Soldiers on Sunday arrested leader of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria, Sheik Ibrahim El-Zaky-Zaky, and killed his deputy and chief spokesman in raids on his house and other buildings.
It comes a day after at least 20 were shot dead in a clash in the northern city of Zaria in Kaduna State. Among the dead were El-Zaky-Zaky’s wife, Zeenat, and son, Aliy.
The spate of violence began on Saturday when members of the Shiite Muslim sect tried to block a convoy carrying Chief of Army Staff, Lt. Gen. Tukur Buratai, to a swearing-in ceremony for army recruits in Zaria, witnesses said.
The confrontation occurred as members of the sect were conducting their annual “Changing of Flags” ritual to usher in the month of Maulud, the birth month of the Prophet Mohammed at their headquarters in Zaria.
On Sunday, Kaduna State Police Commissioner, Shehu Umar, said El-Zaky-Zaky had been arrested by the military in an early-morning raid on his home, but declined to give details.
In the course of the raids, El-Zaky-Zaky’s deputy, Muhammad Turi, who is normally based in Kano, was killed as was the sect spokesman, Ibrahim Usman, at their leader’s house, group members said.
Usman had shortly old Reuters by phone that he was on his way to El-Zaky-Zaky’s residence.
On Saturday, Usman had said at least seven people were killed in the clash over the convoy but the army had carted the bodies away. A sect statement on Sunday said that “tens of other members” had been killed and named seven people, including Turi.
Zaria residents said that they heard loud blasts on Sunday morning.
“We are hearing loud bangs and thick smoke from our houses,” said nearby resident Saminu Jalil.
A spokesman for the army, Colonel Sani Usman, accused sect members of trying to assassinate Buratai on Saturday and said that soldiers were forced to shoot in defence when sect members refused to move out of the convoy’s way and became violent.
“The sect, numbering hundreds and carrying dangerous weapons, barricaded the roads with bonfires, heavy stones and tyres. They refused all entreaties to disperse and then started firing and pelting the convoy with dangerous objects,” the Army spokesman said.
El-Zaky-Zaky denied the accusations before his arrest.
“We learnt that (Buratai) was visiting…newly graduated recruits and that coincided with our day of Changing of Flags, which we do annually. We had no intention of doing anything as claimed by the soldiers,” he said following the incident.
Most of Nigeria’s tens of millions of Muslims are Sunni, including the Boko Haram jihadist militant group that has killed thousands of people in bombings and shootings mainly in the northeast of Africa’s biggest energy producer since 2009.
But there are also several thousand Shiites, mostly followers of El-Zaky-Zaky, whose movement was inspired by the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Shiite Iran.
El-Zaky-Zaky’s followers are generally viewed as peaceful but a similar altercation between the sect and the army occurred last year during a procession. The cleric said that 30 followers and three of his children were killed.
At the end of November, a suicide bomber killed at least 20 members of the Shiite group during its annual procession from Kano to Zaria to pay homage to El-Zaky-Zaky.
Boko Haram later claimed responsibility for the attack on the Shiite procession.