The North, Shiites and quest for tolerance

TODAY in Northern Nigeria, we live in critically challenging times, with our cultural harmony rapidly disappearing and our political unity fast disintegrating, leaving social and political vacuums that are now hotly contested by two mutually-rejecting, nihilistic tendencies, each equally vicious and destructive. One does not require a genius to conclude that our society is dangerously tethering on the edge of the precipice, heading inexorably towards a disaster. Our culture, our history, and our civilisation are under threat. The way we handle those existential challenges today determines how posterity will treat us tomorrow.

This piece is conceived in fear and borne out of desperation. Fear over the North’s steady descent into a sectarian abyss, and the desperation to arrest this slide before it is too late, before we are all consumed by it. Therefore, in diagnosing our problems and proffering solutions, I do not intend to surrender ourselves to the self-imposed tyranny of political correctness that often characterise discussions such as this.

The recent sectarian mob violence targeted against the Northern Shia minority should enrage any believer in justice and freedom. That appalling display of lawlessness and barbarism must be unreservedly condemned by everyone. It is bereft of any legal, moral or social justification. Those angry mobs who cheerfully lynched their fellow citizens and torched and looted their properties have desecrated the very religion (or values) they are claiming to protect, and the clerics who silently or loudly abetted such travesty have betrayed their calling as men of peace.

It is beyond the scope of this piece to trace the historical root of the Sunni-Shia antagonism in Nigeria, but the Shia-military clashes of 2014, which led to the death of Zakzaky’s three children, is a watershed in the timelines of events that led us to where we are today.

That tragic encounter set the stage for a more tragic one the year after, which saw hundreds of Nigerians perish, and billions worth of properties damaged, further deteriorating the already fragile sectarian stability and bringing our peoples closer to sectarian civil war.

I do not intend to make light of the Shiite’s crimes and transgressions, both real and imagined. Granted, therefore, that the Shiites stand guilty of sectarian incitement, provocation, road blockage and wanton disregard for law and order, but no Nigerian sect or party can claim innocence on all those charges, and under our laws and norms, none of those crimes carries the price of a death penalty. Human life, according to all secular and religious conventions, is sacred, and no one has the right to take any life without recourse to law, to judicial due process, except in cases of obvious self-defense.

But in Nigeria, putting the sacred tag on each soul does not prevent the next Shiites from being lynched in our streets, or the next petty thief from being lynched in our markets. Extra-judicial killings have become a Nigerian hobby, and our failure to do anything qualifies as acquiescence, as an indictment on our collective humanity and pretend religiosity.

More disheartening, however, is the tendency of Nigerians to view crimes through partisan and sectarian prisms. The Shia clashes of 2014 and 2015 are two cases in points. Our partisan social media commentators found it politic to describe the tragic Shia conflicts of 2014 as a massacre of defenseless Shiites by the army, but the more tragic one of 2015 as a Shia provocation against the Nigerian army. To them, justice and fairness is directly proportional to the prevailing political reality and not facts on the ground. And therefore, those who condemned the tragedy of 2014 become the staunch legitimisers of the travesty of 2015. Nothing can be more absurd!

If the political partisans are guilty of reducing human life to a political commodity based on defined exigencies, the sectarian partisans are even worse, for they not only legitimise the violence against the Shia minority, they also equate every sympathy for the victims and any criticism against the perpetrators to a sin resembling apostasy. In doing that, they succeed in silencing every dissenting voice for justice and fairness and provide a veneer of popular support to their acts of treacherous inhumanity. Many have tried to strike a balance between condemning the Shiites and the actions of the military by drawing an imaginary ethical equivalence between alleged lawbreakers (the Shiites) and constitutionally mandated law-enforcers (the security agencies). But there is no moral equivalence nor ethical symmetry. There is only one denominator here, which is that of Nigerian lives being wantonly wasted without any recourse to judicial process or the rule of law, and that a sizeable majority of Nigerians are either happy or indifferent. And the fact that such violence finds support among educated Northerners speak volumes about our appalling bigotry and intolerance.

This culture of hate, intolerance and inter-sectarian suspicions bodes ill for interfaith and intrafaith relationships. As Sunnis, our children are taught to hate the Shiite-other, and Shiites are taught to hate the Sunni-other. Those indoctrinations subliminally paint the other as violent, conspiratorial and demagogic, and, therefore, incapable of peaceful co-existence and undeserving of our respect, tolerance, and understanding. By doing this, we forget or negate one of the basic principles of our own faith where diversity is seeing as a manifest of a divine design and guidance as a function of divine will.

Therefore, we must all rise up against this sectarian challenge. We must dismantle all barriers to dialogue and eliminate all those factors that promote sectarian tension and radicalisation, especially for our youths. De-radicalisation, like charity, must begin at home, with the very clerics whom their respective sectarian adherents look up to for guidance and inspiration.


  • Tilde is a public affairs analyst.