Nigerian military, Shiite protesters clash over imprisoned cleric | Africa | DW | 24.07.2019
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Africa

Nigerian military, Shiite protesters clash over imprisoned cleric

Nigerian security forces resorted to violence this week to end Shiite Muslim protests in Abuja. Tensions are high after at least eight people were killed in the clashes.

Tensions were high in the capital Abuja after police clamped down on a demonstration.  At least six protesters, a police officer and a journalist were killed during an Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN) march on Monday, and the stand-off continued the next day. Police opened fire with live ammunition as well as tear gas as protesters threw petrol bombs at the officers.

The Shiite group has vowed to continue the marches until their spiritual leader Ibrahim Zakzaky, who was detained by Nigeria's Sunni authorities in December 2015 on charges including terrorism, is released from prison.

Zainab Lawal Abdulkadir told DW she was on her way to see a doctor because she was hit by tear gas but that she would head right back to the demonstration. "I hope to die in this struggle, I want a live bullet to enter my body as was meted out to my brothers and sisters yesterday," the young Shiite woman said.

The battle lines are drawn

Police spokesman Frank Mba told a local TV station the demonstrators "indiscriminately and violently attacked innocent citizens and policeman and then embarked on a spree of destruction to both public and private property " using, in his words, "lethal weapons."

Both the government and the protesters need to respect the rule of law, argues Mukhtar El-Khasim, an analyst in northern Nigeria.

The IMN is acting unlawfully, he told DW, and "the Nigerian government refused to follow the guidelines of the constitution or the verdict of a legal court of law." The analyst was referring to the fact that the government has refused to free Zakzaky even after a federal court dismissed the government's case as unlawful and ordered Zakzaky's release in 2016.

 The Nigerian authorities have consistently sent in the military to respond to IMN protests or marches, according to Amnesty International.

The IMN is the most widely known Shia group in Nigeria where the Muslim population is, however, mainly Sunni.

Zakzaky founded the IMN in the late 1970s. It was originally a student movement inspired by the Islamic revolution in Iran. Zakzaky convinced fellow students that an Islamic revolution was possible in Nigeria, too. The group's first reported march in Nigeria in 1980 was in support of Iran after a joint US-Canadian operation to save US diplomats trapped in Tehran in 1979.

Nigeria, Abuja , a long line of women wearing long headscarves walking down a street (Picture-alliance/AA/A. A. Bashal)

IMN protests have been ongoing, the above photo was taken in Abuja in 2018

Over the past years, the country has seen frequent clashes between the security forces and IMN followers during protests and religious processions. Nigeria's government has accused the IMN, which claims to have several million members, of supporting militancy and aiming to undermine the state. Apart from demanding its leader's release, the Shiite group claims it only seeks freedom to practice its faith in northern Nigeria.

To alleviate the situation, Zakzaky should be released on bail, retired army major Bashir Shuaibu told DW. The cleric could then speak to his supporters, the security expert argued.

Fatima Musa is one of them — and for her, there is no going back: "I will not leave Abuja without my spiritual leader, I sacrificed my entire life to free Sheik Ibrahim Zakzaky," she told DW, adding that the protesters are not about to give up any time soon.

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