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Imam Zakzaky: How Nigerian cleric became a pawn in Gulf power struggle

Jailed Shia cleric and his Islamic Movement of Nigeria followers have paid a heavy price for allegiance to Iran in a country where Saudi influence runs deep

Though she was only three at the time, Suhaila Zakzaky says she can still recall the day when police burst into the family home, beating her mother and taking them all into detention.

Wandering the prison by day, Suhaila recalls, she would see officers torturing inmates, events that would form some of her earliest memories.

It was the mid-1990s in Nigeria, and her father, an outspoken Muslim cleric, had fallen foul of Sani Abacha's corrupt military regime, which would detain, torture and, in some cases, hang its opponents on a whim.

Nigeria is a different country now. Democracy has returned. And state authorities including the army are expected to behave constitutionally. 

But Suhaila's father, Imam Ibrahim Zakzaky, has been held without charge since 2015, despite a high court ruling three years ago ordering his release.

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Zakzaky's anti-establishment rhetoric and social welfare schemes for the poor have drawn support from millions, as well as the ire of authorities. 

Zakzaky's supporters have faced violence from state forces as they continue to demand his release(AFP)
Zakzaky's supporters have faced violence from state forces as they continue to demand his release (AFP)

He is also the leader of Nigeria's Shia community, a factor, analysts say, in the killings of his followers, driven by fears of growing Iranian Shia influence in the West African nation where Sunni Muslims make up the largest religious group and the government has courted close ties with Saudi Arabia.

Yet in recent months, his supporters have taken to the streets to demand his release, braving bloodshed and the bullets of Nigerian security forces. They have told Middle East Eye that they are prepared to lay down their lives until he is set free.

Authorities have accused them of violence against security forces and of destroying public property, and called them a "terrorist group," allegations that Zakzaky's supporters reject.

Spending much of the 1980s and 1990s as a political prisoner, Zakzaky's run-ins with authorities have become so frequent that his daughter Suhaila said she has become used to it.

"Although it's not normal and not how any family should be, we've just gotten used to that. He's been in prison multiple times and has been targeted multiple times throughout our lives."

Traditional Islamic education

Born into a Sunni Muslim family in the north of Nigeria, Zakzaky underwent a traditional Islamic education, before arriving in the late 1970s to Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria, Kaduna state, one of Nigeria's largest and most prestigious, where debates about political Islam were just taking off.

During the 19th century, Kaduna was part of the Sokoto Caliphate founded by Usman Dan Fodio, a powerful Fulani tribal leader who followed Sufi Islam, which has been the dominant expression of Sunni Islam in Nigeria for generations.

By the early 20th century, northern Nigeria, including the Sokoto Caliphate, had been forcefully brought under British rule. British authorities co-opted traditional rulers and religious leaders, who began to preach a quietist message, emphasising Islamic ritual and education over political and social reform.

Nasir El-Rufai, the current governor of Kaduna was a student alongside Zakzaky at the Ahmadu Bello University
Nasir El-Rufai, the current governor of Kaduna, was once a member of the same student Muslim society as Zakzaky at Ahmadu Bello University (AFP)

Nigeria achieved independence from Britain in 1960. But its newfound optimism was short-lived, as the oil giant soon lurched from civil war to military coup to counter-coup, its wealth squandered.

A failing state and a loss of religious authority meant that by the 1970s a new generation of Nigerian Muslims were itching for change. While Dan Fodio and his 19th-century caliphate continued to be a source of inspiration, they now found favour with vigorous ideas then emanating from the Middle East.

Initially influenced by Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood figurehead Sayyid Qutb, Zakzaky had by 1979 risen to become president of the Ahmadu Bello University's Muslim Student Society. An influential hotbed of Islamic activism, its members would go on to hold sway and influence in orthern Nigeria for years to come.

