Who is Zakzaky, Nigeria’s Shi’i cleric under illegal detention?5 min read

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*** this is an edited and syndicated piece originally published by Abbas Farshori in The Best of Africa ***

A truism of the human spirit that can be relied upon is its resistance to oppression. People are intolerant of tyranny and will harbor the largest quantity of hope that their situation permits. The chips of history have fallen to timelessly call West African communities to give a snapshot into this unshakable spirit.

Whether it’s the hope supporting the back of Toussaint Louverture in rousing the Haitian hunger for independence or the resistance infused in the tragic lament of Billie Holiday, in vocalising otherwise unspeakable memories, wherever West Africans have been taken, they have beautified. That spirit is alive today, in Nigeria, where the hope of a people is caged with their imprisoned leader.

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Nigeria

Sheikh Ibrahim Zakzaky is the leader of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN), a group of minority Shi’ite Muslims, which has settled predominantly in Northern Nigeria. He was arrested in 2015 after the Nigerian army clashed with the group, resulting in the death of over 350 people. Zakzaky was partially blinded during the attack, his wife was injured, three of his sons were killed in addition to his three sons being killed the year before, and he was imprisoned. The following year, the Federal High Court in Abuja ordered his immediate release – considering the absence of charges against him or legal proceeding indicting him – but Zakzaky remains in custody.

Shi’ite members of the IMN have faced numerous military attacks. The Zaria massacre of 2015 stands out in brutality and its subsequent media silence. His house was sieged, the nearby Hussainniya Baqiyyatullah mosque attacked and hundreds killed. The actions of the government and military escalate this from a sadly daily occurrence to a symbolic moment. Soldiers reportedly hastily removed the bodies from site and buried them in unmarked mass graves, so as to prevent an accurate death toll or permit ritual burying. Amnesty International reported the use of indiscriminate burning of the dead and living, with cases of live burials in addition to the army’s active attempts to cover up the incidents.

Given their global minority, Shi’ite Muslims are predominantly settled in the Middle East and Iran due to the significance of the Imams in Shi’ite theology – descendants of the Prophet Muhammad predominantly enshrined in Iraq and the Arabian and Iranian peninsulas. The rise of extremism has resulted in the increased persecution of Shi’ites in Muslim-dominated countries in which such ideology has a foothold. Nigeria, however, had no geographical or historical proximity with this hostility.

Charting motive is difficult. Zakzaky is a far cry from the violent threat of Boko Haram, and allegations that his IMN were behind a major assassination attempt lack evidence in hindsight, let alone at the time. It is true that Zakzaky used his growing platform to criticise government policy but, unlike the relation between the chicken and the egg, the relatively poorer living conditions in Northern Nigeria were quite clearly an effect of government neglect, and not the other way round.

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Resistance

It is the existence of this 65 year old cleric imprisoned in an unknown location in undisclosed conditions that embodies the condition of this African spirit. Zakzaky is a Nigerian who stands as a bulwark against the worst maladies plaguing the developing world. He is the sworn enemy of Boko Haram, who find the size of IMN and the reception of its peaceful protests a threat to its authority, as highlighted by former US Ambassador to Nigeria John Campbell.

Zakzaky is also an organic produce of Nigerian society, which has proved fertile and tolerant enough to culture a vibrant community from its own earth. 40 years ago there were no Shi’ite Muslims in Nigeria – today there is an estimated 3 million. It is a testament to both the religion and the nation that both have combined so harmoniously in Northern Nigeria.

There is, however, a foreign paper trail informing Zakzaky’s enemies: Saudi Arabian funding behind sectarian conflict, Israeli military support and a live ISIS network exacerbate Muslim-Christian relations. Nigeria has a praiseworthy and naturalised Muslim presence – of which the IMN is a member – that can be characterised by foreign influence.

Zakzaky has become a figurehead for a kind of Nigeria impermissibility under the current regime. Muhammadu Buhari was elected on a mandate to fight extremism, which is retrospectively akin to Caesar’s ‘election’ to protect Rome from invasion. Buhari’s Nigeria is intolerant of political dissent, after signing an executive order against named political opponents.

His administration has only strategically countered ethnic violence, demonstrating impatience with the legal due process designed to placate ethnic tension. The strategic utility of the courts show a clear opposition to the rule of law, which would otherwise constrain the alleged nepotism and tribalism that has characterised his administration thus far. Such a regime could never permit Zakzaky’s calls for transparency, and his arrest warranted little reaction or response from the ex-military prime minister.

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Hope

What has happened to Zakzaky paints an indeterminate picture about progress in this region. He has become emblematic of a number of conflicts, perhaps unwillingly, with his fate signaling Nigeria’s progress in countering extremism, incursions to the rule of law, foreign interference and violent conduct.

A country should be proud of its dignified law-abiding leaders and Zakzaky’s rejuvenation of sections of Northern Nigeria deserves commendation, not bullets. There are few nations where a community of 3 million people can emerge from within one generation; not from conquest or state-sanctioned conversion, but from the free acceptance of faith. Nigeria needs no lessons from the West in how to treat its most vulnerable; indeed each generation of West-African families assimilated in Western nations teach the lesson of resisting oppression in new forms.

This is where Sheikh Zakaky’s fate is important. That unadulterated spirit was kindled in Africa and must keep illuminating from the region. The progress of specifically West African nations must counter those nations across the Atlantic who have allowed the flame to fade. Some time has passed since Zakzaky’s illegal detention, but time has done little to diminish his or his community’s spirit.