Situated along Africa’s western coast, Nigeria is the most populous country on the continent with a rapidly-growing economy. However, its diversity – particularly its religious diversity – has been the source of recent tension. Nearly half of Nigerians are Islamic, with most of the country’s Muslims in the northern portions of Nigeria. Many have fallen under the sway of the extremely conservative strain of Sunni Islam favored by the organization Boko Haram, infamous for kidnapping nearly 300 schoolgirls in April 2014.
This tension took new life a couple of weeks ago, when allegations spread that the Nigerian military had targeted and massacred Shiite Muslims in the northern towns of Zaria and Kaduna.
The reports would signal a pivotal shift in the religious tensions in Nigeria. However, there are conflicting stories about what actually happened.
Shiite Reports of the Massacre
According to Shiite groups, the Nigerian military launched a tactical campaign in Zaria designed to neutralize Ibrahim Zakzaky, an influential Shiite Muslim cleric responsible for introducing Shia Islam to Nigeria in the 1980s. Still a powerful figure in religion and politics, he is the current head of the religious organization Nigeria’s Islamic Movement. According to the Shiite reports, the attack began on Saturday, December 12, and lasted until Monday, December 14, killing between 200 and 1,000 people. Among the dead were three of Zakzaky’s sons. Zakzaky himself was wounded, arrested, and his home was destroyed.
Then, the day after the attacks, a peaceful protest of Shia Muslims assembled in the nearby town of Kaduna, calling for the release of Zakzaky. They were disbursed when police opened fire. Several more were killed, and another six were captured and tortured to death.
The Military’s Reports of Unprovoked Raids
The Nigerian military, however, has another story. According to them, a convoy that included Nigeria’s army chief, General Tukur Buratai, was blockaded and attacked in Zaria by several hundred Shiites in an assassination attempt. The military then moved on to Zakzaky’s compound after hearing that more Shia Muslims were mobilizing there. The deaths at the protest in Kaduna happened when Shiites stormed a police station. The officers defended themselves, firing tear gas into the crowd. The military maintained that no one was hurt by the defensive response.
Witnesses corroborated the government’s version of the events.
Human Rights Organizations Weigh In
Human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, proclaimed the need for an investigation and for bringing those responsible to justice. The Human Rights Watch later issued a report which, based on the interviews with 16 witnesses, 5 other sources, and video taken during the attack, declaimed the military’s actions: “At best it was a brutal overreaction and at worst it was a planned attack on the minority Shia group.”
If the worst is true, and the military was in fact singling out Shiite Muslims, it would mean a huge change in the Nigerian government’s official stance towards religion. The relationship between the church and state in Nigeria has always been a complex and amorphous one. If the government of Nigeria were to take an increasingly religious tone, it could have serious implications. This is especially true in light of new developments in the religious conflicts of the Middle East, between Sunni-dominated countries like Saudi Arabia, and Shiite-dominated countries like Iran.
What We Can Do
Human rights issues in African nations have notoriously been overlooked by mainstream media. As a result, they tend to get less coverage and attention than they deserve. News outlets like CNN or NBC, however, are private companies in need of web traffic and viewership to generate revenue.
By making a point to watch and read reports and articles concerning the Nigerian military’s actions, we can push news outlets to continue their investigations and reporting what they find. If they realize that the situation is garnering enough interest, news outlets will continue to send reporters and spend time and money to keep up with the situation as it develops. If journalists paid more attention to the situation, more facts would come to light, and it would become clearer what, exactly, happened.
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