Contemporaries included Nasir Ahmed El-Rufai, the current governor of Kaduna, with whom Zakzaky would clash many years later, as well as future leaders of Nigeria's emerging Salafi movement.

The Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the subsequent Iran-Iraq war would divide students as it would other parts of the Muslim world, inflaming Sunni-Shia relations.

Some students would fall under the influence of Saudi Arabia, taking up scholarships to study there, after the kingdom, fearing increased Iranian Shia influence, launched an aggressive recruitment drive in the West African nation, which is home to the continent's largest Muslim population. 

Others drew their inspiration from the revolutionary vision of Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Khomeini, who seemed to offer a radical alternative to the decadent kingdoms of the Middle East. Iran also did its part to counter Saudi influence, pumping out literature and meeting with Sufi leaders, the traditional gatekeepers of Islam in Northern Nigeria.

Both student groups, however, harboured dreams of a society governed by Islamic law.

Zakzaky headed to Iran. Returning in the 1980s as a learned Shia cleric, he set about building an Iranian-inspired socio-religious movement, the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN).

'Punching bag'

By the 2000s, Zakzaky had drawn millions to his cause, many of whom had converted to Shia Islam from Sunni Islam. Others also flocked to his side, including Christians, because of his uncompromising stand on issues of social justice and against corruption.

But in the battle for hearts and minds, his success has landed him in the crosshairs of sectarian members of a Saudi-sponsored group called Izala society.

Founded in 1978, the group had mounted a serious campaign against Sufi Islam as practised by most Nigerian Muslims, arguing that it strayed away from the true path, its young adherents refusing to pray in the mosques of their parents and grandparents.

Founder Abubakar Gumi was a key link in Saudi-Nigerian affairs. An adviser to Saudi Arabia's Islamic University of Medina in the 1970s, he received the King Faisal Prize for "services to Islam" in 1987.

After his death in 1992, Izala's ranks were filled with a new generation, many of them Islamic Studies graduates from the University of Medina, from where 865 Nigerians graduated between 1965 and 2001. Some of those then splintered off to form other groups. 

But as Alex Thurston, assistant professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati and author of Salafism in Nigeria explains, their anti-Sufi campaign eventually became unstuck.

"The argument got a bit stale. They spent decades saying that Sufis were innovators, that their doctrines were shot through with lies and that they were charlatans. After 30 years people got tired."

And so they turned to the Shia, a tiny but increasingly vocal minority in Sunni-dominated northern Nigeria.

'The Shia are a pretty easy punching bag. If you beat up on them there won't be much of a consequence' 

- Alex Thurston, author of Salafism in Nigeria

Izala supporters attacked INM supporters during the annual Ashoura mourning procession, the most important commemoration in Shia Islam, across the region in 2016.

A year earlier, Boko Haram, a hardline Islamic militant group whose founder Mohammad Yusuf had been a member of Izala before brutally turning on them, killed 22 people in a twin suicide attack and threatened to "wipe out" the Shia.

"The Shia are a pretty easy punching bag. If you beat up on them there won't be much of a consequence," Thurston adds.

As Saudi-backed groups and ones inspired by Iran clashed, the growing sectarian tensions set the scene for a blood-letting that has continued to this day.

Demanding his release

For the last three years Baqeer Gashua has been among hundreds of followers of Zakzaky who have regularly taken to the streets of Abuja, Nigeria's capital, to demand his release from imprisonment.

Well-organised, they have their own traffic-control staff who direct cars away from the side of the road where a tide of IMN supporters, some of whom wear green scarves tied around their heads, stride forward holding banners, according to video footage. Their chants include "Free Zakzaky" and "Buhari is a criminal," referring to the current president of Nigeria.

Waiting for them, however, is the full force of Nigeria's army, even though peaceful protests are protected under Nigeria's constitution.

