UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA - AFRICAN STUDIES CENTER
KADUNA, 31 May (IRIN) - The level of support for militant Islamic leader Ibrahim Zakzaky and his Muslim Brotherhood in northern Nigeria is anything but negligible if the amount of graffiti in the city of Kaduna demanding his freedom is any gauge.
It is his ability to organise a grassroots movement aimed at an Iranian-style Islamic revolution in Nigeria, a majority Muslim country, that led to a string of detentions ordered by successive military governments and endorsed by the conservative northern political and religious establishment, analysts say.
The graffiti daubed across walls in Kaduna are a little dated now. Zakzaky was released in December after his latest brush with the authorities, when the government dropped charges stemming from his proclamation: "There is no government except that of Islam". But his freedom has not brought the release of many of his disciples, nor has it tempered his rejection of secularism and his demand for an Islamic state in multi-denominational Nigeria.
It is not only his religious militancy that is cause for concern among the authorities. His message of social justice and an end to corruption is clearly targeted at the downtrodden and the youth, the bedrock of his support. His network also clearly extends beyond the north, the historical Islamic heartland, analysts say.
"He is highly relevant both as a religious and political leader," Fabian Okoye of the Human Rights Monitor, a civil liberties group told IRIN. "In the first place, his religious group poses a serious challenge to the establishment in the north. They believe the kind of society they have, sanctioned by mainstream religious leaders, is ungodly and repressive. They believe the system needs to be uprooted."
In person, the 46-year-old Zakzaky is a quietly-spoken man with an ironical sense of humour. When IRIN visited his home in the ancient city of Zaria, some 100 km north of Kaduna, he was fussing over the failure of his Internet connection which he used as an allegory for an allegedly dysfunctional Nigeria as a modern secular state.
"The system governing us does not see the reality - that Africans are religious. In Nigeria, we as Muslims feel that to belong to a country called Nigeria we should not keep our religion aside. We must have our beliefs respected," he said.
Zakzaky accepts that in Nigeria far from everyone is a Muslim or wants to be guided by Islamic precepts. "We agree," he said, "but at least the majority are, which means it is not entirely impossible."
He told IRIN that his movement had been labeled a security threat, "and to those in authority, yes we are. But I am not a security risk to the people of this country."
He added: "Our people think what we are doing is right. They think those in authority govern according to their whims and caprices and have lost confidence in them. Here, they see people who say things have to go according to divine guidance and are honest and will keep their word."
Okoye describes Zakzaky as a moderate, who has had to contend with a "lot of radical elements" thrown up by the movement during his seven stretches in detention, dating back to 1981. Zakzaky sees the possibility of positive change in Nigeria with the military's hand over to a democratically elected government. "One thing we hope is that however bad it might be, it will be better than the military."
Neither does he talk about a radical purging of society as an antidote to the corruption and human rights abuses which characterised the military's 15-year rule. "When people are pushed to the wall, they reply violently. The Generals have been pushing us, but we are not at the wall yet. The Generals may be spared, and die in peace in their beds," he said.
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Copyright (c) UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs 1999
Editor: Ali B. Ali-Dinar
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