Jack McCaslin is a research associate for Africa policy studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, DC.
On September 10, members of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN), a Shia religious and political movement, marched in different cities across the north of Nigeria to mark the beginning of Ashura, a major Muslim holiday. In doing so, they defied the government, which, in July, had banned the group. The IMN later claimed that fifteen of their members had been killed after police opened fire on the various IMN processions. The police denied the claim. Complicating the episode is the fact that not all Shiites consider themselves members of the IMN, even if they may follow or support Zakzaky. Their participation in the Ashura march could stem just as much from their religious faith as their "membership" in the IMN.
The decision to label the IMN as a terrorist organization came after deadly clashes between security services and alleged IMN members in July, who were protesting the continued imprisonment of their leader, Sheikh Ibrahim el-Zakzaky. The government has since accused Zakzaky of planning a takeover of Nigeria along the lines of the 1979 Iranian revolution. It is true that he has clear ties to Iran, is said to be inspired by the Iranian Revolution, uses the term “Great Satan” to refer to the United States, and preaches against the government. But it is not clear that he has openly called for violence, and links to violence are tenuous. To the extent that deadly force used against the IMN is unprovoked, they are largely peaceful.
Zakzaky has been in government custody since 2015 without trial. He is being held in relation to a series of confrontations between his followers and the military, in which an estimated three hundred IMN members were killed around Zaria, Kaduna in 2015. Zakzaky’s home was subsequently raided, members of his family killed, and he and his wife taken into custody. He is in poor health, partly the result of injuries allegedly sustained during his arrest. In August, he was allowed to travel to India to receive medical treatment. However, he was unhappy with his treatment there, alleging U.S. involvement, and returned to Nigeria without receiving treatment.
Such a clash as the one this month, between IMN members participating in religious processions—albeit that sometimes double as protests against Zakzaky’s imprisonment—and security services, may sound familiar. One year ago, IMN members clashed with security services during the Arbaeen Symbolic Trek, an event related to Ashura. At least forty people were likely killed as a result, making it one of the deadliest incidents since Zaria in 2015.
It is not clear what strategy the Abuja government is following with respect to the IMN, but Zakzaky’s issues with the Nigerian government are unlikely to be resolved anytime soon. The point is, however, that a religious procession or peaceful protest over the detention of Zakzaky should not end in bloodshed. The police are in desperate need of reform. Their handling—and that of the larger security service apparatus—of ostensibly peaceful movements is highly problematic, and could easily serve to inflame, rather than deescalate tensions.