IMN members have been holding demonstrations to demand Zakzaky's release for three years (AFP)
IMN members have been holding demonstrations to demand Zakzaky's release for three years (AFP)

On 22 July this year, 11 people, including a journalist, were killed with live fire, Human Rights Watch decrying what it described as the army's "excessive use of force". According to IMN, 20 people in total were killed that week alone, while around 65 have been killed in clashes over the last few years in Abuja, with scores arrested.

In September, during the annual parades marking Ashoura, 15 were killed, according to IMN figures.

The crackdown, Baqeer says, has emboldened the IMN.

"We have this conviction in our hearts that what we're doing is right, even though we know it's very difficult and that they will kill us and arrest us.

'We have this conviction in our hearts that what we're doing is right, even though we know it's very difficult and that they will kill us and arrest us'

Baqeer Gashua, Islamic Movement of Nigeria

"This is not discouraging us, it's always giving us encouragement," he adds, likening their cause to that of Hussein's, a central figure in Shia Islam.

Demonstrations demanding the imam's release have also taken place in Tehran and London.

And yet, remarkably, the most recent bloodshed pales in comparison to that suffered by the group years ago. 

In July 2014 at the IMN's annual Al-Quds day procession, a peaceful march in solidarity with the people of Palestine that is held globally, an unprovoked Nigerian army began to fire indiscriminately.

The march had already come to an end when armed soldiers surrounded and set upon a group at the tail end of the three-kilometre-long procession. Victims included bystanders hit by the random spray of bullets. Soldiers pursued victims fleeing into local sugar cane fields before shooting them dead, according to survivors.

Dozens were detained without charge, and the injured were denied medical care. Among those killed were three sons of Zakzaky, who were reportedly tortured before being shot dead.

A report by the London-based Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC) into the violence states that their deaths "suggest that eliminating members of the sheikh's family was one of their primary goals".

An internal Nigerian army report from the time claimed that Zakzaky's followers were armed and "unlawfully engaged in an act of civil disturbance," attacking innocent civilians and soldiers, yet it says that no troops were killed and none were injured.

A year later, on the morning of Saturday 12 December 2015, scores of soldiers gathered outside the Hussainiyah, the IMN's mosque in Zaria, hours before followers were due to begin a religious commemoration.

At 12pm they opened fire. Unarmed civilians who tried to escape, including children, were shot dead. Twelve hours later, now with added reinforcements, they called on people holed up inside the centre, said to number hundreds, to leave with their hands up.

When they did so they were shot on the spot, according to a detailed report of the incident by the London-based Islamic Human Rights Commission based on eyewitness testimonies.

A 14-year-old girl attending a maths class inside the centre told Human Rights Watch she was shot as she walked out of the centre with other children.

At around 5.30am on Sunday, some 30 hours after the stand-off began, the army threw grenades into the mosque and then stormed inside, killing many.

Meanwhile, at about 10pm on Saturday, another army contingent had advanced into the Gyellesu neighbourhood, to the residence of Zakzaky, some 10 kilometres from the mosque. Troops met human shields formed around the home of Zakyzaky, consisting of followers fearing that he might be killed.

Suhaila Zakzaky recounts her experiences from inside the house as the family came under siege.

"We had to anticipate that they would attack us in our home and prepare for the worst possible outcome. People who were arriving at our house from around the country put up sandbags, and some put their cars in front of the house so that they [security forces] wouldn't be able to drive in."

Eyewitnesses say that the army killed their way through the human ring, indiscriminately shooting, and mowing down those who came out to help the injured, through the night and into the morning. In defence, people threw stones and wielded sticks but to little avail.  Not a single army soldier was injured let alone killed, according to an army report.

By the early morning, the forces finally broke through and stormed the family home.

"They tied us up with ropes, and they walked me out. I remember seeing along the driveway burnt cars and bodies burnt to a crisp were everywhere. They kept us in front of the house while soldiers pointed guns at us."

'I remember seeing along the driveway burnt cars and bodies burnt to a crisp were everywhere'

- Suhaila Zakzaky 

Zakzaky and his wife were taken away into detention.

