The International Criminal Court is moving gradually towards prosecution of Nigerian officials involved in the December 2015 massacre of members of Islamic Movements of Nigeria.
The office of the prosecutor at the war crimes tribunal reached its preliminary conclusion into the killings in December 2017, submitted its findings to the Nigerian government and demanded explanations about the incident.
The ICC said the attack on IMN members, which was carried out by the Nigerian Army and condemned by human rights voices across the world, violated international statutes on human rights.
Also advancing at the ICC is its investigation into the gruesome rights abuses and killings of members of separatist Independent People of Biafra, IPOB.
The group has come under repeated assault by the Nigerian security agencies since October 2015 when its leader Nnamdi Kanu was arrested by the State Security Service in Lagos.
Mr. Kanu was later moved to Abuja where he had been standing trial until September 2017 when he disappeared following a military raid on his country home in Umuahia.
PREMIUM TIMES reported the extra-judicial killing and mass burial of over 120 people in one of several attacks on pro-Biafra supporters in May 2016 by security agencies, an incident described as “a genocide” against the Igbo by IPOB leaders.
The ICC has submitted its preliminary findings on the Shiites massacre to Attorney-General Abubakar Malami.
The ICC prosecutors said they relied on the different channels of information, including the findings of the Judicial Commission of Inquiry set up by the Kaduna State Government.
The panel had found several Nigerian Army officers culpable in the killings and recommended them for prosecution, including Niyi Oyebade, a major-general who was the Grand Officer Commanding of the Nigerian Army 1 Division at the time.
The IMN said it lost more than a thousand members in the attack that took place between December 12 and 14 at its headquarters in Zaria.
A representative of the Kaduna State Government told the commission of inquiry that 347 bodies were handed over by the army for a secret mass burial.
But despite the evidence, the army claimed it killed only seven Shiites who blocked a public road and attempted to assassinate its chief, Tukur Buratai, a lieutenant general.
It said troops only used force after it became clear that Mr. Buratai’s life was in danger.
The leader of the IMN, Ibrahim El-Zakzaky, who was arrested by soldiers during the operation, has remained in the custody of the State Security Service more than two years later — in defiance of court orders that he should be released immediately in 2016.
If the ICC chief prosecutor ultimately gives an approval for a trial to go ahead over the crimes, it would mark the first time a Nigerian would be hauled to The Hague to stand trial for crimes against humanity.
But a foreign affairs analyst, Ikenna Nwegbe, said the conclusion of investigation on the Shiites massacre might be a victory for human rights campaigners, but not likely to have any significant impact because of how Nigerian government views the allegations.
For one, Mr. Nwegbe said, the Nigerian government has failed to hold anyone responsible for either the Shiite killings or the atrocities against Igbo separatist agitators.
“Even in the case of Shiites massacre where a judicial panel indicted a major-general, the government didn’t take any action whatsoever,” Mr. Nwegbe said. “Mr. Oyebade is still in the Army till date and even flourishing.”
“On the basis of this alone, it’s easier to conclude that the ICC findings will hold no waters where the Buhari administration is concerned,” Mr. Nwegbe said.
He also decried the fact that there has been no form of compensation for the victims of the Shiites massacre or IPOB killings, a situation he described as a critical aspect of resolving the crises.
“No compensation has been paid to the Shiites or the victims of attacks on IPOB,” he said. “Instead, their leaders are still in custody despite repeated Nigerian court judgements.”
The analyst said a Nigerian government that has not obeyed judicial pronouncements within its borders should not be expected to cooperate with external authorities.
“At worse, Nigeria will pull out of the ICC,” Mr. Nwegbe said, adding that the ICC is still being disregarded in the case of Omar Al-Bashir, the Sudanese leader against whom an arrest warrant has been pending since 2008 and African leaders have refused to enforce.
The Nigerian government declined comments for this story. For three weeks, PREMIUM TIMES pushed several phone calls and text messages in a bid to get reactions from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or the Attorney-General of the Federation.
Tope Elias-Fatile, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told PREMIUM TIMES he could not comments because Attorney-General Abubakar Malami did not formally inform the ministry of any development from the ICC.
But during a 2016 meeting with delegates from the ICC, Mr. Malami expressed strong reservations about the investigations being carried out by the tribunal, saying Nigeria will not sacrifice its sovereignty to appease foreign elements.
He maintained that Nigeria had the prerogative rights in handling the alleged crimes referred to in the prosecutor’s 2015 report of activities in the country.
“Let me reiterate that Nigeria retains the sovereign capacity to investigate and punish the alleged crimes referred to in the report and will, therefore, continue present efforts in the above direction,’’ Mr. Malami said during the April 13, 2016 meeting.
Responding, the leader of delegation, Phakiso Choko, said that the prosecutor did not intend to compromise the sovereign rights of Nigeria in investigating crimes and meting out punishment.
He said that most cases referred to the ICC were the ones host nations were unable to resolve through internal mechanism.
Mr. Nwegbe said the fact that the Nigerian government has done nothing about the recommendations of a judicial panel or obey court pronouncements on the crises could mean that its internal mechanism has failed.
Mr. Nwegbe said the civil society would be the ultimate beneficiary of the ICC conclusion.
“They mere assurance that the ICC is not sweeping the case under the carpet is enough to encourage human rights groups to continue pushing for justice,” Mr. Nwegbe said.
Nigeria became a signatory to the ICC statute in 2002, putting it directly under the jurisdiction of the court.
The ICC is also investigating six cases of war crimes in the ongoing war against Boko Haram in the Northeast. Six of the investigations are targeted at the Boko Haram elements while the remaining two are against the Nigerian Army.
This piece by Samuel Ogundipe first appeared in Premium Timeson February 11, 2018