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Surviving Amidst Opposition: The Story of Minority Sects in Nigeria

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By Justice Nwafor
Nigeria has a complex religious landscape with a mix of Christians, Muslims, and adherents of other religions. Muslims make up 50 per cent of the nation’s population of over 200 million, with a concentration in the north and a spread out presence in the southwest. Christians, on the other hand, make up about 48 per cent of the population, while adherents of other religions make up the remaining two per cent, according to the Pew Research Center.
But among the adherents of these religions are small groups and sects that, over time, have had reasons to feel neglected and persecuted. 
When Christiana Abiodun Emanuel decided to split from the sacred order of the Cherubim and Seraphin in 1929, she had clear visions. She would go ahead and establish the Cherubim and Seraphim Society, which she would have full control over. Four years earlier, she was revived from a long trance by Moses Orimolade Tunolase, who was getting really popular at the time because of his healing prowess. After she was fully recovered, the two teamed up to spread the message they said they had received from God. Christiana’s decision to split was hinged on the inability of Tunolase to recognize her as a co-founder of the church. To date, Christiana’s sect still suffers some form of opposition from Tunolase’s.
Discrimination among Christians
Discrimination among Christians is one issue that has been debated rigorously.
A vast majority of Christians—Catholics, modern-day Pentecostalists, and others—view other Christians, like the adherents of the teachings of the eternal sacred orders of the Cherubim and Seraphim as well as the Cherubim and Seraphim Society, as not practising Christianity as it ought to be but indulging in spiritualism. Some people assert that the Cherubim and Seraphim Society is an example of how Christianity and African traditional religion have been blended together.
Some of the contentious aspects of their practices they cite include situating their worship centres close to water bodies, praying with candles of various colours, bells and fresh palm fronds, going to rivers to pray, and walking bare-footed while wearing their uniform white apparel. 
However, the adherents always connect their practices to the Bible and claim that the reason for their strong preference for water and oil is that they think water has some sort of healing power because of the force of baptism and the presence of the spirit of God in it. 
David Igumbor, a Christian religious scholar and convener of the annual Youth for Christ Summit in Delta State, said adherence to religious sects both in Christianity and beyond is hinged on the desire of humans to seek both knowledge and solutions to their problems. 
“People don’t care; they seek answers to their problems, and they can move from one sect to the next looking for such answers,” he said. “They want a place where they will be told what their problems are and given solutions. That’s why they belong to sects and persecuting or discriminating against them because of their choices does not make sense.”
Guru Maharaj Ji
Guru Maharaj Ji is not a new name in Nigeria’s religious landscape. Born Mohammed Ajirobatan Ibrahim, Ji is one religious leader Christians in Nigeria do not regard as one. His devotees refer to him as the Living Perfect Master and have also controversially called him the Black Jesus. His religious organization, called the One Love Family, has devotees across the country. 
One Love Family, the One Love Mission, One Love, One Family, and the Divine Love Family are some of the names of the communitarian organization led by Maharaj Ji. Near Ibadan, the organization has its headquarters, which it calls an ashram or “Satguru Maharaj Ji Village” on a desolate section of the Ibadan-Lagos Expressway. Its members are vegetarians and wear badges as signs of their loyalty.  Ji prides himself as having the ability to solve any problem in the world.
Guru Maharaj Ji
The spiritual leader as well as the organization have had their share of opposition from both former members and others who are against its mode of operation and ideology.
For instance, in 1989, former members of the organization alleged that about 200 bodies were buried around the ashram. Ji was detained, but after no bodies were discovered, the charges were dropped. Youths affiliated with the Iju Youths Progressive Union set fire to the ashram in 1999 after becoming enraged over the alleged murder of a Ghanaian man by Ji’s devotees. Twelve of Ji’s disciples were also accused of the crime, and they were all imprisoned for a while. In 2000, he was exonerated. Also, Ji was able to establish ownership in court when a state governor attempted to shut down the ashram and seize the property.
The adherents lean toward the ideology of Christianity even though they do not consider themselves to be core Christians; they occasionally refer to their place of worship as a church. Rare photographs from one of the organization’s anniversary celebrations revealed the setting to be that of hero-worship and of a church: there were images and statues of the spiritual leader all over the compound and musical equipment with a choir of singers praising him. This pits him against Christians. 
