Africa watchers have been focused of late on Burundi. On December 12, however, their attention was drawn back to Nigeria. The Nigerian army killed a number of Shia Muslims in Zaria, Kaduna state. This has resulted in representations from Tehran, Iran, which regards itself as the protector of the Shia everywhere, including Nigeria. As of now, reports from Shia sources are more credible than the lame denials from the military. Amnesty International is demanding an urgent investigation. Yet again, the Nigerian military’s lack of transparency may have made a bad situation worse. Iranian involvement in northern Nigeria and the potential radicalization of the Nigerian Shia could have negative consequences for Africa broader than the current turmoil in Burundi.
Shia sources are reporting that the army killed up to one thousand in Zaria, and that the fighting is continuing. Many of the same sources claim that the army attacked a Shia procession that was blocking the movement of the Chief of Army Staff Lt. Gen. Tukur Buratai’s motorcade; the military is claiming that the Shia threatened the motorcade and attacked a police station. Military sources claim that the number of casualties was as low as seven. As reported in the New York Times and elsewhere, the specificity of the Shia spokesmen lends credibility to their claims. The Times quoted Abdullahi Tumburkai, a journalist, as saying he had counted more than 830 bodies in a local mortuary. Ibrahim Musa, a Shia spokesman, said up to one thousand had been killed. Chidi Odinkalu, a Nigerian human rights advocate and not a Shia, has characterized the killings as “a massacre.”
According to the media, the Nigerian security services on December 13 arrested the Nigeria Shia sect’s leader Sheikh Ibrahim Zakzaky as fighting continued. Social media is carrying pictures of him bloodied. Citing as its source Odinkalu, ABC News is reporting that Zakzaky suffered four bullet wounds, and two of his sons and one of his wives were killed. There are also reports of Shia protests in other cities, and that the group blocked the highway between Abuja and Zaria. The Times, citing Iranian media, reports that the Iranian foreign minister has called the Nigerian foreign minister for an explanation. ABC News reports that Iranian President Hassan Rouhai has called Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari to say that he expects the Nigerian state to compensate the families of the dead and injured.
Zakzaky has claimed a following of millions, almost certainly an exaggeration. The Shia presence in Nigeria appears to have been established by Iranian missionaries and to receive funding from Iran. The Nigerian Shia and Zakzaky have nothing to do with Boko Haram, the Sunni Salafist insurrection against the Nigerian state. Indeed, they would appear to be mortal enemies, and Boko Haram has launched suicide bombers against Shia crowds. Iran has long sought to increase its influence in Nigeria, and maintains a large diplomatic presence. The Nigerian Shia have been a vector of Iranian influence.
Though the two movements are enemies, there are disturbing parallels between the 2015 Zaria killings and the 2009 killing of Boko Haram members and the murder of its leader, Muhammed Yussuf, which led to its murderous radicalization. In both cases the numbers killed may have been of the same magnitude: eight hundred. There are differences. Yussuf was murdered; Zakzaky was not, though the description that he was “bloodied” and suffered bullet wounds indicates it may have been close. But, perhaps the most significant difference is that Boko Haram had no foreign patrons then; Zakzaky and the Nigerian Shia do have a foreign patron: Iran.