SOKOTO, Nigeria (Reuters) - A flat expanse of rubble is all that is left of a compound where the Shi’ite community used to gather for meetings in the heart of Sokoto, a historic Muslim city in remote northwest Nigeria.
Many Shi’ite residents fled when security forces razed the compound last year during a crackdown on Shi’ites after the murder of a Sunni cleric in a nearby mosque. But their departure has failed to quell anger among Sunnis.
The incident reveals tensions simmering in a city that has huge importance for Nigeria’s estimated 70 million Muslims -- most of whom are Sunnis -- because it is home to the Sultan of Sokoto, their spiritual leader.
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.
About 100 Shi’ites were arrested in Sokoto after the cleric’s assassination last July and most are still in detention on a variety of charges. News that two of them had been granted bail earlier this month caused such anger among Sunnis that the government deployed troops and riot police to prevent violence.
When Reuters went to Sokoto to visit the razed Shi’ite compound, a hostile crowd soon gathered.
“What are you doing here? Are you here to defend the Shi’ites? You are not welcome,” a man told two reporters.
The men were suspicious because the reporters’ car had number plates from the faraway city of Zaria, Zakzaky’s home.
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 recognize no other authority than that of Allah. That is why they support the Sunnis,” said activist Malami Muhammad Alkanci, 28.
He used to live in the old city of Sokoto, close to the mosque where the Sunni cleric was killed last year, but he has been in hiding on the outskirts of the city since then.
Few people have died in the Sunni-Shi’ite conflict, but Malami said hundreds of Shi’ites had left after their houses and shops were burnt by Sunni mobs last year and they had yet to return. He accused the state government of collusion.
Many Shi’ites in Sokoto have become disillusioned with the sultan and emirs, whose power partly depends on backing from politicians and who, they feel, have abandoned traditional Islamic fervor. This disillusionment with Sokoto’s ruling elite helps explain Zakzaky’s appeal.
Sunni activists say authorities were right to crack down on the Shi’ites, whom they accuse of preaching blasphemous ideas.
“If people want Sokoto to be like Iraq, with people killing each other every day, then let the Shi’ites stay. If they want Sokoto to be its old peaceful self, then let the Shi’ites go,” said Hussein Abdullahi, 33, an imam at a mosque in the old city.
Shi’ites are found in other northern cities in Nigeria and tensions with Sunnis have caused problems in the past. But after thousands were killed in fighting between Christians and Muslims in the north in 2000, the Muslim community seems to have buried its internal differences in most places.
That is not the case in Sokoto, where relations with Christians are good.
“They should not live here. What they preach is blasphemous. They are a nuisance to the Sunnis who are the majority,” said Ibrahim Isah, 42, a civil servant in Sokoto.
(Writing by Estelle Shirbon; Editing by Clar Ni Chonghaile)