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On Saturday 12th December, 2015, there was a confrontation in Zaria, Kaduna State between members of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria, who are Shiite Muslims, and elements of the Nigeria Army. The Shiites have in the past been recalcitrant and defiant of constituted authority and have had run-ins with the government which sometimes led to fatalities and the incarceration of some of their leadership.
According to eyewitnesses, the Shiites were observing some religious festivities which involved ‘Hoisting of a Flag’ at their Hussainiyya Baqiyyatillah headquarters (located on the strategic Zaria-Funtua Highway). In doing so, they blocked the road, denying access to commuters. In what appears to be a coincidence, a convoy of the Nigerian Army escorting the Chief of Army Staff (COAS), Lt. Gen Tukur Buaratai, was on its way to Zaria at that time. The COAS was billed to attend the graduation ceremony of new Army inductees at the Nigeria Army Depot, Zaria. Entreaties made to allow passage to the COAS’s convoy were rebuffed repeatedly by youths manning the blockade, some of whom wielded sticks and machetes. Eventually, the Army elements engaged the Shiites with live ammunition leading to the deaths of 7 persons, with 10 others sustained varying degrees of injuries.
The next day, more Army personnel converged on the headquarters of IMN and some other residences and properties belonging to the leader of the sect in an operation masked as a cordon and search operation. The military claimed its operation which lasted over 24 hours was aimed at arresting sect’s leader, Ibraheem El Zakzaky, and to clear their headquarters of a cache of arms which the military claimed was stored there. It is noteworthy that there has been no evidence of such a cache being discovered during this operation. The Army then set fire to, and demolished the various buildings and in the process several persons were killed, including women and children.
Following the events, the Kaduna State Governor, Nasiru El-Rufai, set up a 13-man Judicial Commission of Inquiry chaired by the Honourable Mohammed Lawal Garba (Justice of the Court of Appeal) to among other subjects on its terms of reference:
- Determine the immediate causes of the clashes
- Determine the historical/remote causes of the clashes
- Ascertain casualty figure
- Identify and attach value to property destroyed in the operation
- Identify act of commission and omission on parts of various actors prior, during and after the clashes.
- To determine administrative and criminal responsibility of state actors
The Commission submitted its report to the Governor on July 15, 2016, making observations and reaching conclusion based on evidence presented to it by diverse interest groups. It must be noted here that the IMN refused to make representations to the Commission.
The Commission of Inquiry’s recommendation to Terms of Reference No. 1 are contained in page 31 of its report. In the face of all the findings made, the Commission nevertheless held that “The IMN Members should primarily be responsible for this clash and its liabilities”, a finding which does not naturally draw from the evidence that was presented before the Commission. This was after hearing evidence, and also agreeing that the Army “exerted disproportionate force” and also after holding that “the cordon and search Operation which resulted in the death of the multitude was improper and illegal” and that “there was no evidence that there were any arms or ammunitions in the location” –the primary motive of the cordon and search- is not only unjust but amounts to a perversion of justice.
There are instances of judicial proceedings where a party must succeed on the strength of his case even where the other party enters a weak defence or enter no defence at all. We believe that the subject matter of the Inquiry is one such case. The Army had a duty to prove that its actions were justified and appropriate before the IMN be called to counter such assertions.
The Commission found that the Army was unable to justify its action. It would yet somersault to apportion primary blame on the IMN for actions which the Army was wrong to have carried out without due observance to care and in breach of its own rules of engagement.
Worthy of note is the fact that the entirety of the findings and recommendations on the remote causes of the events by the Kaduna Commission focus on the IMN and Zakzaky. Though largely supported by the facts presented before the Commission, the one sidedness of the Commission’s findings could be misinterpreted as being capable of obviating fairness and feeds the narrative that there were members of the Commission who were well known to be opposed to the IMN’s existence. The Commission said that the military, police and SSS had not been forth-coming with requisite information. Any presumption as a result would lead to the conclusion that the State declined presenting those pieces of information because they would not support their position.
In August 2016, a commentator wrote, “Given the disposition of the state government and the federal government to the issue of the crises, one may safely conclude that the recommendation of the Commission for further review would mark the end of the issue as far as culpability of the Nigerian Army and the Kaduna State Government –particularly with relation to the unlawful demolitions- are concerned. The State will however follow to the latter favourable recommendations which urge it to prosecute members of IMN. I expect that the State will in due course flirt with the idea to proscribe IMN if it appears that its members are already appropriately subdued and/or crushed.”
He has been proven right.
A Brief History of Shia Islam in Nigeria
Shia Islam had little coordinated presence in Nigeria until the late 1970s. Then a charismatic leader, Ibraheem Zakzaky emerged, who believed that the establishment of an Islamic republic along similar lines found in Iran would be possible.
Ibraheem Yaqoub El Zakzaky has an interesting genealogy. His great grandfather, Imam Hussain, came to Sokoto from Mali to study under Usman Dan Fodio. After his studies, Fodio sent him as religious advisor to Musa, whom Fodio had designated to become Emir of Zazzau (Zaria) following the defeat of Zazzau during the Jihad. After settling in Zazzau, Hussain had children, among whom was Tajudeen, who had a son, Aliyu, Ibraheem's father.
Ibraheem studied in the Fata Provincial Arabic School, Zaria, and then the School of Arabic Studies in Kano, then obtained a First Class degree in Economics from the Ahmadu Bello University. On the side, he studied Islam under various scholars including Sani Abdulkadir, Isa Madaka, Ibrahim Kakaki and Nasir Kapara. After returning from Iran, in the early 1980s, Zakzaky founded the Islamic Movement, which spread among Shias in northern Nigeria.
