By Issie Sargraves
Stories of violence by ISIS and its affiliates are splashed across the international media, demonizing Islamic movements around the world and painting them as radical and violent. This, however, results in the media ignoring massacres against moderate muslim groups worldwide. One such minimally reported event was the extreme violence against the Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN) that occurred in Zaria, Nigeria this December, in which hundreds of civilians were killed and many more were injured when the Nigerian Army fired on the IMN community in retaliation for protests.
Ibrahim Zakzaky founded the Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN) in the early 1980s. Its creation introduced Shia Islam to Nigeria, although the movement is comprised of both Sunni and Shiite Muslims. It is a nonviolent organization, and therefore is not affiliated with the extremely violent Nigerian group, Boko Haram. The IMN is primarily located in northern Nigeria, with most of its activities taking place in Zaria – the city in which the December 12th massacre took place. Although the organization is non-violent, they champion views Nigeria’s government opposes, and so the Nigerian Army does not agree with them. The IMN’s support for Palestine, opposition to Zionism, and denunciation of Israel are key issues that have motivated their peaceful demonstrations and have caused a rift between them and the government.
On December 12, 2015, members of the IMN began to fill the roads of Zaria in a pro-Palestinian protest. However, it is unclear as to what exactly happened, as both the army and the IMN have differing accounts of the day’s events. From the perspective of the army, the massacre was an act of self-defense prompted by violent protesters. The Nigerian Army claimed in a statement, “The sect numbering hundreds carrying dangerous weapons, barricaded the roads with bonfires, heavy stones and tires. They refused all entreaties to disperse and then started firing and pelting the convoy with dangerous objects.” The soldiers were described as having “no choice” in their defense of the convoy. The IMN has a vastly different view of the day: in the IMN press release, the actions of the Army were described as “cold-blooded,” and pointed to the fact that “women and children were not spared.” The IMN also chooses to highlight that “the murdering does not end with the destruction of centers and killing of people at Sunday as the Army are still condoning stop and search at all routes within and outside Zaria identifying the members of the movement and killing in cold blood.” This killing of innocents and continued deliberate targeting paint the day in a vastly different light, one in which the Army’s killing of civilians was uncalled-for and unjust. What is clear about December 12th is that somewhere between 200 and 1,000 men, women, and children, all members of the IMN, were killed by the Nigerian Army in either an extreme defensive act or a ruthless massacre. In addition, IMN founder Ibrahim Zakzaky has been injured and arrested, and members of his family were killed.
In the aftermath of this tragedy, Muhammadu Buhari, the president of Nigeria, has made the controversial decision to wait for the official county investigation report before he continues with any action. This is problematic because the Kaduna State Government is widely known as being a supporter of the Army in the county, and is therefore likely to be biased against the IMN. Because of this, various human rights organizations have called for an impartial investigation into the events in Zaria. M.K. Ibrahim, Amnesty International’s Nigerian director, stated “An impartial investigation is urgently needed into these killings. While the final death toll is unclear, there is no doubt that there has been a substantial loss of life at the hands of the military.” Daniel Bekele, the Executive Director of the African division of Human Rights Watch, openly criticized the Nigerian Army. “It is almost impossible to see how a roadblock by angry young men could justify the killings of hundreds of people,” Bekele said. “At best it was a brutal overreaction and at worst it was a planned attack on the minority Shia group.”
This massacre did not occur in a vacuum free from conflict: Nigeria has been experiencing numerous clashes between the government and small Shi’ite independent groups. Boko Haram has influenced governmental policy in Nigeria. The organization, a violent terrorist group linked to ISIS, has been running rampant throughout the nation for a decade. The army has therefore been trained to react quickly and decisively to perceived terror threats. Whether or not the protest in Zaria could have been misconstrued as one such threat is still up for debate; however, the climate is clearly one of violence and retaliation.
The massacre of the IMN at Zaria could have disastrous consequences for Muslim relations in Nigeria. With groups like Boko Haram (and, by extension, ISIS) courting potential recruits, unnecessary and unpunished violence against the IMN could create feelings of alienation among members and could prompt some of these Shiites to join extremist organizations. As Abubakar, president of the Nigerian Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs so aptly said, “The history of the circumstances that engendered the outbreak of militant insurgency in the past, with cataclysmic consequences that Nigeria is yet to recover from, should not be allowed to repeat itself.” What Abubakar is referring to is the re-emergence of Boko Haram as a vastly more violent (and popular) group after security forces attacked their mosque and compound in 2009, killing 900 people. History must not be allowed to repeat itself, especially in the unstable environment in Nigeria. If massacres against non-radical Muslim groups persist, without reaction by the current Nigerian government, it could result in radicalization and polarization in the future.