The Shi’ites under Buhari’s watch

The Shi’ites under Buhari’s watch

Eight months after Nigerian soldiers clashed with members of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN), otherwise known as Shi’ites, resulting in the loss of more than 300 lives, this unfortunate incident won’t just fizzle out. Why would it, without an amicable solution to a problem, which a little restraint on the part of all parties involved could have effectively averted?
I had written in this column shortly after the incident last year and a recap may be necessary here. Members of the Shi’ites group had blocked Sokoto Road in Zaria through which the Chief of Army Staff, General Tukur Buratai, was to pass to attend an event in the city last December 12. Armed personnel were deployed to clear the road after pleas to the youths who carried sticks, stones and machetes fell on deaf ears.
Then the Army launched an attack on the Hussainiyya Baqiyyatillah compound occupied by the Shi’ites the next day, killing 347 members of the sect, including children of the leader, Ibrahim El-Zakzaky. A soldier also died during the operation.
The Shi’ites were wrong to have barricaded the road, but with fresh memories of a previous encounter with soldiers, which left 35 of their members dead, they were obviously angry with the Army. They actually argued that they wanted to prevent the Army chief’s convoy from passing through the area to prevent loss of lives, which had happened in several previous encounters.
Kaduna State Governor, Malam Nasir El-Rufai, blamed the incident on the Shi’ites’ leader. More than 70 members of the sect were arrested and detained, including its leader. A commission of enquiry was set up, before which the IMN declined to appear, on the grounds that they would not get fair hearing. They contended that on the panel were some personalities who had openly shown contempt for the sect and its activities. The IMN’s lawyers were denied access to El-ZakZaky by the security agency holding him and the sect eventually neither submitted memoranda, nor appeared before the panel.
The commission recently submitted its report, indicting the General Officer Commanding (GOC) of the Nigeria Army 1st Division who authorised the killings. The panel ruled that the force used by the Army against the Shi’ites was disproportionate and that the officers involved acted against the Armed Forces Act 1994 and the 1999 Constitution. The GOC and other officers involved in the massacre were recommended for trial in a court of competent jurisdiction. It was also advocated that policemen be better equipped and deployed in place of soldiers to quell civil disturbances.
The panel also said the IMN leader, El-ZakZaky, should take personal responsibility for all acts committed by his followers during the clashes with the Army, for failing to call them to order.
Since the release of the panel’s report, it is not known if and how the Kaduna government, which set up the enquiry would get the indicted Army officers to face trial.
The Presidency had described the Shi’ite-Army clash as a military affair, when it happened. It never condemned the killings, despite the huge number of citizens involved. When President Muhammadu Buhari was asked about the incident during an interview, last December, he suggested that the victims got what they bargained for, for confronting the Army.
Now the Shi’ites, with 347 of their members, male and female, buried together in mass graves against Islamic tradition and the laws of the state where the incident happened, are agitated. Their leader has been held incommunicado for eight months; his children killed. He also almost lost his life. No charges have been brought against him and those officers who massacred Nigerian civilians in their hundreds. The Shi’ites are protesting in towns and cities in the North. They’re demanding justice and rightly so. For how long will the agitations and protests continue?
The Shi’ites are first and foremost Nigerians.
And even if we don’t share their ideology, it is disturbing that in a democracy and under a government that swore to protect our lives, 347 citizens would be killed and it would be taken as normal.
But this is not the first time. We had Odi and Zaki-Biam earlier. For the Nigerian Army, it would seem that killing civilians at the slightest provocation is a tradition, not mistakes.
Would lives not have been saved if the Army had exercised restraint in handling the Shi’ites’ obvious illegal and provocative behaviour?
And whose interest did the Army serve when soldiers were deployed the day after the road incident to kill innocent civilians?
President Buhari should show fairness and justice in this matter. As the commander-in-chief, he has appeared, so far, to be siding with his soldiers against the citizens who put him in office. Officers responsible for killing innocent citizens must be brought to justice. El-ZakZaky must be released.
His family and families of victims of the Army’s senseless killings must be compensated. And the government should now do what it ought to have done in the first instance.
It should devise ways to ensure that religious groups, such as the Shi’ites, are taught to respect constituted authorities, know their bounds and if they act beyond limits, be tried in a court of law.
We must not let the injustice done to the Shi’ites linger any longer, the same way as the Boko Haram for which the nation is still paying a heavy price.

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