ABUJA, Nigeria — On Dec. 12, Nigerian government forces carried out a brutal massacre against the country’s minority Muslim Shia population, with some media reporting over 1,000 killed, after the military imprisoned and tortured the group’s important dissident leader Sheikh Ibrahim Zakzaky.
The news of the slaughter of a minority religious group emerges as Nigeria announced it is considering joining Saudi Arabia in the fight against Daesh (the Arabic acronym for the group commonly known in the West as ISIS), linking two nations known for repression and repeated, disturbing human rights violations. Saudi Arabia, in turn, has a history of promoting the extremist religious ideology of Wahhabism that inspires terrorist groups like Nigeria’s own Boko Haram, the terrorist group that the country is still struggling to control, and even al-Qaida and Daesh.
And Zakzaky isn’t the only activist to face imprisonment in recent months — Nigeria has a reputation for quashing political dissent no matter where it’s source. However, the arrest and crackdown came just months after Muhammadu Buhari, a retired army general, successfully won election on a promise to restore order to the country.
While Zakzaky is known as an outspoken dissident in Nigeria, it’s unlikely that his words or deeds alone provoked the savage crackdown on his Islamic Movement. Instead, Eric Draitser, the editor of the independent media site Stopimperialism.org, told MintPress that Zakzaky is a pawn in a global imperialist conflict.
“Basically, I think that almost everyone has misread the Zakzaky massacre,” Draitser said. “Almost nobody who has written about the issue has placed it in the appropriate context. The context is not Nigeria. The context is a much broader global proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Qatar on the one hand, and Iran on the other hand.”
In this light, Draitser said, the arrest of Zakzaky has as much to do with the January 2 execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, a Shiite cleric from Saudi Arabia, as it does with local politics in Nigeria. Instead, it’s part of the Saudi’s attempt to destabilize and provoke the Iranians around the globe.
Ibrahim Zakzaky and the rise of Nigeria’s Islamic Movement
The Islamic Revolution in Iran that ousted U.S. and British forces was bolstered by the belief that third world dependence on the West was an intrinsic result of neocolonialism and monopoly capitalism, with the only remedy being “working class internationalism.” Inspired by Iran’s success, Zakzaky founded Nigeria’s Islamic Movement in 1979 and began spreading his flavor of Shia Islam in the country. About 45 percent of Nigerians are Muslim, and, prior to the rise of the Islamic Movement, they were almost entirely Sunni. Shia remain a small but significant minority of the country’s population.
Bat-el Ohayon, founder of sub-Sahara African consultancy Afrique Consulting Group, told Newsweek’s Conor Gaffey that “Shiite Muslims are generally well-integrated in Nigeria and do not suffer direct discrimination or persecution,” but that “there is specific and isolated conflict” with Zakzaky’s Islamic Movement, which is largely centered in Zaria, a major city in the northern part of Nigeria.
Watch “Rise of Shia Islam in Nigeria” from Press TV:
The conflict between Zakzaky’s movement and Nigerian leadership comes not from any doctrinal differences between Sunni and Shia, and not simply because the leader of Nigeria’s Shiite minority is unapologetic in his support for universal human rights and in his opposition to Nigeria’s alliances with Israel and Saudi Arabia. In July 2014, 34 protesters were killed by Nigerian forces while celebrating Quds Day in Zaria, including three of Zakzaky’s sons. Quds Day, or “land day,” is an annual holiday honoring the struggle of Palestinians against Israeli apartheid.
Nigeria and the Saudi’s proxy war with Iran
But these positions alone would have been unlikely to provoke such a controversial attack during the early days of Buhhari’s presidency. As Draitser pointed out, it’s Zakzaky’s ties to Iran that most likely provoked the arrest and attacks:
“There are many sources, including U.S. counterterrorism sources, sources from the Middle East and all around the world that have painted Zakzaky as a proxy of the Iranians. Zakzaky and his family have made many trips to Iran that have been subsidized by the state. And as a general rule, this is even understood by those who are Shia and in support of Iran, basically, Iran bankrolls all these movements. And there’s no doubt that Iran has been bankrolling the Islamic Movement in Nigeria.”
