On 28 July, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari announced a court ruling to ban the Muslim group Shia Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN). Thousands of IMN followers gathered at a protest rally in the capital city Abuja on Monday. There, protestors called for proper medical treatment for their detained leader, Sheik Ibrahim El-Zakzaky. A police crackdown soon turned deadly. While the exact number of casualties is unknown, Human Rights Watch reports eleven protestors were killed, with dozens more injured. Additionally, the Washington Post names Deputy Police Commissioner Usman Umar and television reporter Precious Owolabi as victims on the list of casualties. Human Rights Watch writes that following the deadly clashes, the Nigerian solicitor general brought forward a motion to have the group named a terrorist organization and banned. Due to the nature of this particular motion, which is typically used only for emergencies, representatives from the IMN were not required to be present in court. On 26 July, the court ruled in favour of banning the organization. This ruling has led to concern for the future treatment of all Shias in Nigeria.
According to Human Rights Watch Nigeria researcher Anietie Ewang, “allegations of criminality do not present legitimate grounds to ban the activities of a religious group, including protests for justice and the release of their leader.” In another statement, Ewang notes that “the sweeping court ruling against the Shia movement threatens the basic human rights of all Nigerians.” Despite the court ruling, followers of the group are continuing to pursue efforts to advance their goals and ideologies. In a press conference following the ban, senior member Yahiya Dahiru stated that “you can never stop an ideology, you can never stop an idea, you can never stop our religion.”
This clash between the IMN and the Nigerian government presents a number of concerning elements. The first being the number of civilian causalities and injuries. Protests of this nature should never be met with such violence. According to Human Rights Watch, both the Nigerian constitution and international human rights laws guarantee the right to freedom of religion, association and expression. Under the auspices of these laws, the group was within their rights to protest the detention and treatment of their leader. Violence should never be used to break up a peaceful protest. An additional concern is the court’s decision to label the IMN a terrorist organization. This is a powerful designation that should be reserved only for those groups that actively use violence and terror to promote their political goals. With this label, the government has equated the IMN with the likes of Boko Haram. An extremist organization also based in Northern Nigeria, Boko Haram has continually used violence and terror to promote their agenda. The Islamic Movement in Nigeria is a completely separate organization from Boko Haram. The Nigerian government has used the term “terrorist organization” to demonize an opposition group with which it does not agree. It is unfair to the Shia population in Nigeria, as well as the followers of the IMN to equate two such organizations.
22 July was not the first time this organization has clashed violently with the Nigerian government. According to Al Jazeera, this Shia sect has often been treated with hostility by the predominately Sunni Muslim population in the North. The Islamic Movement in Nigeria originated in the 1980’s, inspired by the Iranian Revolution. Human Rights Watch reports that, to this day, the group remains closely aligned with Iran. Tensions between the group and the Nigerian government were heightened in 2015. An IMN religious procession turned deadly when 350 mostly unarmed Shia marchers were killed by government forces, according to Al Jazeera. Following this clash, IMN leader Zakzaky and his wife were detained. World Politics Review reports that an Abuja high court ordered their release in 2016. The Buhari administration ignored the court order, an action Amnesty International has called “a flagrant—and dangerous—contempt for the rule of law.”
The recent deadly clash between the Nigerian government and the Islamic Movement in Nigeria has raised concern over the treatment of the Shia population in Nigeria. Many are concerned that if the Nigerian government continues to respond to the organization’s activities with violence, the group will go underground and turn to insurgent tactics. In a public statement, Kaduna senator and human rights activist Shehu Sani asked, “Which do we prefer – the Islamic Movement that has a leader we can arrest, that has members we can see, that has an identity that we can prosecute, or a group that can be forced to go underground and pose a serious security danger on the country?” It is in the Nigerian government’s best interest to encourage peaceful protest and association in order to maintain stability and avoid future conflicts
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