Nigeria can’t deal with one Islamist insurgency, and now it’s got to deal with a second one

Nigeria is struggling to deal with Boko Haram, the jihadi insurgent organization that was the world’s deadliest terror group in 2014 and hasn’t really let up this year. President Muhammadu Buhari’s plans to have defeated Boko Haram by the end of the year are totally kaput, the multi-national coalition that was supposed to contain and eventually destroy the BH hasn’t actually been formed, and though BH is losing territory, it’s clearly not losing its ability to kill a lot of people. Oh, and the Nigerian government also has to worry about its own Fulani insurgents, at a time when Fulani extremism is getting increased attention in general.

Map of Nigeria’s largest cities (via); Zaria is in the north-central part of the country, and you can see how far removed it is from Boko Haram’s home in Maiduguri (in the northeast)

So the last thing Buhari and his military need is another organized Islamist insurgency to deal with, and yet that’s exactly what the Nigerian army may have just helped birth. Between Saturday and Tuesday, hundreds of Shiʿa were reportedly killed by the Nigerian army near the northern city of Zaria. Many of the victims belong to something called “the Islamic Movement of Nigeria” (let’s go with IMN), and they were attacked by the army during a protest on Saturday. During the course of that protest, IMN members blocked a convoy carrying Lt. General Tukur Yusuf Buratai, the chief of staff for the Nigerian army, and there was concern that Burati’s life was in danger. So the army, either in response to this threat, or maybe because it’s been looking for an excuse to go after the IMN (hey, why not both?), opened fire on the protesters and then spent the next ~3 days killing Shiʿa in and around Zaria.

IMN has been around since the 1980s, when a Shiʿa cleric named Ibrahim Zakzaky sought to bring the principles of the Iranian Revolution to Nigeria, whose Muslim community theretofore had been almost entirely Sunni (Sunnis are still the vast majority of Nigeria’s Muslims). It’s an armed group, though it’s one that hasn’t opted for violence against the state or people of Nigeria in the three decades of its existence. But Zakzaky was wounded in the fighting (reportedly seriously, though it’s unknown exactly how badly) and his wife and son were killed, and you have to wonder if he will now either be replaced by a more violence-minded figure or be more inclined to go to war with the state to avenge his family. A 2009 Nigerian army attack on a similarly armed-but-not-really-violent Islamist group in Maiduguri, after which the leader of that group was arrested and then killed in custody, led that group–Boko Haram, in case it wasn’t obvious–to turn ultra-violent.

Buhari sent a delegation to Zaria to try to calm things down, but the demands–from human rights groups, from the international community (American and Iran!), and from inside Nigeria–for an investigation are already loud and will only keep getting louder. If Buhari hopes to avoid another full-blown insurgency in the north of Nigeria, at a time when it’s all his army can seemingly do to cope with the one insurgency they’re already facing, then he would be wise to quickly undertake a very transparent inquiry into exactly what happened in Zaria over the weekend.

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