“So then the question becomes,” Draitser continued, “why would Zakzaky and his followers be targeted by the Nigerian military? For what possible reason?”
“As Saudi Arabia and Qatar have seen their position slipping in Syria, with Iranian engagement in that war on the side of the Syrian-Arab army, on the side of Russia and so forth, they have now counter-moved against Iranian interests in other parts of the world.
That is where the Zakzaky massacre falls into place. That is where the execution of Nimr al-Nimr and the other Shia followers of his falls into place. This is part of a global push by the Saudis and the Qataris to push back against what they perceive to be Iranian proxies and Iranian influence.”
Draitser added that the Saudis also blame the Iranians for the Houthi takeover of Yemen, and the Saudis subsequent involvement in a bloody conflict there. Meanwhile, he argued that the Saudis and Qataris have also been strengthening their power throughout Africa through the support of Wahhabi Islam-inspired terrorist groups like Boko Haram and al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.
“My theory,” Draitser suggested, “is that the Saudis and/or the Qataris made a significant payment to a high-ranking Nigerian military official, perhaps even the general in charge, to wipe out Zakzaky and his movement as a message to the Iranians. I think that is the only explanation of why the Nigerian military would do this when you consider that they’re actually focused on Boko Haram, the inverse of the Islamic Movement.”
In a December interview with PressTV, Ibrahim Musa, spokesman for the Islamic Movement of Nigeria, echoed Draitser’s suspicions:
“So possibly, this government has decided it will finish what [former President Goodluck] Jonathan had started. We believe it is a conspiracy between the Wahhabi, the Israelis and their American surrogates.”
Nigeria is ‘Israel’s biggest ally’
Since the late 20th-century, the Nigerian government has maintained close strategic and economic ties with Israel, a major U.S. and Saudi ally. A Sept. 2014 report from Arutz Sheva, a right-wing, Zionist news source from Israel, called Nigeria “Israel’s biggest ally.”
Arutz Sheva reporter Jonny Paul added, “Between 2012 and 2013, Nigeria’s exports to Israel rose from $165m to $276m.” 50 Israeli corporations have built branches in Israel, and over 5,000 Nigerian corporations operate in Israel.
In September 2015, a stampede in Mecca killed over 700 and injured 800 during the annual pilgrimage. While the Saudi government tried to blame unsafe behavior by the pilgrims, according to Nigeria’s The Daily Trust, Zakzaky retorted, “For the government of Saudi Arabia to blame pilgrims for killing themselves is ridiculous and a form of human degradation, which is also criminal. They are saying this in order to cover up the real cause of the tragedy.” He put the blame instead on the Saudi royal family, who were visiting the site during the deadly incident: “According to him, the Al-Saud prince whose convoy caused the tragedy and all those [complicit] in the crime should be punished by death, as they caused the death of thousands of innocent pilgrims.”
The Daily Trust quoted Zakzaky as blaming Saudi leadership for not just the disaster at Mecca, but suffering throughout the Middle East as well. “The Saudi authorities cannot fool the world or exonerate itself from the heinous crime and monumental tragedy, as the world knows who is killing their brethren in Yemen, Bahrain, Iraq and Syria,” he told the paper.
Zakzaky’s arrest, then, comes as Nigeria is in the process of deepening its diplomatic ties to Saudi Arabia, including potentially joining Saudi Arabia in its widely publicized “anti-terrorism” alliance. “Nigeria has been formally invited to be a member of the alliance and President Buhari is looking into it,” government spokesman Garuba Shehu told Reuters on Dec. 17.
Many critics have met the announcement of the Saudi-led anti-terrorism alliance with skepticism, and suggested that it’s merely another front for spreading Wahhabism, the extremist political ideology that has widespread support in Saudi Arabia, but also inspires terrorist groups from al-Qaida to Daesh to Boko Haram. In December, New Eastern Outlook also joined Zakzaky and numerous others in attacking Saudi support for terrorism:
“In reality, decades of documented evidence reveal that the Saudis are the primary conduit through which Western cash, weapons, support, and directives flow into mercenary armies of extremists, indoctrinated by Saudi Wahhabism – a politically-motivated perversion of Islam – and sent to execute joint Western-Saudi geopolitical ambitions in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region and beyond.”
