Muslim Friday prayers can lead to traffic nightmares in many African cities. It is an inconvenience that has led most residents of these cities to come up with peaceful alternatives to circumvent this challenge.
However, in the city of Zaria, in the Nigerian Kaduna State, there was a growing animosity between the law enforcement agencies and the followers of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) in this regard.
Every Friday followers of the IMN, which is led by the charismatic 63-year-old Shia cleric Ibrahim El-Zakzaky, used to gather outside their headquarters, Hussainiyya Baqiyatullah in Zaria, for prayers.
The police had accused them on a number of occasions of disregarding the state laws by blocking traffic, which the IMN believed was used as a pretext to disrupt their activities.
This was an ongoing bone of contention, when on December 12, 2015 the situation escalated after soldiers accused members of IMN of plotting to kill the Army Chief, Tukur Buratai. The intervention of the army in the gathering of the IMN led to deadly skirmishes which resulted in the deaths of 347 people.
Subsequently Zakzaky and his wife were detained and have been in prison ever since. IMN have denied allegations of plotting to kill the army chief and have accused the army of using the plot accusations as a pretext to suppress their freedom and to kill and detain their members and leadership.
Following the massacre in Zaira the government instituted a Commission for Judicial Enquiry to investigate the incident.
In a rather shocking turn of events on December 5, the commission issued a White Paper or findings of its investigation. The White Paper basically absolved the soldiers of any wrongdoing and blamed the leader of the organisation, Zakzaky, for the massacre. It recommended that Zakzaky be prosecuted and the IMN declared an insurgent group – a dangerous move that can turn into a security nightmare for the Nigerian state.
There is a leadership bankruptcy on the side of the Nigerian government in dealing with the challenge of radicalisation. Indeed, the radical rhetoric from certain Muslim pulpits in Nigeria threatens national security.
However, heavy-handedness should be used as the last resort in tackling such situations because past experiences suggest that it can result in further radicalisation.
The current challenge involving IMN is reminiscent of how the government dealt with Boko Haram in its infancy in Maiduguri. There is enough evidence that tactics used by the government at the time backfired.
The current discord between the authorities and the IMN is an extension of the global Shia/Sunni contestation.