Shi’a Muslim Leader in Nigeria

Ibraheem Yaqoub El-Zakzaky is a Nigerian religious leader. A prominent Shi’a Muslim leader in Nigeria, he was repeatedly imprisoned for his fight against injustice and the rampant corruption in his country. He maintains that only Islam can provide solutions to the complex socio-political problems which have hampered the nation’s developmental plans over the years. In a lecture he delivered to mark the occasion of Sheikh Uthman Bn Fodio Week in May 2023, organized by the Academic Forum of the Islamic Movement, Zakzaky disclosed that he is continuing the Jihad of Uthman Bn Fodio to ensure that Islam becomes the dominant religion not only in Nigeria but throughout West Africa. In a lecture given on the same occasion in Sokoto on 20th May 2023, one of his proponents, Dr. Nasir Hashim, emphasized that Zakzaky’s vision, not the colonial legacy of oppression and exploitation, remains the only hope for Africa.

Sheikh Zakzaky is the leader of Nigeria’s Islamic Movement, which he founded in the late 1970s while he was a student at Ahmadu Bello University. He began promoting Shia Islam around 1979, during the Iranian revolution, which resulted in the overthrow of Iran’s monarchy and its replacement with an Islamic republic under Ayatollah Khomeini. Zakzaky believed that establishing a similar republic in Nigeria was achievable. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, he was detained multiple times due to allegations of civil disobedience under various military regimes in Nigeria. He remains a figure of suspicion for Nigerian authorities. In December 2015, the Nigerian Army raided his residence in Zaria, severely injuring him and killing many of his followers. Since that event, he has been under state detention in the capital, even after a release order was issued in 2016. In 2019, a Kaduna state court granted him and his wife bail for medical treatment abroad, but they returned from India after just three days, citing unfair treatment and harsh restrictions by the security personnel at the medical facility.

Recently, the Kaduna state higher court ordered his immediate release after 2,055 days—nearly six years—of illegal detention. However, the DSS has withheld his travel documents required for medical treatment.

Ibraheem Zakzaky was born on 5 May 1953 in Zaria, Kaduna State. His education journey took him through the Provincial Arabic School, Zaria, from 1969-1970, the School for Arabic Studies, Kano from 1971-1976, and then to Ahmadu Bello University (ABU), Zaria, from 1976-1979. Though he achieved a first-class bachelor’s degree in Economics from ABU, it was denied due to his active participation in Islamic activities. During his time at the university, he held significant roles within the Muslim Students Society of Nigeria (MSSN). In 1979, influenced by the Iranian Revolution, he travelled to Iran and eventually embraced Shia Islam. Upon his return, he assumed leadership of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria, using it as a platform to evangelize and amass followers during the 1990s. As a result of his efforts, a considerable number of Nigerians converted to Shia Islam.

Today, Ibraheem Zakzaky stands as the primary figure and spiritual leader of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria, the continent’s most distinguished Shi’a Muslim movement. In a country of 180 million, where roughly 50 percent identify as Muslim, only a small minority are Shi’a. Nnamdi Obasi, a Senior Analyst on Nigeria at the International Crisis Group (ICG), states that the IMN’s objectives are twofold: to advocate for a more rigorous application of Islamic legal and administrative systems and to ultimately establish an Islamic state in Nigeria. Dr Iqbal Siddiqui recognizes El-Zakzaky as “the de facto leader of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria.”


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