Waiting for Ibrahim Zakzaky?

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Moosa Arendt looks at the recent massacres and detentions in Zaria, Nigeria


What happened to Zakzaky, his wife, his children and his followers? Why were they attacked, some injured, others killed and detained in December 2015. Why are there contradictory accounts from the Nigerian government? This sounds like a replay from the detention of President Morsi. The Egyptian army claimed that the Interior Ministry was holding Morsi. The army could not hold him for that would have undermined the treason trial that they were preparing for him. When the army came for Morsi there was no outrage. No the Egyptian army was applauded and welcomed. When Modi turned the other way in Gujerat 2003 he was sanctioned. When he became Prime Minister he was given the welcome of a Raj at Wembley Stadium (2015). When an army came for Zakzaky (December 2015, to finish what was left undone in 2014), on a pack of lies, Northern Nigeria was largely muted. Where is the outrage? If Zakzaky becomes a lens to look at Nigeria, the African continent, the world -even ourselves -then it could be scary. 

Zakzaky comes from northern Nigeria, a country with more than 160 million people. There are multiple fault-lines in the country. Firstly, it is a colonial creation that brought together two colonies. The northern colony was mainly – not exclusively – Muslim. The southern colony was mainly –again not exclusively- Christian. The 1884-1885 Berlin Conference on the imperial division of Africa was criminal. Like the slicing and dicing of derivatives that led to the financial crash in 2008 the colonial creation of Nigeria left it with a painful scar of its birth. Opportunists, political and religious, would pick the scab on that scar as and when they needed to, in post-colonial Nigeria.

14% of the population of Africa live in Nigeria. It is a well-endowed country. Yet, 33%of the country is illiterate. 66% of the population live in conditions of poverty. In Nigeria illiteracy, poverty and religion often coincide. The toxic mix has been brewing for anyone with fanatical agendas to mobilise routinely aggrieved people. The pot has been kicked over many times. But Nigeria also has some of the wealthiest people in Africa, if not the world.

It is also a country that had, and continues to have, many claims for secession. The simmering movement for independence in Biafra have been burning since 1967.  The civil war lasted for three years. The Movement for the Sovereign State of Biafra has been mobilising huge numbers of people since October 2015. In the Niger Delta the spectre of Ken Saro Wiwa is still alive. The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta has been mobilising. In the north governors and Emirs of the various “Muslim states” routinely declare the imposition of Sharia. The desperate economic conditions, illiteracy and the presence of multitudes of Christians all over the north do not deter these ambitious Nigerians. The chopping off of a few hands here and the whipping of one who commits zina there would be the primary duties of the Governor of the Islamic State of Sokoto, Zaria, Kaduna or any other northern state. The application of Sharia within a secular state/ federation does not appear to complicate ambitions for ethnic and religious mobilisation. 

There is not a homogenous Christian community in Nigeria. Moreover, the Christians are not all in the South. Just about every Christian frame of reference – in the world- is represented in Nigeria. Many Christians retain their indigenous pre-colonial Africanist worldviews. So Christians do not speak with one voice. Muslims are not different at all. Just about every interpretation and practice of Islam is to be found in Nigeria. A majority would claim to be Sunnis. But amongst them one will find Sufis, Wahhabis, Salafis and Ahmadiyyas. The latter had to change their name because of problems that they faced in and outside Nigeria. Then of course one has Jama’at Izalatu Bid’at wa Iqamu Assunnah (Izala). Izala arose to put an end to what they call bid’at. The two principal and public bid’ats are the Mawlud celebrations of the Prophet and public zikr to remember the Prophet. Boko Haram takes issue with books (western), as haram. Thus western education, its institutions, its staff and its students became legitimate targets after the murder of Muhamed Yusuf the leader of Boko Haram. In the 1980s Muslims fought within “their communities” from Maitatsine in Kano to Billimkutu in Maiduguri. When elephants fight the grass gets damaged. Ordinary people died in this battle. Many Christians died. In Nigeria one has the fights between Muslims and Christians on a not too infrequent basis. Yet, Nigeria is also a place where Muslims and Christians are often members of the same extended family. It is like Iraq, where Sunnis and Shias are similarly related. In Nigeria, one often finds Muslims celebrating Christmas and Easter with their Christian friends and family. Christians would do the same for Ramadan, Eid, Mawlud and all other big days on the “Muslim” calendar. This is the Islam that Izala and Boko Haram seeks to undo. Geographic and cultural boundaries are blurred inside families and homes of ordinary Nigerians.

Zakzaky has not called for the fragmentation of Nigeria. He has never called for the use of violence although he has been the target of violence on multiple occasions. He has said a few things about Islamisation “when the conditions are right”. It is unclear when that could be. The material conditions of poverty, illiteracy and the presence of significant numbers of Christians make this an ambitious project to say the least. The same rhetorical Sunni-Shia battles in the rest of the Muslim world are being fought in northern Nigeria. Zakzaky and his followers have been the targets of Wahhabis, Salafis, Izala and Boko Haram. Zakzaky has a huge following in Nigeria. However, they are a small minority amongst almost 80 million Muslims. That following is even smaller in the context of the Federal State of Nigeria.

The Nigerian government looks at Zakzaky, through the same security lens that it views Biafra, the Niger Delta and Boko Haram. These have been troublesome for the federal government in Nigeria over the last few months. The government either over-reacted (if so why?) or it deliberately chose to come down hard on Zakzaky. There have been calls by Muslims in the north, for the government to deal with Zakzaky. The Nigerian state is one of the most incompetent and corrupt in the world. Zakzaky, his family and his followers are probably examples to those who continue to defy the elite (business and military) consensus of the purposes of the Nigerian state. This is a state that serves the national interest. The military and business elites constitute the national interest. 

For those who have seen the nation-state consequences of the involvement of Pakistan in the Afghan war and the break-up of the Iraqi and Libyan states should be careful about what is happening with Zakzaky. The Middle East is a mess and political nightmare. Yemen is living through hell. North Africa, East and Central Africa are war zones. Nigeria has 160 million people who could be destabilised more than they already are. Instability could spread across central Africa from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean. Around Nigeria are Benin to the west, Niger to the North, Chad and Cameroon to the East. At the time of the Biafra civil war, Harold Wilson said that he was prepared to accept a half-a-million Igbo deaths to have the Nigerian government teach the Biafrans a lesson in citizenship. It sounds like he handed the same copybook to Madame Albright - Secretary of State- when she spoke about the deaths of the Iraqi children. The words of Ikemba Nnewi for a “Nigeria for all Nigerians” are perhaps something that is to be worked for, despite the legitimacy crises of the Nigerian federal state. The alternative is too ghastly to contemplate.

In a Nigeria for all, Zakzaky, like every other Nigerian citizen, has the right to freedom of conscience, freedom of expression and freedom of association. The killing of his family, his followers and the destruction of his home, his place of worship and the grave of his mother just manifest that the Nigerian government has just lifted the bar that it has to meet, even higher. Samuel Beckett, sorry dear, we are not Waiting for Godot. We are waiting for Sheikh Zakzaky. The Nigerian state should either charge Zakzaky or release him. However, he has the right to legal representation whatever the state plans for him.