Some survivors of those attacks took refuge in buildings in a cemetery owned by the movement. The army pursued them, attacking using rocket launchers, killing 50. 

Afterwards, the army razed the mosque and Zakzaky's house and demolished graves at the cemetery.

'We have finished with the Shia'

In a sign that anti-Shia sentiments had taken root in army ranks, survivors reported troops as saying: "We have finished with the Shia and Zakzaky. No more Shia in Nigeria."

For its part, the army has claimed that the IMN tried to obstruct a convoy carrying Nigeria's army chief of staff on the Saturday afternoon, in what a spokesperson described as "a deliberate attempt to assassinate the chief of army staff and members of his entourage".

But rights groups have contested this explanation. Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch, said at the time that the Nigerian military's version of events "does not stack up".

"At best it was a brutal overreaction and at worst it was a planned attack on the minority Shia group," he added.

Massoud Shadjareh, director of the Islamic Human Rights Commission, told MEE: "Armies are not supposed to go around killing their own people after a traffic violation.

"You don't go around spending 30 hours killing innocent people," added Shadjareh, who has been a close friend of Zakzaky since the 1980s.

The London-based group has a case pending with the International Criminal Court in the Hague, alleging the army's actions amount to a crime against humanity.

The following August, an official enquiry found that the army had used "excessive force" and were culpable for 349 deaths.

IMN supporters have dismissed its findings and claim that about 1,000 people were killed in total who were then buried in a series of mass graves. This number includes 300 killed in the siege of the mosque alone, of which 100 were children.

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Three more of Zakzaky's sons were among the dead, bringing the total number of his children killed by Nigerian armed forces to six.

No one has been held responsible for the violence.

Instead, Zakzaky and his wife, both sustaining bullet wounds in the attacks, were detained. After a legal challenge brought by Zakzaky, Nigeria's Federal Court, one of the country's highest courts, demanded their release in 2016 and the payment of substantial damages, including the building of a new home - and a security detail drawn from Nigeria's own security forces.

Authorities have refused to comply in contempt of court. Meanwhile, a case has been opened against Zakzaky in a regional court in his home state of Kaduna, charging him with attempted murder. But the case has been continually adjourned.

As a result, three years on from the Zaria massacre, Zakzaky and his wife find themselves still behind bars.

According to an April medical report seen by MEE, the cleric is suffering from several illnesses including heart problems and is virtually blind, having received a bullet in one of his eyes.

Laboratory tests indicate that he has lead levels 45 times the acceptable limit, the result of the lead from bullets he has absorbed over the years gradually seeping into his bloodstream.

"This heavy metal toxicity has grave short term as well as long-term consequences," the report says, "… and carries the high risk of malignancy and death."


The Zaria massacre took place just months after a new political alignment began to take shape in Nigeria.

Muhammadu Buhari was elected president in the March general election, which led to Nigeria's first ever democratic transfer of power, supposedly a turn away from the country's authoritarian past. A Sunni Muslim from the North, Buhari had been military ruler during the 1980s, a period when Zakzaky was in and out of prison.

His ally, Nasir El-Rufai, was also elected as governor of Kaduna, the strategic gateway to northern Nigeria and the home of Zakzaky's movement. 

Zakzaky and El-Rufai's relationship stretches back to the late 70s when they served as comrades in the influential Muslim Student Society at Ahmadu Bello University.

While they would go on to become two of the most powerful men in Kaduna, their political journeys could not have been more different.

Group banned

Zakzaky had gone to study in revolutionary Iran, then viewed as a pariah state by much of the international community, before returning to Nigeria to build a Shia movement from the ground up that would go against the grain of powerful northern political and religious elites. 

El-Rufai, on the other hand, studied at some of most prestigious universities in the West - Harvard, Georgetown and London - before returning to Nigeria and rising to the summit of the political ladder, becoming a part of the northern political elite that Zakzaky had been railing against for years.

