Calls for the release of the leader of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN), Shaykh Ibrahim Zakzaky, have been mounting recently. The Shia leader has been imprisoned by the Nigerian government for nearly four years, sparking calls by international human rights organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch for his release.
According to the Global Research thinktank, Shaykh Zakzaky has been brutally mistreated by Nigerian authorities since the 1980s. In December 2015, soldiers stormed his home, seriously injured him, arrested and imprisoned him and his wife, while killing hundreds of his followers – an event the IMN has called a massacre. Zakzaky and his wife remain imprisoned under deplorable conditions — despite ordered release by Nigeria’s High Court in December 2016.
In a petition sent to UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, it was said that throughout most of his detention, Shaykh Zakzaky and his wife have been denied proper medical treatment, despite their failing health. Earlier this year, he suffered a debilitating stroke. Releasing him for vital medical care is essential to save him, as his condition is steadily deteriorating.
“He endured many persecutions throughout his preaching and da’wah activities. He has been incarcerated several times and this is the latest one,” said IMN spokesperson, Ibrahim Musa.
Elaborating on whether Shaykh Zakzaky is, in fact, Shia, and whether the IMN is a Shia movement, Musa denied that the movement is Shia in orientation but acknowledged that Shaykh Zakzaky is.
“The Islamic movement doesn’t prescribe to one specific madhab of Islam…Shaykh Zakzaky is Shia in Islamic jurisprudence, but to regard his movement as a Shia only movement is not correct. The main message is that we are Muslims. Since we are Muslims, we must practice Islam.”
Musa claims that many followers of Shaykh Zakzaky and the IMN are Sunni Muslims and that the only Shias are those who are convinced of the merit of the madhab.
“He [Shaykh Zakzaky] is following the Shia Islamic madhab, but among his followers are Sunnis as well. Only if you are convinced and understand certain things, then you turn to be a Shia.”
Musa then conceded that many followers of Shaykh Zakzaky and the IMN have converted from the Sunni to the Shia madhab.
Musa also strongly denies any claims that the IMN has a political agenda but simultaneously concedes that the teachings of the IMN – and their understanding of Islam – encompass a change in governance.
“We are not a political movement; we are not a political party. We are not out to acquire power,” he said.
“…But we believe, as Muslims, that we should be guided by the teachings of Islam. In Islam, there is no separation between individual life and social life – Islam encompasses the whole life. That is why we believe they [the Nigerian government] are against the movement. They think that if all Muslims realise it is incumbent upon them to practice Islam, even in governance, they might lose what they are enjoying in government.”
Several allegations against the Nigerian government were made by Musa.
He accuses the Nigerian government of attempting to create an insurgency group in an effort to falsely incriminate the IMN. He has also criticised the government for ignoring the laws of the country and says there have been several unjustified attempts on Shaykh Zakzaky’s life. Musa says that the unlawful imprisonment of Shaykh Zakzaky is the latest example of the government’s attempt to bide time, to “allow him” to pass away or to die in a manner that would make the death easily explainable and justifiable.
“We are hopeful that he will be released from prison and we are happy with the support that we are receiving from the international community. We are very grateful, and we believe the support will exert more pressure for the government to act according to the laws of the country,” Musa said.
However, despite the claims of the IMN and Shaykh Zakzaky, some political analysts have warned that the IMN is not only what it officially claims to be.
In contrast, researcher in security and conflict, Father Atta Barkindo says that the issues relating to the IMN and Shaykh Zakzaky are more complex than the IMN cares to admit.
“The Islamic Movement is a movement founded on Shia Islam,” he explains.
“They are trying to create some kind of a political state within an existing state. That’s very challenging in a democratic setting. They have their own military wing, their own service chief and their own local government channels. Any government would find it difficult to allow that kind of impunity and lack of respect for the Nigerian constitution to continue.”
Fr. Barkindo added that the ruling party in Nigeria is comprised of many senior, Sunni Muslims. Accordingly, the Sunnis in Nigeria already possess significant political power and Fr. Barkindo claims that the Shia movement is trying to create their own “state” within that context.
Addressing the question of human rights and the growing international pressure calling for the respect for the rights of Shaykh Zakzaky, Fr. Barkindo explained that there are two sides to the story.
“When the rights of a particular individual will bring about insecurity, the government – in its consideration – will look at the security implications,” he said.
“But ultimately it is important to treat human rights seriously. Going forward there should be negotiation.”