TWICE this week, the Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN), aka Shiites, has protested the continued detention of their leader, Ibraheem El-Zakzaky, and his wife Zeenah. The two have been in detention since December 2015 when members of the sect clashed with troops in Zaria, Kaduna State. During the clash, one soldier was killed, allegedly by Shiite members, for which Sheikh El-Zakzaky and his wife are facing trial in a Kaduna High Court, while about 347 Shiite members were killed by troops, according to a Kaduna State government inquiry. IMN leaders insist the death toll is much higher than state officials acknowledge.
Since 2015, Shiites have been organising countless public protests, including marches, to demand justice for their detained leaders and members. Only last year, in October, the IMN alleged that some 48 of their members were killed by troops in one of such protests in Abuja to demand the release of their leaders. The Nigerian Army confirmed some deaths during that protest, but insisted the IMN figures were exaggerated. No soldier was, however, killed. In this week’s protest, IMN members took their long march and protests to both the United Nations office in Abuja and the National Assembly. They were undeterred by the Zaria killings and all other killings of their members since 2015. It is now very unlikely that they will ever be deterred.
By now, too, the Federal Government must be slowly becoming aware that applying lethal and often disproportionate force against the Shiites will amount to nothing in the face of glaring injustice and cruel and degrading treatment meted out to the sect. So far, no one has been held accountable for the 2015 Zaria massacre. The federal and state governments gloss over it. But until justice is done, neither the Shiites nor the Kaduna State government, nor even the federal government, will rest. There will have to be a closure. The federal government has attempted to deploy additional force to pacify the Shiites. But, as the crisis spirals, possibly out of control, all subsequent killings of Shiite members will have to be accounted for, and some state officials held accountable. If these remedies are not applied, there will be no closure. More wrong can never cure a previous wrong.
A section of the public may be undecided over the Shiite matter, as they ruminate over whether in the face of sporadic religious restiveness all over the country, the government is not after all right to apply maximum force to quell every disturbance that gives a semblance of breakdown of public order. But with each deadly crackdown and consequent loss of scores of lives, it is a matter of time, as many Latin American and African countries have shown, before the undecided section of the public begins to distance themselves from government-inspired atrocities and deliberate flouting of the law.
Both the killing of some 48 Shiite protesters in Abuja last year — if the figure is verified — and the killing of 347 Shiite members in Zaria in 2015, will very likely continue to provoke more protests in the near future until a closure is found. Many federal officials, military and security agents, and Kaduna State government officials themselves, will in due course no doubt be held accountable for the killings. Their handling of the Shiite crisis will be investigated and tried in open courts. And in a digital world of widespread availability of technological devices for chronicling events, it is unlikely that anything can be kept hidden for too long.
One year or so after the Zaria killings, an Abuja High Court ordered the release of the Shiite leader and his wife, and, among other reliefs, the payment of N50m compensation to each of them. The government has controversially and unwisely spurned that order and instead kept the Shiite leader incarcerated without recourse to the law. More than two and half years later, almost as an afterthought, the Kaduna State government has charged Sheikh El-Zakzaky and his wife in court for the murder of a soldier and for disturbing public peace during the 2015 Zaria massacre. The sect’s leaders have subsequently been detained while trial is ongoing. No evidence has been presented against the Shiite leader’s wife, and even the Department of State Service (DSS) once suggested that the only reason she was still detained was because she insisted she would not leave jail without her husband.
Nigerians must brace up for additional Shiite protests in the months ahead. Until the Shiite leader is released and justice is done regarding the killings of hundreds of the sect’s members, the matter will not die. Each protest may in fact become more severe than the previous one, and each has the potential of becoming unmanageably deadly, with untold consequences for the governments of the day. Even though the Kaduna State governor Nasir el-Rufai feels increasingly messianic, there is little chance that he will not sometime in the future be held accountable for his mishandling of the Zaria massacre. He and President Muhammadu Buhari, who has sadly not handled the Shiite crisis with statesmanlike aplomb, must proactively find a way of defusing what is certain to be a future time bomb.
Both the president and the Kaduna governor know that no law, and not even the constitution, no matter how it is liberally read or interpreted, supports the manner they have handled the Shiite crisis. They have unlawfully detained El-Zakzaky and his wife, indefensibly colluded with or connived at the strong-arm measures against Shiite protesters, and have simply ignored with disdain lawful court orders. To redress these indefensible actions, they must find ways of reaching out to the Shiites. They may love the Sunnis more than the Shiites, though historically in Nigeria the Shiites have been less violent; but as a government, they must find ways to accommodate everyone and every religious group, including those diametrically opposed to their own worldview. They cannot kill all the Shiites without profound consequences, and they cannot use state violence to smother them. That leaves them only one option: peacemaking based on justice.
The case against the Shiites in a Kaduna High Court is tenuous. Indeed, it can still be resolved if both President Buhari and Governor el-Rufai find the humility and wisdom to dismount their high horses and speak the language of peace and justice. There is no question, however, that troops and their commanders who used unlawful and lethal force to pacify the Shiites in both Zaria and Abuja, must be held accountable. The president and the governor should be reassured that the country might, under certain considerations, be willing to give them the benefit of the doubt, implying that while they may have given the orders to cage the Shiites, they perhaps did not order a massacre. But both leaders must realise that their loyalty is first and primarily to the constitution, not to those who committed crimes against humanity in trying to solve the Shiite conundrum.
The Shiite crisis came about because of a fundamental defect in the government’s ruling philosophy. The government is elected, operates in a democracy, and must be subject to the rule of law. They, therefore, have no reason to operate outside the framework of the law, or act without restraint in dealing with what they fear could potentially become another Boko Haram. Their fears, they must be reminded, are absolutely unfounded. Had they subscribed to a governing philosophy that constrains them to act as servants of the people and in full deference to the rule of law, and had their security forces been well trained and not lacking in doctrine, the Zaria massacres would never have happened, and the atrocious and condemnable detention of the Shiite leaders would never have been necessary.
Both President Buhari and Mallam el-Rufai must find ways, as elected leaders and presumed democrats, of managing this burgeoning crisis. Respect for the laws of the land does not invariably mean less firmness in tackling crisis of whatever persuasion or colour. They were elected into office because they are thought to have talents above the ordinary. Now, let them put those supposed extraordinary skills into practice and find a fitting closure to the Shiite crisis. If they do not find mitigating measures to resolve the problem, they will discover too late that the world will find them culpable through and through for the bloodletting the crisis has become.
First appeared in The Nation Newspaper