SHEIKH Ibrahim El-Zakzaky, the leader of the Islamic movement in Nigeria, otherwise known as the Shiite, is facing a crisis that would try the strongest of men. In the last clash in Zaria, Kaduna State, between his followers and members of the Nigerian Army on the entourage of the Chief of Army Staff, scores of his followers were reportedly killed. One of the casualties was said to be his son. In an earlier encounter, he had lost three sons. In this latest one, he had lost his freedom, his Shiites enclave in Zaria and his movement is facing an uncertain future.
El-Zakzaky’s movement represents a toe-hold in Nigeria for the Shiites, a radical faction of Islam whose major adherents are in the Islamic Republic of Iran. While the battle with the military was underway, El-Zakzaky was said to have gotten in touch with the authorities in Teheran, the capital of Iran, informing them that the Shiites were facing a fierce battle, defending their enclave against an “unprovoked assault” by the Nigerian military. In the end, the army prevailed. The sheikh, along with many of his leading lieutenants, was hauled into custody. The debate is still on whether a country that is yet to completely douse the fire of the Boko Haram insurgency can afford the showdown in Zaria.
The Shiites, despite their romance with violence and occasional lawlessness, is not a terrorist group. El-Zakzaky was born in Zaria, May 5, 1953 and had most of his education in that city, including a degree from the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, where he graduated in 1979. That was the era of great upheavals in Iran when the Ayatollah Khomeini led the Islamic revolution that toppled the regime of Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran. Khomeini set up what soon became known as the Islamic Republic of Iran, a modern theocracy that was prepared to stoke the fire of international disputes and advance the cause the Shiite brand of Islam world-wide. It also sought to champion the cause of the Palestinians in their struggle against the Jewish state of Israel. It opposed the United States, Israel main international backer, and challenged the orthodoxy of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States and their cozy relationship with the West.
It was in this period of ferment that El-Zakzaky became enamored by the revolution in Iran. In his student days, he was deeply involved with the Muslim Students Society of Nigeria, MSSN, and became its international vice-president. After leaving university, he was invited to Iran along with some other radical former students. It was while there, that he drank the wine of fundamental Shiite doctrines.
The Shiites are the followers of Caliph Alli, the fourth Caliph in Islam after the transition of Holy Prophet Mohammed. Alli was a nephew as well as the son-in-law of the Prophet. He was not allowed to succeed the Holy Prophet immediately, but he persisted in laying claim to the leadership until he succeeded at the fourth attempt. He was later assassinated.
His followers believed his martyrdom was a turning point for Islam. They refused to accept the leadership of the other major Islamic movement, the Sunnis. In recent years, this old division has led to violent clashes in many countries especially in Iran and Iraq. The Shiites have also organised demonstrations in Mecca where they protested against the Saudi government management of the holy shrines of Islam. El-Zakzaky has followed the path of Iran into the Shiites movement, creating a new path in Nigeria where the Sunnis are dominant. His movement has challenged the orthodoxy of the Sunni Moslems, querying the authorities of the Sultan and emirate system in the North. Most of the time, the Sunni majority have chosen to ignore him.
However, in barely two years, El-Zakzaky has lost four of his five sons in clashes with the police and the military. These clashes have occurred not because of any doctrinaire differences or fundamental issues but simply because the Shiites would brood no higher authorities other than their charismatic Sheikh. In these clashes, the Shiites have been poorly armed so far. In truth therefore, El-Zakzaky may have an army of followers, but he does not appear to have an army of fighters despite their incendiary rhetoric and inflamed passion.
There must be something fundamentally attractive about a man who could inspire young men and women to confront the awesome power of the state with bare hands over an issue as trite as allowing a motorcade to pass through a federal highway. This should be a thing of concern for the authorities for the Shiite leader could easily become a free agent of violence. We have seen how a similar circumstance in the North East morphed into the Boko Haram insurgency with its gory dimension of global terrorism. More important, El-Zakzaky needs to be engaged by the authorities so that he may be persuaded to appreciate the omnipresence of the Nigerian state within its own borders. After all, he is a man of the world who speaks at least seven languages, including Hausa, Arabic and Persian, and carries the Nigerian passport on his frequent international travels. He should be made to know that no one, no matter his belief, or followership, would be allowed to operate a state within the Nigerian state.
However, beyond the engagement of the Shiite leadership is the necessity for the authorities to create a comprehensive agenda to tackle insipient religious violence. The main weapon of the Nigerian state against religious free agents and adventurers is its capacity to educate her people. Yes, the President and Commander-in-Chief may order our troops into battle against agents of terror. But in the long run, it is mass quality education that would save our land from the scourge of homegrown and international terrorism. We have seen that in stable states, including Iran where the Shiites have their primary roots, terrorism is rare because the people are educated and the power of the state is pervasive.
Because of mass education, countries like Malaysia and Indonesia are hardly perceived as nations dominated by Muslims unlike Muslims in the Arab world who are affected by the age old struggle between the Israelis and the Palestinians. The bitterness of this age old conflict has become the oxygen of international terrorism. The United States, which is supporting Israel, is portrayed as a Christian country, (America is a secular state) though there are more than three million Muslims in America and the Jews, who dominate Israel, are not Christians. Therefore, to make matter simpler, some Arab radicals and their supporters prefer to interpret the conflict between the Jews and the Palestinians as a conflict between Christians and Muslims.
It is this reckless interpretation that has caused a lot of conflicts far from the Middle-East. This is also what has caused problems for Nigeria which before the 1980s used to have a long history of religious tolerance. In the end, therefore, our weapon against Boko Haram and other free agents of terror is education. President Buhari is on point to have allocated the lion’s share of the N6.08 trillion 2016 budget to education. Education is our main weapon against terror. It should be noted that the North-East is the least educationally developed region of Nigeria. Because of mass ignorance and poverty, the area has become a fertile ground for the germination of sordid ideologies and wild radical Islamic Pentecostalism.
In using education as a weapon of the long run, the Federal Government should focus on two main areas. One is curriculum. We need to develop a proper curriculum that would fire the desire of the youth to acquire knowledge. How can a child in Nigeria lay claim to a secondary education without coming across cultural giants like Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka? How can you have a secondary school education without having ever read a newspaper in your life? Today, there are many secondary schools in Nigeria that have no access to any daily newspapers or periodicals. Yet, this was not the situation 40 years ago in this country. In the 70s and 80s, every secondary school library in Nigeria had access to newspapers and magazines. Not so today. Now we have more schools but less access to education. How sad!
Another area is the retraining of teachers. Many teachers never get the opportunity for retraining from the time they are employed to their retirement. Dr Kayode Fayemi, as governor of Ekiti State, tried to do something about this with controversial consequences because of misunderstanding and outright hostilities of teachers. Governor Adams Oshiomhole tried it in Edo briefly, but then beat a hasty retreat. The Federal Government needs to revisit this and find a way to recoup our teachers with fresher and wider knowledge. The dynamics and circumstances of education have changed and we cannot allow our teachers to be so poorly equipped. Only greater investments in the right education can ultimately break the circles of misguided charismatic leaders sending our youths to face needless death in the wrong battles and for the wrong reasons.
*Dare Babarinsa (columnists)