Sunni-Shia tensions in Nigeria

Shi’a Islam was almost unknown in Nigeria until the early 1980s when Muslim radical Ibrahim Zakzaky, fired by the Iranian revolution, campaigned for an Islamic government and stricter adherence to sharia, or Islamic law.

For many youths in the poor, predominantly Muslim north, joining Zakzaky’s movement was an act of rebellion against a disappointing political and religious establishment.

Zakzaky’s personal religion is an eclectic blend of Sunni and Shi’ite ideas but many of his followers have come to identify themselves as Shi’ites.

For Sunnis in Sokoto, these followers present a threat to their own religious hierarchy.


Africa’s most populous country is plagued by frequent outbreaks of violence because of a volatile mix of ethnic diversity, religious rivalry and byzantine politics.

Fighting between ethnic and religious groups has killed thousands in a country split between a mainly Muslim north and a predominantly Christian south.

This complex mix is also apparent in Sokoto, where the Sunni-Shi’ite divide is more than just religious.

The Sultan of Sokoto is the heir of Usman Dan Fodio, a scholar and warrior who launched a jihad from Sokoto in the early 19th century, uniting large swathes of what is now northern Nigeria under the banner of Islam and invigorating the religion in West Africa.

Some Shi’ites say the modern Sultanate and political authorities in Sokoto have deviated from Dan Fodio’s path.

“The government feels threatened by us because we recognise no other authority than that of Allah. That is why they support the Sunnis,” said activist Malami Muhammad Alkanci, 28.



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