Shi'ism in Nigeria

Shi’ism is one of two main sectarian branches in Islam (the other is Sunni Islam), and reflects significant doctrinal, cultural, and political differences. Nigeria has a small but growing Shi’a population of roughly 4 million. In addition to a significant Lebanese expatriate community that has been present since the 19th century, there are Isma’ili Shi’is in Nigeria and, increasingly, individuals who pursue a more militant strain of Shi’ism under the leadership of Ibrahim al-Zakzaky (b. 1953) and the Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN), which has been active since the 1980s. Zakzaky participated in northern Nigerian protest movements in the 1970s during his time as an economics student at Ahmadu Bello University, from which he was expelled for his anti-government political activities in 1979.

Originally a Sunni, Ibrahim al-Zakzaky was inspired by the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran and called for a similar overthrow of the Nigerian government and complete institution of Islamic law. He identified himself as a Shi’a Muslim in one of his many popular cassette sermons that circulated around northern Nigeria in the 1980s and 1990s. He was imprisoned numerous times throughout this period for his seditious speech and calls to revolution. The IMN was responsible for violence in Katsina in the 1990s, encouraged by Zakzaky, and has recently been implicated in running militant training camps that have been linked to Lebanon’s Hezbollah and to Iran. Zakzaky remains an outspoken critic of northern Nigeria’s political elite, and continues to push for a more thorough adoption of Islamic legal principles and systems.


Toyin Falola, ”Violence and Conflict in the 1990s,” Readings in African Politics, ed. Tom Young (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003), pp. 68-79.

Dawit Giorgis, “Nigeria’s Hezbollah Problem,” CNN, June 14, 2013, accessed September 11, 2013.

Pew Research Center, “Mapping the Global Muslim Population,” Pew Research Center’s Religion and Public Life Project, October 7, 2009, accessed September 11, 2013.

See also: Nigeria, Islam