The organization’s mode of worship has been shrouded in secrecy because mobile phones and cameras are not permitted at the ashram. 
Attacks on Sufi and Shia Muslims
Not only the aforementioned, religious persecution is not new in Nigeria. The country has a history of ferocious and heinous killings by mobs and imprisonment by security agencies when people express dissenting views. 
For instance, in June this year, a butcher in Sokoto State, northwest of the country, was accused of blasphemy and was stoned to death
In 2020, Yahaya Sharif-Aminu, an up-and-coming Islamic gospel musician, was arrested and sentenced to death by a Kano Sharia Court for insulting the Prophet Mohammad. The basis of Sharif-Aminu’s initial accusation of blasphemy was an interpretation of lyrics from one of his songs that seemed to place the leader of his Tijaniyyah Sufi Brotherhood above the Prophet Muhammad. Sharif-Aminu has filed an appeal of the ruling with the Supreme Court and is presently awaiting the court’s hearing. 
Sufi itself is mostly mistaken for a sect—there are two broad sects in Islam, which are the majority Sunni and minority Shiite—but it is not, says Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, an American Sufi cleric and founder of Cordoba House, an organization that promotes a moderate image of Islam in the West.
“It (Sufi) is the spiritual dimension of Islam,” the New York Times quoted him as saying. “It is Islam, but we focus on meditation, on chanting sessions, which enable the Muslim to have his or her heart open. The myths people have about Sufis are analogous to the myths people have about Muslims.”
The misunderstanding of the core of the teachings of Sufis makes people think Sufis are not real Muslims, he said.
At the core of the misunderstanding of the Sufis in Nigeria is innovation in Islam and how it should be treated. 
Professor Taofiq Azeez, an Islamic scholar and Chief Imam of the University of Abuja explained that innovation is anything that is introduced to the core of the religion that was not present in it at the time of Prophet Muhammad SAW. He explained that the technological innovations, which essentially were not present at the time of the prophet but are now being used by Muslims to enhance the course of the religion, can be rightly described as innovations. But the doctrinal teachings or practices that were not present at the time of the prophet should rightly be called deviation, not innovation. 
“Today, we are considering changing the word Bid’ah from innovation to deviation. This is because if the prophet did not do a thing during his time and it was predicted that it would be done for the good of the religion when this is done, it is not innovation,” Prof Azeez said. 
He further explained that “when you introduce a ritual like going to the graveyard to pray and it becomes a kind of ritual, it becomes deviation, which we loosely call innovation. The use of the word innovation is the problem because there are many things that have been innovated that the prophet did not know of, for example, technological devices.
Shia Muslims in Nigeria are yet another Muslim group that faces severe persecution in addition to Sufis. In Nigeria, they account for less than 5 million people, according to the Pew Research Centre. Many Nigerians were introduced to Shia Islam by Ibraheem Yaqoub El-Zakzaky, leader of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria, who has had a running battle with the Nigerian government and security forces for more than 3 decades 
After a pro-Palestinian procession in Zaria on Friday, July 25, 2014, the Nigerian Army reportedly shot and killed 35 supporters of El-Zakzaky, including three of his sons. In what is now known as the 2015 Zaria massacre, El-Zakzaky was injured and arrested, along with his wife, during a procession in Zaria. 
Ibraheem Zakzaky, spiritual leader of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria, Shia.
On Saturday, December 12, 2015, the Nigerian Army attacked Shia Muslims—the majority of whom were members of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria—during a procession. Numerous of them were killed, with hundreds still being unaccounted forand the Army reportedly buried 347 bodies in a mass grave secretly. El-Zakzaky was injured and arrested, along with his wife, during the procession. The Army claimed that it had retaliated against the movement’s attempt to assassinate Tukur Buratai, then-Chief of the Army Staff of Nigeria. 
Many of his supporters would perish in the months that followed as they protested his detention by the security forces. He was eventually charged, and multiple advocacies, violent protests tagged #FreeZakzaky  were made for his release before he was eventually released. 
For Igumbor, remembering that people have the right to choose any religion or sect in any religion they wish is paramount. “Criticizing and persecuting them is not the way to go”, he says. “Tolerance is the way forward. People should understand that there is freedom of worship.” 
This story was produced with support from the International Centre for Journalists (ICFJ) in partnership with Code for Africa.

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