IBRAHIM El-Zakzaky is a child of belief. From childhood through adolescence, he was raised on a stern diet of toil and reward; thus his life from infancy till he clocked 16 was characterised by two things: attending madrassah (Islamic school) and helping his father on the farm. On the farm, his father guided his wiry hands to till the soil, till it sprouted with fruits.
He learned, however, that the harvest is a bonus, and the process is of essence. At the madrassah, he was fed a spiced gruel of Islamic monotheism: “Without faith nothing is possible. With it, nothing is impossible,” he learned. Born May 5, 1953 in Zaria, Kaduna State, El Zakzaky experienced rebirth in the folds of religion. By the time he clocked 16, he had hazarded his brand of belief. Inured to its precepts, he wore it like a fine robe.
His journey into faith, however, accentuated in 1969 at his encounter with formal education while attending the provincial Arabic School in Zaria. Back then, the Native Authority (NA) trained Arabic teachers for its primary schools.
From the school, El Zakzaky proceeded to the School for Arabic Studies (SAS), Kano, from 1971 to 1975 and the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, where he studied Economics from 1976 to 1979. El Zakzaky graduated from ABU with a First Class degree.
As an undergraduate, he was an active member of the Muslim Students’ Society of Nigeria (MSSN) at both campus and national levels. In 1978, then Secretary-General of the MSSN (ABU), he was fingered as the brains behind the nationwide demonstrations in support of the inclusion of Shari’ah in the Nigerian constitution. He was elected Vice-President (International Affairs) of the MSS (National Body) in 1979. Through those years, he quit farming and committed to the pursuit of knowledge.
He led a very busy life studying, teaching and proselytising Islam (da’awa). It was during this period that he attracted the attention of the Nigerian authorities.
“Some might say they are the years of struggle. This struggle contains learning, teaching and of course, calling others,” he said in a past interview. He stated: “Perhaps, it is calling others that the authorities do not want. If I may confine myself simply to learning and teaching, maybe there would be no problems.”
But El Zakzaky would not be confined to learning and teaching, instead he embraced his passion to “call others.” Immersed in his pursuits, El Zakzaky meant to influence his world. Then he sought to change it. Among other things, he couldn’t bear what he considered the misconceptions and frequent attacks against Islam.
He couldn’t be silent in the face of random accusations against Islam as a tool of oppression, nor could he bear silently what he termed the oppression of Muslims, thus he “started to defend the religion” and at the same time, spread enlightenment about “what it truly stands for.”
To this end, he established the Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN), an off-shoot of his student idealism, in ABU, in the 1970s. The Iranian revolution, coming in 1979, inspired him. To him, Iran epitomised what Muslims in general could accomplish.
Thus motivated by the Iranian example, he took a sectarian path and over time, adopted religious markers of Shi‘ism. It’s noteworthy that the IMN credo fol- lows the kind of “Twelver Shi‘ism” dominant in Iran, rather than the Isma‘ili Shi‘ism that exists in East Africa or the Zaydi Shi‘ism prevalent in Yemen.
For instance, the IMN celebrates Shi‘ite holidays such as Ashura, which commemorates the death of the Prophet’s grandson Husayn, whom the Shi‘a consider one of their Imams. Shi‘ism is only one aspect of the move- ment, however: in some ways, El Zakzaky adopts the conventional Nigerian Muslim religious leader’s pragmatism; for instance, he discourages some Shi‘ite practices, such as praying for Imams to intercede with God on one’s behalf. While his home town, Zaria, remains his base, due to his repeated clashes with authorities, he has spent years in prison: 1981-1985, 1987-1989, and 1996-1998 and now, 2015 till date.
Across northern Nigeria, El Zakzaky’s followers are seen by authorities as troublemakers. For example, in 1991, one of his followers led a violent protest in the northern city of Katsina, targeting the newspaper, Daily Times, over alleged blasphemy. In 2007, the IMN clashed with authorities in Sokoto, far northwestern Nigeria, sparking a legal battle that lasted until 2015.
