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The Evolution of Sunnism and Shi’ism in Nigeria


Editor’s Note: Sources citation from the original manuscript (an academic work) has been expunged in this piece for tidiness.

The present-day Borno State in Nigeria, which existed as Kanem-Bornu Empire, was the first part of modern-day Nigeria to come in contact with Islam in the 7th century AD.  The religion however did not take root in the areas that make up Nigeria today until between the 11th and 12th centuries.  Various historical accounts claim that it came through trade – particularly the Trans-Saharan Trade – and migration, with Arabic as the language for trading and means of literacy. Islam blossomed, not only in the land of the present-day Nigeria, but also in what is today known as West Africa, through an intricately woven Islamic networks that stretched from North Africa to the Mediterranean and the Middle East.

Based on the projections of the latest United Nations data, the current population of Nigeria (2020) is 205,771,039.  Of these, the World Factbook by CIA, in its 2019 report, puts the Nigerian Muslim population as 51.6%. This Muslim population is further subdivided into Sunni and Shi’a sects. According to a 2012 survey by the Pew Research Center, the Sunni constitute 38%, the Shia 12%, and those who responded as being “just Muslim” in the survey, are 42%.

Prior to the 1979 Iranian Revolution led by Ayatollah Khomeini which overthrew the 38-year-old rule of the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Shi’ism was hardly a feature in the religion ecosystem of Nigeria or even West Africa at large. Its presence was only among Lebanese and Syrian merchants who settled in Nigeria and were hardly religious. The Revolution, mainly supported by Iranian students, became an inspiration to idealistic undergraduate students at northern Nigeria’s premier university, the Ahmadu Bello University, led by a young economics final major, Ibrahim El-Zakzaky.  Sunnism, in all its different subsects, was the prevalent Islamic sect prior to El-Zakzaky’s emergence on the politico-religion scene in Nigeria.

According to Isaac Albert, who was a senior lecturer in African history and development studies in the Institute of African Studies at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria; and who specializes in peace and conflict studies and African indigenous institutions of social control, “religious instruments in Nigeria, are being used by some Nigerians to express their disagreement with the sociopolitical problems around them. The emergence of Shi’ism on university campuses in the north suggests political and economic grievances against the Sunni Muslim. This problem is most pronounced in the northern parts of the country. The Muslim fundamentalists operating in the north have been very violent. Each time they strike, several hundreds of innocent lives are lost. The best known of these religious fundamentalists are the Shiites and Yan tatsines. The two are opposed to the status quo in Nigeria.”

It is the perceived injustices of the historically feudal northern Nigeria that has made the region a hotbed of religious radicalism, and the Iranian Revolution came as a perfect example of how the “commoners” can upstage the local “feudalists” that inherited the British colonialists. In the process of its development as another Islamic sect in Nigeria, Shi’ism, led by overzealous student-ideologues, had to clash with Sunnism which had been nursed and sustained by the ruling feudal emirate system (under the Sokoto Caliphate) established in the north of the country through the 6-year Jihad of Usman Dan Fodio, launched in 1804, and which brought to existence the “most powerful economic and political system of the region during the 19th century.”

At independence in 1960, a scion of the Sokoto Caliphate and great-great-grandson of Dan Fodio, Sir Ahmadu Bello, who unsuccessfully sought to become the Sultan of Sokoto (Religious and political head of the Sokoto Caliphate) became the Premier of Northern Nigeria.  Sir Bello, according to Stanley Diamond, a Research Anthropologist, in his Reviewed Work: My Life by Ahmadu Bello in 1963, was also a direct descendent of Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, on both sides of his patrilineage.

Sir Bello, therefore, took it upon himself after independence to make Islam the unifying force in northern Nigeria by reorganizing Islamic institutions and bringing them under the control of his government. He also founded a body, Jama’atul Nasril Islam (JNI), which in English means the “Society for the Support of Islam,” to strengthen the position of Islam officially, particularly in the non-Muslim parts of the north.  Consequently, Sir Bello increasingly turned to Pakistan and the Arab World, particularly Egypt under Gammal Abdul Nasser and Saudi Arabia in pursuit of northern Nigeria’s foreign policy. This became the harbinger to the entrenchment and dominance of Sunnism in Nigeria.

