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Nigeria: tensions persist after Zaria mass killings

Katrin Gänsler Reuters, AFP
December 14, 2016

In northwestern Nigeria, a lethal conflict between the authorities and the outlawed Islamist group IMN continues one year after hundreds were killed in clashes. The group refuses to register as a religious movement.

Members of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria walking on the outskirts of Kano. The Shi'ite Muslims are on a pilgrimage to Zaria.
Image: Getty Images/AFP/A. Abubakar

Muhammad Abdulhamid is standing in front of the ruins of what was once his primary school in a residential district in the northern Nigerian university city of Zaria. Only the remains of a child's swing and a few colored stones testify that a school once stood here. The building was demolished by bulldozers sent in by the Kaduna state authorities in late November. Four weeks later, 23-year-old Muhammad still can't believe what has happened. "We are angry at the way the state is behaving," he said. "A school is a place of learning. How could one destroy a place where knowledge is being handed down to our generation?" He finds it particular frustrating that the state authorities themselves devote so few resources to education.

Muhammad Abdulhamid believes the destruction of the school is yet another attempt by the state to destroy the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN). This minority Shiite Muslim group made headlines when 347 of its members were killed from December 12 to 14, 2015. The death toll of 347 was established by a subsequent judicial inquiry. The fighting began when supporters of IMN leader Ibrahim Zakzaky refused to allow the army chief of staff's convoy to pass through the city.

Map of Nigeria showing the location of Zaria
Amnesty International accuses the Nigeria military of shooting dead some 350 Muslims in Zaria in December 2015

In a report on the incident released in April this year, rights group Amnesty International accused Nigeria's military of shooting dead some 350 Shiite Muslims, burying them in mass graves and destroying evidence of the crime.  

The military has claimed that IMN wanted to kill Nigerian army chief, Lieutenant-General  Tukur Yusuf Burati. Abdulhamid Bello, a senior IMN member, says this  accusation is outrageous. "Everybody knows that there is no proof that we have resorted to the use of armed force since our group was founded 40 years ago," he said.

Banning IMN

The Kaduna State government disagrees and banned the IMN as an illegal group in October 2016. Kaduna State governor Nasir Ahmad El-Rufai gives his full backing to the move. "The fact that the IMN has a military wing which conducts military training, and the fact that they possess weapons, was a warning sign. We had to nip the group in the bud before it turned into a monster," he said.

But critics of the state authorities say it is incomprehensible why the house belonging to the mother of IMN leader Ibraheem Zakzaky and the cemetery had to be destroyed. No streets in the vicinity were blocked. Zakzaky himself has been in prison for a year.     Such questions have been preoccupying Pastor Yohanna Buru who is endeavoring to promote harmonious relations between Muslims and Christians in Kaduna. He believe the state authorities are guilty of overreacting in their handling of the Shiite Muslim  minority. "Just because somebody blocks a street, you can't denounce them immediately as insurgents," he said. Buru believes that allegations the group pursues a particular ideology need to be backed up evidence.

Nasir Ahmad El-Rufai voting in Nigeria's April 2015 elections while photographers look on
Nasir Ahmad El-Rufai (right), governor of Kaduna State, casting his ballot during Nigeria's elections in April 2015Image: picture alliance/AA/Stringer

IMN is often accused of failing to respect the law in Nigeria. It has never registered itself as a religious movement, which Nigerian legislation says is mandatory. Supporters of this legislation say it makes it easier to identify extremist groups. Opponents warn of too much surveillance. State governor El-Rufai said if IMN were "to accept our constitution and legislation and abide by them - as other groups do - then we wouldn't have a problem."

Pastor Yaohanna Buru
Pastor Yaohanna Buru is trying to encourage inter-faith dialogue Image: DW/K. Gänsler

Abdulhamid Bello is opposed to "full registration," saying it would impose too many restrictions on his work.  He didn't elaborate, other than to say that there were areas within the IMN that were registered with the authorities. "Our schools, for example. They have been registered."

Violence rumbles on

That won't suffice for a compromise with the Kaduna authorities over the thorny question of registration of religious movements. Bello has given up hope that anything will change in the near future. But he does see a glimmer of hope. At the beginning of December, a federal high court ordered Zakzaky's release within 45 days.  

Zakzaky has previously been imprisoned for calling for an Iranian-style revolution to create a Shiite Islamic state in northern Nigeria.

Last month, at least 10 people were killed and several injured when police opened fire in clashes with the IMN during a religious celebration in Kano.