Nigeria: Police Clash with Shiite Protesters, Resulting in at Least One Dead

Hundreds of Shiites demonstrate in Abuja, on July 10, 2019, to demand the release of the leader of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN) Sheikh Ibrahim Zakzaky, a day after clashes with police left several protesters dead. (Photo by Kola SULAIMON / AFP) (Photo by KOLA SULAIMON/AFP via Getty Images)
KOLA SULAIMON/AFP via Getty Images, File

At least one person was killed on Tuesday during clashes between police and members of a rebel Shiite group called Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) in Abuja, Nigeria.

IMN members were gathered in the national capital to demand that Nigerian authorities release their spiritual leader, Sheikh Ibrahim Zakzaky, from prison.

“During the protest, the police were said to have fired shots and teargas canisters to disperse the Shiites and in the process, one of them was hit by a bullet,” Nigeria’s Punch newspaper reported on January 26.

The protester was allegedly shot in the chest and is believed to have “died instantly” from his wounds, according to the Nigerian newspaper This Day.

“[A]rmed policemen fired several canisters of pepper spray and live bullets at the Shiite procession near Transcorp Hilton Hotel junction in Abuja,” This Day reported. “The situation degenerated and led to many pedestrians taking to their heels to avoid being struck by projectiles hauled by the Shiite members as well as live bullets fired by the policemen.”

A leader of IMN named Abdullahi Mohammed told Punch on Tuesday that “many people were injured” during Tuesday’s protest. The newspaper said it reached out to Abuja police to inquire about the incident but did not receive a response as of press time Tuesday.

Members of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria regularly take to Abuja’s streets to demand that the Nigerian government release Zakzaky, who has been imprisoned since 2015.

Nigeria is a majority Sunni country ruled by a Sunni-led government that views IMN and its founder, Zakzaky, as a threat to state power. The Nigerian government accused Zakzaky of “colluding with Iran to plot a revolution and forcefully turn the country into an Islamic Shiite state,” at the Federal High Court in Abuja in late August 2019. A Nigerian court one month earlier ruled that certain actions by the IMN amounted to “acts of terrorism and illegality” and ordered the federal government to officially ban the Shiite group.

“Clashes between police and Zakzaky’s backers have raised fears that the IMN might turn to violent insurgency as did Sunni Islamist group Boko Haram after police killed their leader in 2009,” Reuters recalled in July 2019 shortly after tensions between police and IMN members in the national capital.

IMN members gathered in Abuja on July 22, 2019, to demand Zakzaky’s release. The protest turned violent, resulting in the deaths of a journalist and a senior police officer in the capital.

“As many as 10 more people may have died in the violence,” a spokesman for IMN told Reuters at the time.

Tuesday’s IMN protest in Abuja reportedly included a demand for Zakzaky’s wife, who is also imprisoned, to be released along with him. IMN spokesman Ibrahim Musa claimed on January 22 that Zakzaky’s wife, Malama Zeenah Ibrahim, recently contracted the Chinese coronavirus while in prison. He argued that Zeenah’s alleged underlying health conditions make her especially vulnerable to the virus and thus she must be released for medical treatment.

“Sheikh Zakzaky himself suffers from many underlying conditions which put him at high risk of developing life-threatening symptoms should he contract the virus,” Musa added.

“[W]e believe Sheikh Zakzaky and his wife should not be in custody in the first place,” the IMN spokesman said. “A competent court in Abuja freed both of them on 2nd December 2016 but the federal government contemptuously refused to obey the judgement of the court.”

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