Followers of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria have regularly brawled with security forces since the government arrested the group's leader in 2015, and will likely continue to do so as long as he remains in custody. For the past month, the group has taken its grievances straight to the source in Abuja, the capital. The subsequent spate of bloody events has raised the level of attention to this ongoing struggle and the threat of escalation.
In recent weeks, the Nigerian capital of Abuja has been the site of several violent clashes between security forces and Shiite protesters, prompting authorities to ban demonstrations outside government buildings on July 18. Tensions then escalated on July 22 as security forces opened fire on allegedly armed followers of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN). At least 13 people died during the crackdown, including a journalist covering the story on the scene.
So far, the protesters' demands have focused on calling for the release of their leader, Sheikh Ibraheem Zakzaky, as well as political and religious freedoms. But the more Nigeria's government responds with violence and alienation, the more it risks further radicalizing the organization's Islamist message and possibly encouraging militancy among its followers — just as it did by executing Boko Haram's leader in 2009.
Nigeria's Islamic Movement: A Brief History
First, it is important to understand the IMN's history and the events leading up to the latest incidents in Abuja:
1. What is the mission of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria?
The goals of the IMN are linked to the growth of Shiite Islam in Nigeria, with the objective of promoting the establishment of an Islamic republic in the country. These ideas were developed through the group's founder and ideological leader, Sheikh Ibraheem Zakzaky, who was allegedly influenced by the Iranian revolution in 1979. Zakzaky eventually traveled to Iran where he became a Shiite cleric before returning to Nigeria in the 1980s to spread the word of Shiite Islam.
2. Who are its followers?
In Nigeria, about half of the population practices Sunni Islam (with the other half being Christian). In the years following the overthrow of Iran's monarchy and replacement with an Islamic republic, Zankzaky's preachings of Shiite Islam and its revolutionary appeal rapidly attracted a following, particularly among disenfranchised Nigerians. It remains unclear just how large the Shiite population of Nigeria is, or how large the support base of the IMN itself is (which also includes a large number of Sunnis who support the ideas of the Iranian revolution). But it is believed to run in the millions and is geographically concentrated in northwestern Nigeria, which has historically been one of the poorest areas of the country.
3. What are they protesting?
The protesters are demanding the release of Zakzaky, who was detained in 2015 without a trial. Despite a 2016 ruling by Nigeria's high court ordering his release, Zakzaky continues to be imprisoned at an unknown location. The government claims that it does not have the authority to release Zakzaky, as his trial is in the hands of the Kaduna state court. As a result, his IMN followers have insisted they will continue to protest until he is released, no matter the cost or resistance they may face.
4. And finally, why are the protests prone to violence?
The IMN is not an armed militant group. However, for the Nigerian state, the idea of a political group advocating for regime change is clearly not an appealing one. For this reason, the government has consistently tried to disrupt the IMN's activities since the group first began gaining a sizable following in the 1990s. This has, in turn, periodically resulted in violence, sometimes with significant bloodshed. In the 2015 protests immediately following Zakzaky's arrest, an estimated 350 IMN followers were killed. Protests have turned violent on several occasions since then, though they were mostly situated in the northwestern state of Kaduna. However, IMN followers decided to take their action to the Nigerian capital of Abuja in July, resulting in the latest series of bloody confrontations.
The Makings of Militancy
With Zakzaky's arrest and the heavy-handed response to the ensuing protests, the Nigerian government is testing the boundaries of violent crackdowns and liberal application of the law in its attempts to stamp out the IMN's agenda. This somewhat tracks with the approach that led to the emergence of Boko Haram as a militant group. For the first few years after it was founded, Boko Haram had been a relatively peaceful (albeit radicalized) religious group, until a bloody clash with Nigerian security forces in 2009. Shortly thereafter, Nigerian police forces arrested the group's then-leader Mohammed Yusuf and executed him. This turned Yusuf into a martyr, which — combined with the overall crackdown against the sect members — fueled the group's transformation into a full-fledged terrorist and insurgent group, which is now known as the Islamic State West African Province.
The government's violent crackdowns risk radicalizing the Shiite group and could eventually produce another Boko Haram-like movement in Nigeria.
Just as Yusuf's execution became core to Boko Haram's mission, the imprisonment of Zakzaky has since become a central aspect of the IMN's activity and reasons for its repeated confrontations with security forces. That said, the Shiite protesters have yet to take up arms against the government. However, the government's use of harsh measures against an already disenfranchised segment of the Nigerian population will, at the very least, continue to spur disruptive protests and violent clashes. But in doing so, the Nigerian government risks sowing the seeds of extremism that could eventually produce another terrorist movement in the country.