A 2001 report quoted Zakzaky as saying, "If we want a million people out on the streets on any issue we can do that." However, the same report noted that he had lost some of the zeal of his younger, more militant days in the 1980s. This was six years before a clash between the Shia and Sunni sects in Sokoto, where the Shia were accused of killing Umaru Dan Maishiyya, a Sunni cleric known for his sermons against the Shia. Following that murder, the army moved in, detained a Shia leader, Kasimu Rimin Tawaye, and hundreds of Shia, as well as destroying their compound in Sokoto. Kasimu was later released, and was last recorded giving a lecture in early 2014. Zakzaky had lost 3 sons in clashes with the army in 2014 before the December 2015 incident.
The Security Situation
In a report published by SBM Intelligence in August, it was shown that the Nigerian Army is overstretched in its involvement in internal security operations. As of the time of the reports, troops were actively involved in 30 of the 36 states. When this is situated within the context of the following:
1. Latent threat of a Boko Haram resurgence from the South-East of Niger Republic which they use as a refuge from the effective decimation by the Nigerian military. This threat exists if troops are moved from the North East to other flashpoints which are emerging
2. The escalating situation in the Middle Belt where there have been reports of youths attacking police stations to make away with arms and ammunition, reminiscent of the nascent stages of the Boko Haram insurgency. This has the potential of becoming a combat zone especially if there is a new surge in herdsmen attacks as the dry season approaches
3. The continuing militant activity in the Niger Delta, which has led to deployment of troops in Operation Crocodile Smile to militarily resolve the militancy responsible for shutting down crucial oil installations
4. The IPOB/Biafra movements which though not in open conflict, could be ignited if not handled appropriately. Also just as important, troops are tied down in Nigeria’s South-East, especially in Abia state over robbery and kidnapping concerns
It is with this context in mind that makes the current handling of this crisis with force across such a vast space problematic, one which can potentially overstretch the army so much that they are unable to contain the threat.
The Geopolitical Angle
It is ill-advised to go back to the hive when you are still hurting from the sting received the last time you paid an unwanted visit to the bees. But when it becomes a necessity that a visit must be paid, you must tread carefully. Sadly, this is not the case in the present situation Nigeria is dragging itself to, in dealing with the unfolding Shiite crisis which escalated late last year when members of the group clashed with military officers that resulted in the death of over 300 Shiite members.
This is a new direction; the recent ban on the Shiite group in Kaduna State, which has spread to 5 other states (Kebbi, Kano, Katsina, Jigawa and Plateau), represents a threat to a society barely back on its feet from the recurring hits it has taken from the dreaded Boko Haram insurgency. It also portends a precedent which we believe is not in line with the concepts of freedom of association and religion which are both enshrined in the Nigerian Constitution. Persecution by the State, and citizens who have been emboldened by the stance of the state has continued unabated with lynchings and targeted arrests of IMN members. Zakzaky himself remains incarcerated without being charged to court for almost a year. This potent mix of sectarian hatred and nurtured anger by non-Shiite Muslims continues to push IMN members underground. Overall the seeming Sunni domination of security agencies and the judiciary does not give the Shiites a chance. Nigeria is witnessing one of the worse cases of organized persecution in its recent history.
However, Nigeria forgets easily: a wound is yet to heal, a wound still trickling blood. The Shiite situation has marked similarities to the Boko Haram problem, before it became a full blown insurgency. Nigeria cannot afford to be reckless in handling the current situation with the Shiite as it did in the past in the early stages with Boko Haram, which stirred Nigeria into the storm it is still trying to find its way out of.
Any similar crisis with the Shiite would not be a straightforward battle, because unlike Boko Haram which depends on a largely illiterate fellowship, they are a lot more sophisticated. Within their ranks, the Shiites boast of well-educated intellectuals who are embedded within the Nigerian state and spread across the country. The threat is one of a reported two million strong coordinated group with a robust foreign backing, in Iran. The consequence of engaging this group like earlier done with Boko Haram would be far reaching, devastating and possibly apocalyptic.
We must realize that it is unwise to drag Nigeria into becoming a proxy site for the battle between Wahabism on the one hand and Shiism on the other. The actual powers in the Middle East that are the sources of this conflict, Saudi Arabia and Iran, wisely keep the battles away from their own territory and fight in other people's countries. They are unrestrained in causing untold destruction and devastation since these proxy battlefields aren’t their own homes, an attitude that can be seen in how they have behaved in places like Yemen. They will be even less concerned about destruction in a far-away African country, so long as their proxy battle continues. We must wisely eschew this.
Aside having a solid leadership and organizational structures, the IMN have members who are exposed to the best forms of Western education, people who are empowered, and have been sufficiently exposed to the outside world.
What the Nigerian government should instead champion is justice for those who were gruesomely murdered extra-judicially by the military and also put on trial members of the sect that might have gone against the law of the land.
Nigeria should not contemplate the escalation of this crisis because it has the potential of mutating into a mess that cannot be contained.
Shiite Muslims being attacked, in various cities across Nigeria including Kaduna, Kano among others, allegedly by extremist and Wahabi-affiliated forces, represents a major source of concern. The current situation if not checked could spill into a sectarian crises Nigerian does not have room for. The fire this time will begin from the belly of Nigeria, and the Nigerian State cannot be both the arsonist and the firefighter. Nigeria does not have room for another sectarian crises.