Supporters of Zakzaky fear for his health after brutal arrest
Shockingly, an army spokesman tried to defend the brutal crackdown on Zakzaky and his followers by citing years of largely peaceful civil disobedience by the group. Col. Sani Usman, a spokesman for the Nigerian army, told The Guardian on Dec. 16 that there had been “loss of lives as a result of the Shia group members blocking roads and not allowing other passersby to go about their lawful businesses and activities” and added:
“It is important to note that over the years this group has subjected ordinary citizens using public roads to untold hardship, delays, threats and disruption simply because they insist on using public space irrespective of inconvenience and hardship on other law abiding citizens and motorists. This cannot be tolerated and must stop.”
Civil disobedience, widely regarded as a human right in the face of intolerable conditions, cannot justify the army’s vicious crackdown, which claimed the lives of Aliy, another of of Zakzaky’s sons, along with hundreds of others.
Zakzaky and his wife Zeenat went missing for days before Nigerian police admitted in late December that they had him in custody, and that he was undergoing medical treatment for injuries sustained during his violent arrest. However, citing ongoing investigations into Zakzaky’s activities and what he called “orders from above,” the inspector general of the Nigerian police reportedly refused to grant access to any of his supporters. While Zakzaky’s supporters continue to insist they’ve been peaceful, the Nigerian army has attempted to implicate the group in an assassination attempt on the army’s chief of staff in Zaria.
Zakzaky’s Islamic Movement continue to protest for their rights and for their leader. A group of women from the movement marched on January 6 to demand the release of Zakzaky and other arrested Shiite Muslims, according to Africa News:
“The women mostly in black attire marched to the offices of the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ) Secretariat, in Kaduna holding different placards and asking for the release of the leader and other members of the sect.”
Hajiya Aisha Hassan, secretary of the Shiite Women’s Wing, told the assembled journalists that the government must acknowledge the massacre “by paying Diyya, (Death Compensation) to all affected families and relations,” and added:
“We call for immediate and unconditional release of our revered leader his Eminence Sheikh El-Zakzaky and his wife.”
The U.S. State Department has joined human rights advocates in calling for an investigation of the massacre, but Nigeria seems unlikely to act fast enough. And Zakzaky’s arrest comes amid a widespread crackdown on dissident voices in Nigeria. Police continue to hold Nnami Kanu, leader of the Biafran separatist group in custody and on Dec. 18, Nigerian forces also shot and killed five of his supporters during a rally for the leader. Sambo Dasuki, a former Nigerian security chief, is also under arrest, allegedly for embezzling billions from the fund set aside to fight Boko Haram.
On Jan. 2, Femi Fani-Kayode, a former Nigerian culture minister, took to Twitter to warn that the mistreatment of these Zakzaky and these other prisoners threatened to destabilize the country according to another report from Newsweek:
El Zakzaky, Dasuki or Kanu must NOT be tortured, poisoned, beaten or murdered in custody or else all hell will break lose.Buhari take note.
— Femi Fani-Kayode (@realFFK) January 2, 2016
And America too, is complicit in these attacks, according to Draitser. “The instability in Nigeria is, to a large extent, being fomented by the United States because the United States views Nigeria as a proxy and an ally that is shaky at best. Remember, that Nigeria has made major overtures with China in the couple of last years.”
In September, Taylor Butch, writing for International Policy Digest, wrote that Nigeria was China’s “New BFF.”
“Bilateral trade levels between China and Nigeria have exponentially increased since the two countries established strategic relations ten years ago,” he added.
With Nigeria, and its oil riches, in play between the more powerful nations of Saudi Arabia and Iran, and the United States and China, the suffering of its people seems likely to continue for some time.
“I think it’s quite likely that what we’re seeing is an attempt by the U.S. to prevent a realignment of Nigeria,” Draitser concluded.