There is no gainsaying trouble sticks to his fine robes, like ivy to a laurel bush. Consequently, El Zakzaky has been jailed several times for his ideas by successive military regimes, from Obasanjo to the late Abacha regime. Charges against him varied from sedition to inciting disaffection to government. In the Abacha era, he was arrested for declaring that, “There is no government except that of Islam.”
His total prison experience is nine years in nine different prisons across the country – the most famous being Enugu (1981-1984), the Interrogation Centre of NSO, Lagos (1984-1985), KiriKiri Maximum Security (1985), Port Harcout (1987-1989 and 1996-1997) and Kaduna (1987 and 1997-1998). Nonetheless, from where El Zakzaky worked, the crusade was going just great.
It was “the will of God.” Now, if only everyone else would see it that way. A problem of perception? No president underestimates El Zakzaky. Doing so could imperil “everyone,” successive military regimes had believed thus his imprisonment over nine years; from Olusegun Obasanjo to the late Sani Abacha/Abdulsalami Abubakar military junta. And dreading what the 66-year-old could lead his Shi’ite group, the Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN) ,to become, the incumbent administration of President Muhammadu Buhari, took him into custody since his first term in 2015.
El Zakzaky was detained along with his wife, Malama Zainab, on December 12, 2015, following deadly clashes between Nigerian soldiers and his followers in the city of Zaria. At least, 60 people reportedly died in the violence, which the Nigerian Army claimed was a response to an assassination attempt by the sect’s members on the Chief of Army Staff, Lieutenant General Tukur Buratai.
The clashes and El Zakzaky’s subsequent arrest sparked protests by his followers and further aggravated the tension between the Nigerian state and El Zakzaky’s IMN.
The seeds of the lingering conflict were sown at a July 2014 Shiite religious procession in Zaria, during the administration of former president, Goodluck Jonathan. At the pro-Palestinian rally, known as a Quds Day procession, 34 protesters, including three of El Zakzaky’s sons, were reportedly killed by security operatives, who alleged self-defence. More recently, Precious Owolabi, a corps member serving with Channels TV, died after suffering a gunshot to the stomach as members of El Zakzaky’s IMN clashed with the police, on Monday, in Abuja.
Deputy Commissioner of Police, Usman Umar, of the FCT Police Command, was also killed in the crisis. The IMN said 11 of its members were also killed during the agitation for the release of their spiritual leader, El-Zakzaky, who was taken into custody by Buhari’s administration four years ago.
The making of another insurgency Shiite Muslims are generally well-integrated in Nigeria and do not suffer direct discrimination or persecution. El Zakzaky’s followers, however, have a strained relationship with the Nigerian security apparatus. In the wake of a recent Shiite unrest, Muhammad Sa’ad Abubakar III, the current Sultan of Sokoto warned the authorities to “exercise restraint” in order to avoid creating another Boko Haram-style militant group.
He warned the authorities about the potential of radicalizing the group and its followers.
“The history of the circumstances that engendered the outbreak of militant insurgency in the past, with cataclysmic consequences that Nigeria is yet to recover from, should not be allowed to repeat itself,” said Abubakar.
And just recently, Femi Falana, a lawyer and human rights activist, warned the Buhari government on the implications of detaining El Zakzaky, along with his wife, despite court orders for his release. Falana said the nation risks another insurgency, should El Zakzaky die in detention, just like it happened with Boko Haram after its leader, Mohammed Yusuf, was killed by policemen, while in detention in Maiduguri in 2009.
“El Zakzaky must not be allowed to die due to medical neglect as it may provoke a crisis of monumental proportions. Therefore, the federal government should implement the unanimous resolution of the House of Representatives for the release of El Zakzaky and his wife without any further delay”, Falana warned in a lengthy statement on Tuesday.