The men have had a mixed relationship over the years, but comments El-Rufai made in 2017 appeared to point to a rift between the two.

"I know El-Zakzaky personally, we were both students at the Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria, we were both active in the Muslim Student Society so I know the animal I'm dealing with," he said.

'I know El-Zakzaky personally, we were both students at the Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria, we were both active in the Muslim Student Society so I know the animal I'm dealing with'

- Nasir El-Rufai, governor of Kaduna State

Matthew Page, associate fellow at Chatham House's Africa Programme, suggests that the crackdown "has to do with Kaduna state politics," pointing out El-Rufai's close relationship with Buhari.

"IMN has been a problem for the political elites of Kaduna. It makes them look weak. They enjoy more grassroots support among the working poor than these politicians do. This was a reckoning that was set up to take place."

Another factor, he adds, is that under Buhari the army has been able to act with "unprecedented lassitude" and with little government oversight.

"He's a retired general and is hands off and doesn't subscribe to the notion of strong civilian oversight of the military," he said.

Page also says that the Nigerian army has escaped criticism from the international community for its actions because its fight against Boko Haram, which claims allegiance to the Islamic State group, is perceived within the wider war on terror, even though its security-first approach is a "significant cause of insurgency".

Furthermore, since the Zaria massacre,  El-Rufai and Buhari have characterised the IMN as a "terrorist group," putting it in on the same footing as Boko Haram.

In 2016, Kaduna state authorities banned IMN, declaring it an "unlawful society," while in August, Nigeria's government proscribed the group as a "terrorist organisation," just as Zakzaky supporters stepped up their protests for his release. The presidency accused IMN of "attacking soldiers, killing policemen and a youth corps member, destroying public property, consistently defying State authority".

Pictured here with a former Saudi Oil Minister Ahmed Zaki Yamani in 1977, President Buhari has been on the political stage for decades (AFP)
Pictured here with former Saudi oil minister Ahmed Zaki Yamani (C) and Sweden's King Carl Gustaf (R) in 1977, Nigeria's Buhari (L) has been on the political stage for decades (AFP)

IMN has consistently denied taking up arms, with Baqeer, one of Zakzaky's followers describing the movement as engaged in a "non-violent resistance".

"The designation of us as a terrorist group is a formality. They have already been treating us like terrorists. They have been killing us as terrorists and jailing us as terrorists. This is nothing new to us," he said.

Page explained further: "It seems fairly opportunistic on the part of the government to label this group as a terrorist group and therefore justify how it has already been treating the group which is pretty unjustly."

"This is a group which engages in protests that are obviously very troublesome to the government, but which have been peaceful. There has been bloodshed at protests only because of the violent way that Nigerian security forces deal with this group."

'There has been bloodshed at protests only because of the violent way that Nigerian security forces deal with this group'

Matthew Page, Chatham House

Yet commentators have suggested that continued state violence against IMN could lead them to take up arms, drawing parallels with Boko Haram, which turned to violence only after its leader, Muhammad Yusuf, was killed by Nigerian armed forces in 2009.

Page disagreed, stating that the group has already experienced years of violence at the hands of authorities, and that this "hasn't driven them over the edge into violent extremism".

Yet while it might eschew violence, IMN makes no secret that it seeks to govern territory according to Islamic law.

 "We're trying to get a society that looks like us. We have a system that is working against us," said Suhaila Zakzaky, who said she experienced having her hijab snatched off her head by a school teacher while growing up in Nigeria's predominantly Muslim north.

"The colonialists stripped us of our religious identity to an extent, and we're trying to restore that. We know Nigeria is a diverse place, we're not calling for all people to become Muslim, but we want laws that don't stop us from being able to practise Islam."

Suhaila plays down the extent to which this should be perceived as a threat, emphasising that this has little to do with the bloodshot secessionist aspirations of Boko Haram or IS.