After the assassination of Sir Bello in Nigeria’s first military coup d’état in 1966, Sheikh Abubakar Mahmud Gumi, the first Grand Khadi (Chief Judge of the Shariah court) of northern Nigeria and who along with Sir Bello formed the JNI, continued with the policy of solidarity with the predominantly Sunni Arab world. Although after the 1966 coup, the military had changed the Nigerian federal structure by dissolving the semi-autonomous regional governments and in their stead created states and appointed military governors who were directly answerable to the military head of state, the northern political structure was still strong. In 1969 for example, when Muslim leaders congregated in Rabat, Morocco in the aftermath of the burning of Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, Sheikh Gumi led a Nigerian delegation appointed by the Sultan of Sokoto Sir Abubakar III (not by the federal military government) from the defunct northern region. Sheikh Gumi, at the conference, pledged the support of the Nigerian Muslim community to the Islamic cause, which was predominantly Sunni.

Sheikh Gumi continued to lead the JNI, which was divided under two Sunni subsects (darikah) of Tijanniyya and Qadriyya, for the most part of post first republic era led by the military. On the eve of the Iranian Revolution and also the eve of Nigeria’s democratization to the second republic, Sheikh Gumi engineered the formation and subsequent launching of a “reformist” movement in March 1978 to douse the rivalry between the two Sunni subsects and called it Jama’atu Izalat al Bid’a wa Iqamat al Sunna (simply called Izala) which in English means “Movement for the Abolition of Innovation and the upholding of Orthodoxy,” and fashioned after Saudi Wahhabism. The following year, a movement of Ahmadu Bello University students that eventually turned into the Shi’a movement in Nigeria, was born.

The Shi’a movement in Nigeria started in northern Nigeria’s premier university under the banner of “Muslim Brothers” led by El-Zakzaky and extended to other university campuses in the country, particularly in Northern Nigeria. Some of the students, mostly youthful ideologues from the faculty of arts and social sciences, were students of one sociology professor, Patrick Wilmot, a 1966 Yale and 1972 Vanderbilt graduate who ironically taught a course about ‘Marxism and the Developing World’ at the Ahmadu Bello University in the 1970s and 80s. Wilmot, a Jamaican, though married to a Nigerian, was forcefully deported by the military regime of Gen. Ibrahim Babangida for what the newspapers in the 1980s described as his criticism of the military government. The Ahmadu Bello University newspaper however, described him as “an intellectual radical who encouraged his students to ask questions.”

Wilmot’s taught course was so popular amongst the students such that even non-registered students hang around the classroom windows to listen to him. The course was pro-soviet, pro-communism, and anti-west — particularly the “neocolonial” Britain and United States — that many of these impressionable students, future leaders and policy makers, became hateful towards capitalism and the West. Events in Iran in the late 70s and early 80s became a defining phase for these students who saw the Revolution by Khomeini and the hostage taking of American diplomats in Tehran by university students as a development worthy of emulation. The hostage taking was so impressionable that in 1980, students of Ahmadu Bello University took over the British Consulate in Kaduna, former capital of Northern Nigeria, held (without arms) British diplomats as hostages and gave Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher a 24-hour ultimatum to withdraw British Troops from Zimbabwe. The Nigeria Police saved the situation a few hours after the siege.

The name ‘Muslim Brothers’ of the Shi’a sect suggested that other non-Shi’a Muslim were considered non-Muslim. Years later, the sect changed its name to Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN). The sect’s focus was to attain, through a revolution, an Islamic State comparable to the Islamic Republic of Iran. The sect’s leader, El-Zakzaky was thoroughly radicalized and sought to recruit followers by pushing anti-American and anti-Zionist rhetoric.  The sect’s mantra was “Islam Only” and they denounced the Nigerian constitution maintaining that the only constitution they recognized was the Quran – Islam’s Holy Book. This set the group up against the Sunni-dominated federal government, and its security forces, which found reasons to clamp down on the group’s leadership whenever members of the group demonstrated (which was often). These demonstrations included celebrations of Shi’a important events like the Qud’s day or to show opposition to certain actions by the United States or Israel. In one of El-Zakzaky’s anti-Israel and anti-America rhetoric, he said, “the Israeli State will fall no matter the present support the Jews are enjoying from America and other superpowers.”  The sect’s leader had on many occasions been detained (sometimes for years) by successive leaderships in the country. He was what some commentators described as a “political prisoner” for nine years during the 1980s and 1990s.  He is currently under detention at Kaduna Correctional Home and charged with murder by the Sunni-led Kaduna State government of Nasir El-rufai.