He warned the Federal Government of Nigeria against its violent approach to handling members of El Zakzaky’s IMN, who are protesting the detention of their leader, despite court orders for his release. On Tuesday 23, one day after the IMN clashed with the police, members of the House of Representatives were divided at a plenary session, over the call for the release of El Zakzaky.
While the House unanimously granted the prayer that the heads of security agencies be invited to address the lawmakers on the measures being taken to check the Islamic sect, they voted out the prayers calling on the Federal Government and the Kaduna State Government to obey court orders and release El Zakzaky.
At the backdrop of the proceedings, the mainstream and social media pulsate with arguments for and against the continued detention of the Shiite leader and his wife. While some declared that the group should not hold Nigeria to ransom and constitute public nuisance, other pundits alleged that the Federal Government should respect court order and release El Zakzaky and his wife. A suit challenging the illegal detention of El-Zakzaky and his wife was earlier decided in their favour by the Federal High Court on December 2, 2016.
The presiding judge, Kolawole J, at the period, reportedly directed the Federal Government to release the couple from unlawful custody, pay them N50 million reparation and provide them with a temporary house since their house got burnt when the army laid siege to it. The Federal Government hasn’t complied with the judgment to the chagrin of El Zakzaky, his wife and the IMN.
To the government, El Zakzaky and his IMN loom as a threat to the continued peace and stability of the country. Neighbours give conflicting accounts of their encounters with the sect. While some alleged nasty encounters being bullied off public roads by IMN processions, others recount palatable experiences sharing neighbourhood with the sect.
But Sheikh Ya-aqup Yahaya Katsina, who has been standing in for El Zakzaky since his detention in 2015, stated that IMN is not a terrorist group and it does not have problems with anyone. He said: “If we say something, it will appear like we are praising ourselves. But if you ask them, then you have the ability to arrive at an average opinion.
But quite okay, you may find someone saying he is not happy neighbouring our members, because not all people are the same. But if you can get a hundred responses, check the average, you will see 75 or 80 per cent are quite happy cohabiting with us. We don’t have a problem with anybody. If anybody experiences a problem, it would not be from us but from him. “In the case of Katsina State, we initially began to stay at Unguwar Yari Quarters.
When we left there to another location, from that very day, the residents counted their losses from thefts, because we provided security for the quarters while we were there. In this community where we relocated to, nobody had been in the position to leave his car or property outside, talk less leaving the lights on. But since we became part of this community, several neighbours from the beginning to the end leave open their doors and windows till daybreak.”
Through the crucible of his detention, the possibility of his release seems bleak and his ardent followers worry about his safety, warning that he musn’t die in prison. If that happens, the possibility of martyrdom looms for El Zakzaky; the IMN leader whose brand of Islam, rankles an ominous note to the state and cultivates a fiery model of belief.
His critics accuse him of extremism even as his apologists argue otherwise.
“What have we done that warrants us being branded terrorists? Why should we be called terrorists? But everybody knows Al-Qaeda are terrorists. Taliban are terrorists. Boko Haram are also terrorists. Why should El Zakzaky sect be regarded as terrorists? Are we doing the same operation? Calling us terrorists is clear cheating. We have the right to practise the religion of our own choice as enshrined in the Nigerian constitution. No one can stop us,” argued Sheikh Katsina.
Beneath the resonance of his words, a heartfelt plea steals into the atmosphere; the message is clear-cut; Katsina and his brothers in faith seek the unconditional release of El Zakzaky.
“He is not a terrorist,” they claim. True, El Zakzaky, until his arrest, didn’t live in a cave. He didn’t retire into the innards of some forest reserve to assign murder, or traffic in the image of an ascetic warrior-prophet.
El Zakzaky lived in a concrete house amid the flurry of neighbours and mundane concerns, where his sharp words elicited sharp blows of inquisition by defunct military and incumbent civilian administrations. (The Nation)