Still, authorities' fears over secession are not unfounded. A million lives were lost in a brutal civil war after the Igbo people living in the country's southeast declared the state of Biafra following the slaying of their kin in the north.

Even so, since 1999, a brand of Islamic law has been tolerated in most states in Nigeria's north, including in some parts of Kaduna, the state in which El-Rufai governs.

Lagun Akinloye, a London-based analyst, also points out that Zakzaky has been effectively allowed to carve out his own "enclave" in Zaria by successive governments since as far back as the 1990s.

But that tolerance has begun to wane, Akinloye points out.

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Buhari has, for instance, singled out IMN as operating a "state within a state". El-Rufai has taken this further, choosing to interpret Zakzaky's intentions as though he wished to turn the entire country into an "Islamic republic" with the help of a foreign power - Iran.

They "don't recognise the president of Nigeria as sovereign, they don't recognise me as governor," he said in 2017. "Their allegiance is to another country and their objective is to turn Nigeria into an Islamic republic."

'Conspiracy theories'

For its part, IMN denies receiving any financial support from Iran, though openly professes to following the ideological school of Imam Khomeini, whose image and that of current Ayatollah Khameini appear with Zakzaky on the front page of its website.

Behind its violent treatment at the hands of Nigerian authorities, IMN sees the influential hand of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), who has made no secret of his plans to counter Iranian influence in the Muslim world.

Baqeer suggests that MBS was referring to IMN in an interview last year with Time Magazine in which he said of Riyadh's efforts to counter Iranian influence: "We drove them out of Africa heavily, more than 95 percent."

Nigeria's Buhari met Saudi Arabia's King Salman in Riyadh in March (Saudi Press Agency)

This view, according to IMN supporters, is further backed by a diplomatic cable released by Wikileaks, and sent in 2012 from the Saudi embassy in Niger - the country directly north of Nigeria - to Riyadh.

The cable lists organisations in the country said to be the fruits of Iranian "activity" and observes that Shia clerics from Nigeria are being brought to the country to teach the poor and the young.

Saudi Arabia was one the first countries to recognise newly independent Nigeria, which has the largest Muslim population in Africa. Nigerian participation in the annual Hajj pilgrimage and the two countries' membership of the oil producing group Opec has only strengthened relations over the years.

More recently, Saudi Arabia has financially aided Nigeria's fight against Boko Haram, and Buhari is known to be a frequent visitor to the kingdom. 

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Nigeria also maintains good relations with Iran, but these came under strain in 2010 when Nigerian authorities seized an Iranian arms shipment and again when in 2013 authorities arrested suspected Hezbollah operatives.

Though officially remaining neutral in the 2017 Qatar crisis in which Saudi Arabia and her allies severed ties with the tiny Gulf kingdom, demanding it break-off relations with Iran, it nevertheless joined a Saudi-based, pan-Islamic military coalition which excludes and has been viewed as an alliance against majority-Shia Iran and its allies. 

Analysts have sought to downplay the actual extent to which foreign interference is driving the violence. However, Ini Dele-Adedeji, research associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, says purported Iranian influence in the region continues to cast a dark shadow over Nigerian Muslims, many of whom overwhelmingly support Saudi Arabia in its ongoing spat with Iran.

"There are conspiracy theories about Iran and Shias trying to upend or subvert the power structure in northern Nigeria," he said.

While ostensibly a political rivalry in the Middle East, the clash between the two nations has played out as a sectarian conflict in Nigeria, with the minority but vocal Shia community bearing the brunt of the brutality over the years. And despire their losses, they still refuse to back down.

"It is understandable that there is a lot more hostility to the Shia," said Dele-Adedeji. "They are much more vocal and way more visible in terms of their performance of protest and dissent."

"Some northern Muslims feel they have to do everything in their power to stop the Shia Muslims, who they view as a nuisance. Some of the response is driven by sectarian concerns," he added.

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