El-Zakzaky, an indigene of Zaria, a Sunni city in Kaduna State, was himself a Sunni before the 1979 Iranian Revolution. He created a mini government in a part of Zaria called Gyallesu where he reigned supreme. Government’s law enforcement officials had no jurisdiction in his catchment area and his foot soldiers were the law. This led to series of clashes between the Sunni residents of Gyallesu and El-Zakzaky’s foot soldiers. A senior researcher at Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria, Mr. Isa, describes the sheikh’s movement as “a state within a state.”  He told the BBC that he knew that the sect was training some of its members in military drills. “But when you embark on military drills, you are drilling with some sort of anticipation. Some form of expectations,” he said.  Sheikh El-Zakzaky, however, said hundreds of members of the sect are only trained to police events of the sect, likening it to training boy scouts, karate.

In one of its reports, the International Crisis Group catalogued a history of some of the sect’s clashes with other Sunni Muslims and security forces.  According to the report, El-Zakzaky and his followers clashed with security forces in 1991. In 1997, Nigerian law enforcement razed down Sheikh El-Zakzaky’s home and mosque and arrested and jailed 96 members of his movement.  In 2005, they clashed with predominantly Sunni population in Sokoto when they were denied use of the central mosque in the city. They also murdered a Sunni cleric, Umar Dan Maishiya in Sokoto in July 2007, for his incessant condemnation of the sect which led to reprisal attacks that led to the death of five members of the sect and the destruction of many of their homes. Another clash between the sect and the police in Zaria in September 2009 led to many injuries and deaths from the two sides. The gravity of the clashes increased when in July 2014, the Nigerian military massacred 35 members of the sect including three of the leader’s sons who were undergraduates.

The mother of all clashes tagged the ‘2015 Zaria Massacre’ was in December 2015 between the newly elected government of President Muhammadu Buhari (a Sunni) and members of the IMN in which over 300 of the sect’s members, including women and children, were killed by the Nigerian Army. The clash took place at the Hussainiya in Zaria, which is the sect’s spiritual headquarters in Nigeria as members prepared for a ceremony of “changing of flags” to commemorate the death of Imam Hussain, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad and son of Imam Ali the most revered Shi’a Imam. On December 12, 2015, in their usual practice, the sect set up roadblocks, along the highway the Hussainiya was located and its members, carrying sticks and stones, stopped the Chief of the Nigeria Army, Lt. Gen. Tukur Buratai along with his convoy plying that route urging him to take a detour. The army claimed it was an assassination attempt on its chief and used force to pass. That night,and going into the wee hours of the following day, the army attacked the Hussainiya, El-Zakzaky’s residence and the sect’s cemetery and by the time the dust had settled, the army had killed more than 350 members of the sect, shot, wounded and arrested the sect’s leader, and also shot and killed his deputy, Muhammad Turi.

The sect, through its spokesperson Ibrahim Musa in a statement, however, said that the army killed over 1000 members of the sect including women and children in what he describes as a genocide, claiming that the Sunni president, Buhari, cannot be exonerated from the killings. He also accused the Buhari government, which he described as the Devil, of concocting fresh court charges against the sect’s leader, who the army had incapacitated so as to coax sect members into the use of violence. Army spokesman Brig. General Rabe Abubakar however, claimed that the army didn’t kill anyone.  Human Rights Watch however, said that the army’s claim was false because it “does not stack up” and called for an independent judicial inquiry.  Human Rights Watch Africa Director Daniel Bekele, described the Zaria killings as “at best it was a brutal overreaction and at worst it was a planned attack on the minority Shi’a group.”

Amnesty International, in its report “Unearthing the truth: Unlawful killings and mass cover-up in Zaria,” however, quoted witnesses that told the organization that they had seen piles of dead bodies and diggers undertaking excavation works at a suspected mass burial site.  One of the witnesses told Amnesty International that, “There were five or six large trucks and several smaller military vehicles and they spent hours digging and unloading the trucks’ cargo into the hole they dug and then covered it again with the earth they had dug out.  They were there from about 1 or 2 am until about 5 am.  I do not know what they buried. It looked like bodies, but I could not get near.” The Report also indicated that the organization had obtained satellite images of the suspected site of the mass graves near Mando close to the City of Kaduna. The satellite images of the suspected mass graves site were taken November 2, 2015, and December 24, 2015.

Culled from “Understanding the Saudi-Iran Rivalry in Nigeria,” thesis by Mustapha S. Shehu and supervised by Prof. Jeffrey W. Taliaferro, for the award of Master of Arts Degree in International Relations by the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, Medford, MA, USA.



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