“Every person shall be entitled to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, including the freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom (either alone or in community with others, and in public or in private) to manifest and propagate his religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice and observance.
“However, this right does not entitle any person to form, take part in the activity or be a member of a secret society,” Section 38 of the Nigeria Constitution 1999 (as amended).
These are enshrined in Nigeria’s constitution in the context of religious freedom. Beyond this, the Constitution also made provisions for freedom of association and assembly. Unfortunately, this explicit provision law has not benefitted members of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN), also known as Shiite, as they have faced attacks and oppression from Nigeria’s security agents.
Mr. Musa Adbullahi, a Shiite member based in Abuja, in an exclusive interview with BONews, recounted the various forms of abuse and attacks that members of the religious group have encountered in the last couple of years, all because of their religion.
“Between 8 January 2017 to 28 July 2021, 78 Shiite members have been killed in Abuja only,” Abdullahi said.
Restriction to worship
While recounting the number of people that have died during peaceful processions, Abdullahi said the IMN is present in other countries of the world, but in Nigeria, they suffer various forms of persecution, part of which led to the arrest and detention of their leader, Sheikh Ibrahim El-Zakyzaky for over five years.
The Shiite movement in Nigeria began in the late 1970s, inspired by the Iranian Revolution of 1979. The movement was led by Ibrahim Zakzaky, who sought to establish an Islamic state in Nigeria. The movement quickly gained popularity among the country’s Shiite population, which is estimated to be around 5 million people.
Despite the movement’s growing influence, it faced opposition from Nigeria’s largely Sunni Muslim population and the Nigerian government. In 1980, the government banned the movement and arrested Zakzaky and several of his followers. Zakzaky was eventually released but was arrested again in 1987 and spent two years in prison.
In the 1990s, the Shiite movement in Nigeria experienced a resurgence, and Zakzaky emerged as a prominent figure once again. The movement continued to face opposition from the government, which viewed it as a threat to the country’s secular system.
In 2015, the movement suffered a major setback when the Nigerian army attacked a procession of Shiite members in Zaria; the incident, now known as the Zaria Massacre, was carried out overnight by a detachment of soldiers after a military convoy was obstructed earlier that day on Saturday, 12 December 2015, according to IMN and human rights groups at least 1000 civilians were killed, with 347 bodies secretly buried by the army in mass graves.
Subsequently, Zakzaky was arrested and held in detention for over five years. The government accused him and his followers of inciting violence and threatening national security.
“We are not inciting or perpetuating violence. We have only been embarking on peaceful protests to demand the release of our leader, Sheikh El-Zakzaky.
“However, whenever we go out for peaceful protests, the security agents, whether army or police, are always dispersing us, using violent means,” Abdullahi explained.
He buttressed that the Shiite movement in Nigeria is against injustice that the government is perpetuating against the people.
“This movement is against the injustice that the Nigerian government perpetuated against people in the country. The government wants the people to submit in totality, regardless of what the government is doing.
“Our leader speaks against it, and that is why the government has been against us and done everything to ensure we do not practice freely,” he added.
Explaining the limitations to worship and assemble that the group encounter on a regular basis, Abdullahi said, “every last Friday of the last month of Ramadan, there is a global event where we all Shiites come out to match against the injustice perpetuated by the Israeli government against Palestine.
“When we came out to commemorate the global event in Abuja, two people were killed, and eight people sustained injuries. In other parts of the world where this same event took place, nobody was stopped, let alone arrested or killed for exercising their right, he added.”
Abdullahi, who explained that the IMN had been denied every freedom enshrined in the constitution, said over 54 members of IMN are in prisons around the country just because they joined the procession to demand that the Nigerian Government obeys the court order and ensure the release of El-Zakzaky.
“Where is the freedom of speech, freedom of movement, and freedom of association? he asked.”
Hope in sight with the new administration?
With the emergence of a new administration in Nigeria, the Shiite movement is hopeful that the tide might turn in their favour and that their right to religious freedom would no longer be abused.
Abdullahi explained that the newly sworn-in President, “Bola Ahmed Tinubu after he won the elections said his government will not be based on tribalism and religious biases.
“We hope and pray that things will change during the new administration.”
He said, “The problem of Nigeria is the system and not the leaders. I believe the system needs to be changed so that we can have peace and justice in Nigeria.”
Abdullahi explained that the Nigerian government under the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari had been vehemently opposed to the activities of the IMN, which according to him, is a violation of the rule of law and the provisions of the constitution.
“Our activities were described as terrorist activities, the government is just looking for a justification for killing our people. How do we pose a threat to national security? People have seen us move around and do our procession peacefully.
“There are Boko haram and bandits in the bush, the government has not been attacking them as much as they attacked us. They should allow us to practice our religion freely,” Abdullahi added.
He also appealed to Nigerians to “unite against injustice. If we have one voice, our rights will be protected. If some people keep quiet because they feel the attack will continue to others and you won’t know who would be the next victim.”
Mr. Kehinde Adegboyega, the Executive Director of the Human Rights Journalists Network Nigeria (HRJN), told BONews that the Nigerian government should respect the rights of the Shiites to religious freedom.
“Every citizen has the right to worship, so far they are not infringing on other people’s rights. The Nigerian Government should respect the right to worship that the Shiites have. So far, it is done within the confines of the law,” he added.
The Human Rights Watch (HRW) condemned the attacks and the ban on the Shiite movement in Nigeria, saying it “threatens the basic human rights of all Nigerians”.
“The ban on the Shia movement may portend an even worse security force crackdown on the group, which could have dire human rights implications throughout Nigeria,” said HRW Nigeria researcher Anietie Ewang.
This story was produced with the support of the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) in partnership with Code for Africa