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Nigeria’s government killed “hundreds” of Shia Muslims in 3 days: what we know

A Nigerian soldier standing guard.
A Nigerian soldier standing guard.
(Mohammed Elshamy/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.
  1. Nigerian activists are accusing the government of massacring hundreds of Shia Muslims in Zaria, a city in Nigeria's north, over the course of three days from Sunday through Tuesday.
  2. The alleged catalyst was a Saturday protest by the radical Shia group Islamic Movement. It devolved into conflict after a Nigerian general's car was hit by a projectile. The Nigerian government interpreted this as an assassination attempt and launched an offensive targeting the group.
  3. The leader of the Islamic Movement, Ibrahim Zakzaky, was wounded in the fighting — and his wife and son were reportedly killed.
  4. Regional analysts worry that conflict between the government and the movement could spiral out of control.

Nigeria's Shias, the Islamic Movement, and the recent massacre

Nigerian soldiers.
(Stringer/AFP/Getty Images)

Nigeria is a heavily Muslim country, and the overwhelming majority of Nigerian Muslims are Sunni. By most accounts, Shia Islam had little presence in Nigeria until the Islamic Revolution in 1979.

"The Iranian revolution of 1979, which led to the emergence of an Islamic government, inspired many northern Nigerian Muslims," Michael Olufemi Sodipo, the founder of Nigeria's Peace Initiative Network, writes. "The puritanical tendency among [Muslims and Christians] in northern Nigeria gave rise to increasingly zealous political actors."

This movement was led by Ibrahim Zakzaky, who had been trained in Shia theology in Iran. In the early '80s, Zakzaky founded the Islamic Movement, which spread among Shias in northern Nigeria. "Its stated mission is to establish an Iran type of Islamic state in Nigeria, which has kept it in intermittent skirmishes with government security forces," Ibrahim Haruna Hassan, a professor at Nigeria's University of Jos, explains.

Though the group acquired weapons, it had not taken up arms against Nigeria's secular government. "While the group still strongly rejects secularism," Hassan writes, "they believe that the time to take up arms is not ripe (yet) in Nigeria."

The government's official story of this weekend's events is that the Shia group planned to assassinate a general, Tukur Buratai, but it's not clear that's what happened. "There are inconsistencies in the initial reports," according to the private firm SBM Intelligence.

What we know for sure is that a large Shia demonstration, led by the Islamic Movement, took place on the Sokoto road, near Zaria, where the Islamic Movement has a large presence. Mass actions alongside this road are, according to one local source, not uncommon.

Around this time, Buratai's convoy was driving through. The military demanded that the demonstrators disperse, and they refused. Some sort of projectile then struck Buratai's car (reports conflict as to what it was), and the soldiers fired into the air as a warning. When that didn't work, according to SBM, "the military opened fire to cover their principal, after which they left the location."

The military's crackdown on the Islamic Movement began shortly afterward. According to SBM, the military saw the incident as an excuse to finally crush the Islamic Movement, which it had long seen as a threat:

The Nigerian Army, according to some sources, was forced to tackle [what they see as] the problem of the Shi’ites once and for all, because of a belief that the group poses a latent threat to the stability of the region. Based on security reports, the Shi’ites have consistently defied constituted authority, with Police and other security agencies too afraid to confront them.

This crackdown, at Zaria over the course of the past three days, is when the military allegedly killed a large number of Shia civilians — "hundreds," according to activists. (The activists initially said about 1,000 had been killed, but media agencies are being careful with this figure — it's not clear how literally the activists meant it.) Zakzaky was reportedly wounding in fighting with the Nigerian military, and his son and wife were reportedly killed.

The death toll has not yet been confirmed by independent investigation or human rights groups. Still, the Nigerian military has a long and terrible history of human rights abuses, including killing civilians, during its campaigns against insurgent groups.

There are worrying precedents here. The Sunni extremist group Boko Haram began seriously escalating its militant activities in 2009 as a result of clashes with the Nigerian military.

"A lot of observers are raising red flags over the similarities between the 2009 capture and execution of then Boko Haram leader Mohammed Yusuf in police custody," the intelligence group SBM writes. "Nigeria cannot afford to repeat the errors of 2009 now."

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