So much has been said about the growing fractious relationship between the military and the civil society. Before now, our military especially the army, had been the bastion of discipline, restraint and civility. Growing up, a lot of us fantasized about how we would join the military, and shine before our civilian mates with our neat and well ironed uniforms, shiny boots and smart looks. We fantasized and boasted about how we would defend our nation and people against any external aggression from any quarters no matter how powerful. We boasted of how we would dare fires no matter how wild, jump into them to save trapped citizens. We even boasted of how “bloody civilians” would confront us and instead of retaliating, we just laugh them off because “they do not know what they are doing”. Our dream as future military officers was to serve the people and the nation and make ourselves the envy of many through our behaviours.
We never ever thought that a time would come in our lifetime when the military would turn its guns on civilians, fellow citizens, no matter the provocation. We also never thought of a time that the mutual hatred and mistrust between the military and the civilian populace would be so toxic that a civilian band would attack and kill a retired military General the way it happened to General Idris Alkali in Jos, Plateau State. But, alas, such a time, unfortunately, is now with us!
Last week, we witnessed the avoidable clashes between the army and members of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN). I can confirm from my personal experience and interaction with the Shiites that IMN is never a violent group as some would want us to believe. And they are hardly discriminatory in their operations. I delivered a paper at the group’s 3rd International Quds Conference which held in Abuja on July 29, 2017. Apart from the fact that I am not only a Christian, I wish to emphasise that I am also a knighted Catholic.
There were also other Christians at the event. I am also aware that there are several other Christians who have become part and parcel of this annual conference. So, the narrative being created by some government officials about the Shiites as violent people full of hate for others is not only wrong but also misleading and mischievous. The truth is that unlike other Islamic denominations, the Shiites have no record of any act of willful violence against the nation nor can anyone tag them as terrorists, yet, they are an Islamic group some government officials love to hate, malign and calumniate.
In a government report following a public inquiry into the massacre of the Shiites in December 2015, it was said that 347 Shia Muslims were killed by men of the Nigerian Army and their corpses dumped in a mass grave in the northern city of Kaduna. The report also demanded that all those involved in the killings be arrested and prosecuted. But up till now, nothing has been heard about it. Those indicted are rather praised and become emboldened to continue the wanton killing of fellow citizens, they are trained to protect, even at little or no provocation.
This vicious cycle has continued unabated. Citizens have become endangered species in the hands of the military. The military has turned itself to a uniformed emperor that must not be questioned, that must not be criticized and not even complimented. Is this our dream military?
The other day, video of a lady military officer who led a group of other military officers to viciously assault a civilian simply for complimenting her for her beauty, went viral. That was the height of military bestiality and excess show of hate for the civilian populace, and this has increased over time as culprits are either covered up or allowed to go scot free by those who are supposed to punish such erring officers. To make matters worse, the army keeps needlessly engaging Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) in exchanges over matters in which they are clearly in breach of common sense, law and civility.
The other day, a soldier attached to Operation Safe Haven, shot dead an unarmed security personnel and injured two others attached to Diamond Bank in Jos over an innocuous argument about a parking space. That was a citizen, probably someone’s father and husband, with other loved ones, who had life snuffed out of him just like that as if he did not matter or his life was of no importance.
These and many other gruesome examples show that the issue is not just about the Shiites and the label of recalcitrance imposed upon them by those who take joy in mowing them down hiding behind such labels, it is about the loss of discipline and professionalism in the Nigerian army.
Let us even assume without conceding that the Shiites were wrong the first time when they were said to have “blocked” a consignment of ammunition in transit, resulting in they being fatally shot, what about the one that happened in Abuja shortly afterwards? Was there another consignment being blocked?
I read what some military officer said that they would not allow the Shiites to breach the rights of other citizens, the question is this, when has it become the primary duty and responsibility of the military to guarantee the rights of citizens in peace time? What then is the function of the police and their different specialized arms trained to deal with such issues as it should be?
With the way it is now, the Shiites have become endangered species who must not exercise their rights as citizens, they must not assemble, they must not associate and they must not express themselves freely despite the fact that their leader, Sheikh El Zakzaky and his wife, have been in illegal detention and unlawful custody of government going to three years now. This surely is a recipe for continued breach of the peace. And it is not only the Shiites that have become endangered species in the hands of the military, we all have.
While military sources have given six as number of casualties at both incidents in Zuba and Abuja, the Shiites have since released names of the victims numbering 34. Viral videos of the two incidents in both Zuba and Abuja show fleeing Shiites being shot at; even after they had been dispersed, they were still pursued by gun wielding officers. Their offence was that they had stones and catapults as “weapons”, and the army would have none of it, yet, in this same country, former president Goodluck Jonathan had his convoy stoned by some mischievous and misguided youths in Bauchi and he gave a stern instruction to his security personnel not to open fire. He was rather ferried away amidst the hail of stones. That was the Commander-in-Chief.
So, in such situations, particularly the unwarranted killing of the Shiites in Abuja, the army has other options to neutralize the protesting Shiites, that is, if they must be involved. Or else, deploying anti-riot policemen to such a scene would have made more sense than directly engaging youths exercising their rights of assembly, movement and association over government flagrant disobedience to valid court orders granting their leader bail.
Just few days ago, on TV, the army spokesman, John agim, was quoted to have said that “Several times, those people were arrested and they were released without any sanction. We have a country where nobody is sanctioned for doing something wrong. Evans, the kingpin kidnapper, he came out confessing. Over one year now, what has happened?”
When you have a military with this mindset of meting out immediate punishment and inflicting death as punishment to offenders because it does not believe in the judiciary, then the nation is in deep trouble. When an army spokesperson thinks that self-confession is enough to conclude a criminal matter in a jiffy and declare an offender guilty by force and not by law, it becomes a monumental security challenge that requires an aggressive reorientation of our military high command to bring them at par with best civil practices all over the world in military/civilian relationship. It is such beliefs as that of Agim that have reduced our military once envied for its discipline and professionalism to that feared rather than respected by citizens.
However, there is hope.
The military just handed 13 people suspected to be responsible for the murder of General Idris Alkali to the police after a painstaking investigation, for further investigation and prosecution. Based on the worrying trend which is the crux of this piece, those suspects handed over to the police for prosecution would probably have been treated more differently, the military way! That they were handed over for the law to take its course rather than take the law into their own hands themselves is a way forward.
The Shiites are not just citizens, they are a religious group that is aggrieved, and genuinely so. Rather than treat them as a leprous part of the society that must be exorcised and excised by all means possible, they can actually be meaningfully engaged and all areas of differences resolved to the satisfaction of all parties, with respect for the rule of law as a guiding principle.
This way, the needless confrontations between citizens and security agencies are reduced to the barest minimum and the needless loss of lives arising from there is avoided. We cannot continue to cut short the lives of citizens in numbers the way we are currently doing.
Nigeria is not a jungle, and no person or group of persons should reduce it to such.
Written By Jude Ndukwe