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Shi'a in Nigeria

Shi'ism in Nigeria is a recent development, dating to the 1980s when it was first introduced by Zaria-native Ibrahim al-Zakzaky. Al-Zakzaky maintains close ties with the Shia religious establishment in Qom. He estimates his Nigerian followership at 3 million.

Muslims make up roughly 45 percent of Nigeria’s population and form an overwhelming majority in the north of the country. Sunni Islam predominates in Nigeria, as does the Maliki School of Islamic law. However, not all Nigerian Muslims are Sunni. There is a significant Shia minority (5-10 million), particularly in the northern states of Kano and Sokoto. Since independence, Islam in Nigeria began to take on a more radical and Islamist character. The predominant Islamic group is Sunni, divided among Sufi groups, including Tijaniyah and Qadiriyyah.

Islam is divided into two main branches, Sunni and Shia. Soon after the Prophet's death, the question of choosing a new leader, or caliph, for the Muslim community, or Ummah, arose. Initially, his successors could be drawn from the Prophet's contemporaries, but with time, this was no longer possible. Those who became the Shia held that any leader of the Ummah must be a direct descendant of the Prophet; those who became the Sunni argued that lineal descent was not required if the candidate met other standards of faith and knowledge.

There is also a large shia khoja community in east Africa. It is a well known fact that for hundreds of years Indians sailed down the East African coast in their sail ships during the North Eastern Monsoons. There were young Shia Khojas amongst these early sailors and some of them stayed behind in East Africa and exploited opportunities in commerce and trade. Against all odds, the Khojas settled all over Eastern Africa and with help from each other they prospered. And wherever they settled they soon formed themselves into a Khoja Shia Ithnaasheri Community.

Shi’ism gained sway in Nigeria during the 1970s in the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution. Since Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979, Iran has cultivated a Shia community in Nigeria. Shia Islam holds that the caliphs or successors to the Prophet should have been his relatives rather than elected individuals.

Jacob Zenn notes that "Since the Islamic revolution in 1979, Iran has promoted “Khomeinism” as one of its foreign policy tools in the Muslim world. Despite Nigeria’s geographic and cultural distance from Iran, there is no region outside of the Middle East where Iran’s ideology has a greater impact than in northern Nigeria. Nigeria’s pro-Iranian Shi`a Muslim community was virtually non-existent 30 years ago but now comprises about five percent of Nigeria’s 80 million Muslims."

Shiism, with its history of activism and martyrdom, has provided an attractive alternative to the stagnant, corruption-tainted traditional religion.

Shi'a are present in all strata of the Muslim Ummah in Nigeria. They are in the civil service. They are in business. Their members have come close to several politicians of note. The main Shi’a’s activities include demonstrations organized on specific occasions like Quds and Ashura Days. During these demonstrations, they block the main roads in the northern cities and intimidate the public including the police whose permission they do not seek.

According to the Pew Research Global Attitudes Project, Nigerian Muslims have the third most favorable view of Hizbollah (45%) in the world after only Lebanon and Jordan. Nigerian Muslims also favor al-Qaeda (49%) more than Muslims in any other country in the world.

In 1995, Jamaatu Tadjdid Islamiya, a Shia activist group, littered the streets of Kano with leaflets demanding the departure of all non-Muslims from the North and declaring the city an Islamic state into which the group would soon incorporate all Nigeria. Other groups fought battles with machetes, bows, arrows and fists for their brand of Islam and an Islamic state. From 1991 to 1996, at least 3,000 people were killed in clashed between Shia groups and Sunni Muslims, Christians and Nigerian government forces.

On 19 July 2007, cleric Umaru Danmaishiyya, well-known in Sokoto for his sermons against Shias, was assasinated. Since then, the Nigerian overnment used this criminal incident as a pretext to unleash an indiscriminate assault on an entire religious sect, namely; the Shi’ites of Sokoto.

The systematic acts of state aggression against a religious minority group come as part of a wider policy specifically targeted at Shias in Nigeria. The state governor, Mr. Alu Magatakardar Wamako in his political mandate pledged to limit what he called ‘the spread of Shi’ism in Sokoto’ and also promised to demolish the Shia Center, the latter of which he since actualised.

In Nigeria, Shi'ism represents an anti-establishment movement that militates against normative northern religious practices viewed as un-Islamic or syncretistic, as well as prevalent political structures which are viewed as legitimating secular forces in society. Shi'ism resonated with factions of Nigerian Muslims in the 1980s as it was an avenue for dissent against military rule. It continues to appeal particularly to college-educated students and others who have become disenfranchised or alienated by traditional Nigerian Islamic institutions.

The Nigerian government repeatedly clamped down on al-Zakzaky's movement, imprisoning him several times over the past 20 years. This has helped force the movement into quiescence, but also aided it in garnering support.

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Page last modified: 15-12-2015 20:13:32 ZULU