. Both Dele-Adedeji and Page were dismissive of stories suggesting the IMN were sponsored by Iran. Page said his investigations showed that Iran had provided “small amounts of money” for what was essentially a “soup kitchen” in Zaria. He saw similarities in Nigeria’s approach towards the IMN and Boko Haram, in which a heavy-handed response only succeeds in pushing groups that were just about nuisance value towards radicalisation.

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