NGR180802AA002ABUJA, Nigeria – Two years ago, Mala Mohammed was stunned to learn of the murder of a friend in the Islamic Movement of Nigeria in Potiskum, a city in northeastern Nigeria.

“We spoke only about five minutes before,” Mohammed, a student at Bayero University Kano said of Modu Bukar, a local leader of the Movement. “He has just said the late evening prayer and was just chatting with some people outside when gunmen shot and killed him.”

Mohammed, 24, also belongs to the Islamic Movement of Nigeria, a radical group led by Sheikh Ibrahim Zakzaky, a Shiite cleric who has called for an Iranian-style Islamic revolution in Africa’s most populous country.

Authorities investigated the shooting. But Mohammed and others believe they will never find a suspect because they say it was an extrajudicial killing – a security officer executing the religious leader without due process.

That and other developments involving the Islamic Movement of Nigeria in recent years have worried analysts who say the group could follow in the footsteps of the Islamic State-affiliated Boko Haram, a militant group that has wrought havoc in northeastern Nigeria for years, killing people indiscriminately and displacing thousands.

The alleged extrajudicial killing of Boko Haram founder Mohammed Yusuf in 2009 and other leaders led to a full-scale uprising in northern Nigeria.

And as with Boko Haram, Nigerian security forces arrested Ibrahim Yaqoub El Zakzaky known as Sheik Zakzaky in 2015 after 350 of his followers clashed with Nigerian troops in Zaria in northwestern Nigeria.

Since then, Zakzaky and his wife have been in detention on charges of murder. Even though a court ordered him released in December 2016, the government has refused to let him go, stirring anger among his followers who say he is being detained illegally.

“It is quite possible for the Islamic Movement of Nigeria to transform into militancy like the Boko Haram,” said Professor Ishaq Akintola, director of the Muslim Rights Concern, an advocacy group for Nigerian Muslims. “There is a serious security implications for the continued detention of Zakzaki.”

Still, Zakzaky’s followers insist they are just trying to get justice.

“We have been maltreated, oppressed and many of us have been killed by the police including Sheikh Umar Sokoto,” said Abdullahi Musa, secretary of the Academic Forum of the Movement, a branch of the group based at universities, referring to an Islamic Movement of Nigeria leader whom police shot and killed during a protest in January.

And members insist they are not violent.

“In the entire existence of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria, which spans over a period of 40 years, no member of the group was accused of carrying illegal weapon,” said Sidi Sani, a disciple of Sheik Zakzaky for nearly three decades who lost two brothers in Zaria, a city in northwestern Nigeria. “Our struggle was not built on the foundation of militancy. Even our leader said members will not carry arms.”

Following on the Nigerian court order, the religious leader’s son, Mohammed Ibrahim Zakzaky, the only surviving son following the killing of three of his brothers in Zaria, petitioned the Nigerian Bar Association to compel the Nigerian justice minister to advise President Muhammadu Buhari to release his parents.

But, in an apparent response to that request, President Buhari stunned the audience during his speech at the bar association’s 2018 annual conference when he urged legal practitioners in the country to seek to prioritize national security above the rule of law.

“The rule of law must be subject to the supremacy of the nation’s security and national interest,” said Buhari, who ruled the country as a military dictator in the 1980s. “The individual rights of those allegedly responsible must take second place in favor of the greater good of society.”

In June, the Middle East Institute, a Washington, DC-based nonpartisan think tank, claimed that members of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria received military training from Hezbollah, the Shiite Islamist political party and militant group based in Lebanon.

“Tall men, in long, traditional African garb specific to northern Nigeria are sometimes spotted in Dahieh, a predominantly Shiite suburb south of Beirut where Hezbollah runs a cultural center,” wrote the Institute in an analysis. “The Shiite Nigerians initially receive a religious training before a military one that is provided in two camps in the Lebanese Bekaa.”

Muslim Rights Concern’s Akintola said though his group initially rose in defense of Zakzaky after the 2015 incident, but he and his colleagues changed their minds.

“It was revealed to me that Movement has become a huge security threat, the cause of discomfort, with bullies intimidating fellow Muslims,” said Akintola. “For these reasons, we found that in good conscience, we could not continue fighting their cause.”

Meanwhile, fears continue to mount over the activities of the group in Nigeria even as the crackdown continues.

In April this year, police killed a Movement follower after a fight erupted when authorities sought to prevent the group from using the Unity Fountain in Abuja as a venue for sit-ins to protest the detention of their leader.

Movement members say they will continue to fight.

“Our struggle has been carried out in Lebanon, Syria and Iran,” said Mohammed. “It’s now ongoing in Nigeria and Ghana.”

Photo: April 4, 2018. Abuja, Nigeria. Members of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria protest against the prolonged detention of their leader, Sheik Ibrahim Zakzaky, over alleged murder charges.
Credit: Auwal Ahmad/ ARA Network Inc. (04/04/18)

Story/photo published date: 09/24/18

A version of this story was published in Religious News Service.
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