19 Oct

Nigeria is playing with fire, again

In a report published in August, it was shown that the Nigerian Army is overstretched in its involvement in internal security operations. As of the time of the report, troops were actively involved in 30 of the 36 states.

When this is situated within the context of the latent threat of a Boko Haram resurgence; the escalating situation in the Middle Belt; the continuing militant activity in the Niger Delta; the IPOB/Biafra movements which though not in open conflict, could be ignited if not handled appropriately; the current handling of the Shia crisis with force across such a vast space could be problematic, and could potentially overstretch the army so much that they are unable to contain the threat.

In dealing with the unfolding Shiite crisis, we are going down a well-worn path, but with a twist. The recent ban on the Shiite group in Kaduna State, which has spread to 5 other states (Kebbi, Kano, Katsina, Jigawa and Plateau), represents a threat to a society barely back on its feet from the recurring hits it has taken from the dreaded Boko Haram insurgency.

It also portends a precedent which we believe is not in line with the concepts of freedom of association and religion which are both enshrined in the Nigerian Constitution. Persecution by the State, and citizens who have been emboldened by the stance of the state has continued unabated with lynchings and targeted arrests of IMN members. The leader of the IMN, Ibraheem Zakzaky remains incarcerated without being charged to court for almost a year.

This potent mix of sectarian hatred and nurtured anger by non-Shiite Muslims continues to push IMN members underground. Overall the seeming Sunni domination of security agencies and the judiciary does not give the Shiites a chance. Nigeria is witnessing one of the worse cases of organized persecution in its recent history.

However, Nigeria forgets easily. The Shiite situation has marked similarities to the Boko Haram problem, before it became a full blown insurgency. Nigeria cannot afford to be reckless in handling the current situation with the Shiite as it did in the past in the early stages with Boko Haram.

Any similar crisis with the Shiite would not be a straightforward battle, because unlike Boko Haram which depends on a largely illiterate fellowship, they are a lot more sophisticated. Within their ranks, the Shiites boast of well-educated intellectuals who are embedded within the Nigerian state and spread across the country. The threat is one of a reported two million strong coordinated group with a robust foreign backing, in Iran. The consequence of engaging this group like earlier done with Boko Haram would be far reaching, devastating and possibly apocalyptic.

We must realize that it is unwise to drag Nigeria into becoming a proxy site for the battle between Wahabism on the one hand and Shiism on the other. The actual powers in the Middle East that are the sources of this conflict, Saudi Arabia and Iran, wisely keep the battles away from their own territory and fight in other people’s countries. They are unrestrained in causing untold destruction and devastation since these proxy battlefields aren’t their own homes, an attitude that can be seen in how they have behaved in places like Yemen. They will be even less concerned about destruction in a far-away African country, so long as their proxy battle continues. We must wisely eschew this.

What the Nigerian government should instead champion is justice for those who were gruesomely murdered extra-judicially by the military and also put on trial members of the sect that might have gone against the law of the land.

Nigeria should not contemplate the escalation of this crisis because it has the potential of mutating into a mess that cannot be contained. Shiite Muslims being attacked, in various cities across Nigeria including Kaduna, Kano among others, allegedly by extremist and Wahabi-affiliated forces, represents a major source of concern. The current situation if not checked could spill into a sectarian crises Nigeria does not have room for. The fire this time will begin from the belly of Nigeria, and the Nigerian State cannot be both the arsonist and the firefighter. Nigeria does not have room for another sectarian crises.

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