Announcing a government ban on the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN), presidential spokesman Garba Shehu accused the Shiite Muslim group of running “terrorist activities, including attacking soldiers, killing policemen, destroying public property and consistently defying state authority.”

Read more: Nigerian military, Shiite protesters clash over imprisoned cleric 

IMN followers have been holding protests to demand the release of their detained leader, Ibrahim Zakzaky. At least 20 members of the group were killed over the past week in a series of protests that have shown little sign of abating, raising pressure on the government.

Zakzaky, a pro-Iranian cleric, has been in detention since 2015 despite a court order to release him. On Monday, a court adjourned his bail hearing until August 5.

Ibrahim Musa, a spokesman for IMN, has denied the government accusations. “All the people we interacted with know that we are not terrorists, because we don’t carry arms even during our processions,” he said.

Nigeria women demonstrate for the freedom of Ibrahim Zakzaky (picture alliance/AP Photo/M. Giginyu)

Nigeria’s Shiite Muslim population is estimated at 3 million

Who are the IMN?

Zakzaky founded the organization — originally a student movement inspired by Iran’s Islamic revolution — in the late 1970s. The Nigerian cleric convinced fellow students that an Islamic revolution was also possible in their country. The group’s first reported march in 1980 was in support of Iran after a joint US-Canadian operation to save US diplomats trapped in Tehran in 1979.

The number of Shiites in Nigeria is estimated at 3 million, a number big enough to scare the central government.

In recent years, the country has seen frequent clashes between security forces and IMN followers during protests and religious processions. Apart from demanding Zakzaky’s release, the Shiite group has claimed it only seeks freedom to practice its faith in northern Nigeria, where it has many followers.

The group’s Shiite ideology is in opposition to the establishment ideology, Wahabism, a strict Sunni version of Islam from Saudi Arabia.

Watch video 03:56

Nigerian army cracks down on Shiite protesters

Ban on Shiite religious practice?

IMN followers say they are being persecuted by the country’s majority Sunni Muslims. But the government has said the ban does not cover the general Shiite Muslim sect, but just its founding organization, IMN.

“We all know this a mere semantic,” AG Bello, lawyer based in the northern town of Kaduna, told DW. “The followership of IMN is the Shiite sect. It’s still technically the Shiite and their activities that have been proscribed by the federal government.” 

Many Nigerians DW spoke with in Kaduna interpreted the government proscription as a blanket ban on Shiite Muslim practice in Nigeria. “We have been practicing our faith for years, so there is no need for banning us, we are not terrorists,” said Zainab Gashua.

Another woman, Zainab Katsina, told DW: “It is mischievous for anyone to believe we are terrorists. We are not terrorists; we are just an Islamic movement.”

Boko Haram deja vu

Monday’s ban has raised fears the IMN could go underground, providing a potentially serious security challenge for a government already dealing with the threat posed by Muslim militant group Boko Haram in the country’s northeast. Civil society has called on the central government not to repeat its past mistakes.

A Shiite Muslim march (A. Abubakar/AFP/Getty Images)

Nigeria’s Muslims are mainly Sunnites; there was no real voice for the Shiite minority until Zakzaky founded the IMN

But the movement itself has denied any plans to take up arms. IMN spokesman Musa has said he rejects analogies between his movement and Boko Haram: “The Islamic movement is guided by and led by the principles of Islam, and Islam is a religion of peace. It only calls on people to understand it, it doesn’t force people to follow it,” he said.

Read more: Nigerian army accused of mass killing of Shiites

Boko Haram also began as a non-violent group that turned deadly after its leader, Mohammed Yusuf, and more than 700 people were killed in a clash with Nigerian forces at Maiduguri’s central mosque in 2009. Ibrahim Gwamna Msheliza, a political analyst from Maiduguri, says the central authorities have learned nothing from what happened in the northeast.

“Instead of listening to these people and trying to address their problems, [they] come up and start shooting people,” he told DW, adding that radicalizing the group will only lead to more violence.

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