The founder of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN) Ibrahim El Zakzaky has been in and out of trouble since he fell in love with the 1979 Iranian revolution. At this time, he was an Economics student at the Ahmadu Bello University (ABU), Zaria, and was propagating Shia Islam on campus. The University authorities did not consider his revolutionary preaching as something to be toyed with. Even though he got a first class honours degree in Economics, the University denied him the degree. He seemed to be a faithful follower of Ayatollah Khomeini who overthrew the Iranian monarchy and replaced it with an Islamic republic. He probably nurtures the idea, or dreams of such a republic in Nigeria. That would be a very tall ambition because the Shiites constitute a small fraction of the Moslem population while the entire Moslem population is roughly about half the Nigerian population.
Besides, there is no evidence that Nigerians, Moslems and Christians, want to live in a country with an imposed religion. That has been made abundantly clear in the 1999 Constitution. So, if El Zakzaky and his followers are thinking that an Iranian type of revolution inspired by some extremist Islamic doctrine is realizable here I should ask them to perish the thought.
The Shiite leader had his first baptism of fire during the Sani Abacha era in September 1996 when he was first arrested and put away. He said, flippantly, heretically, at that time that there was no government in Nigeria worth being obeyed except that of Islam. Under Abacha he also got charged with treason in August 1998 and was only freed in December that year by Abdulsalami Abubakar, the new Head of State, after Abacha’s death.
Since that time, there have been occasional skirmishes between the sect and the security agencies. However, the history of disaster for the sect actually opened its inglorious chapter in December, 2015 when the sect members clashed with security agencies.
There was a Shiite procession led by El Zakzaky that blocked the convoy of the Chief of Army staff, Lt. General Tukur Burutai who was in Zaria for an assignment. Violence broke out when the military boys and the police had to force them out of the road and create a safe passage for the Army General. He, his wife and many of the sect members were packed into prison. At the end of the day, 347 Shiite members were reported dead in that encounter. At the time of the incident, the General Officer commanding 1st Mechanized Brigade of the Nigerian Army in Kaduna, Major General Adeniyi Oyebode said; “in that operation, I made one categorical statement to my men; we must within the rules of our engagement make sure as much as it was feasible then to bring in the leader of the sect alive. We do not want him dead. He is a citizen of Nigeria. But we felt that given the raging violence in the city, it was important that we bring him into protective custody. At about 9:15, the next morning, we successfully executed that”. Since that time in December, 2015 the 65-year old Cleric and his wife Zeenah have been in “protective custody”. Things have not stood still though. A fierce battle for their freedom has been raging in the courts.
In November 2016, the presiding Judge of the Federal High Court in Abuja, Justice Gabriel Kolawole had advised the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of the Federation to resolve the matter before the next adjourned date failing which he would deliver his judgment. On the adjourned date December 2, 2016, Justice Kolawole declined the submission of the counsel to the DSS, Tijani Gazali that El Zakzaky was kept in protective custody. The judge said that the decision to hold him and his wife was not based on law. He said: “I have not been shown any incident report or any complaint lodged by residents around the neighbourhood that the applicant has become a nuisance to his neighbourhood.”
The judge cited the death of Mohammed Yusuf, leader of the Boko Haram group and said: “if the applicant dies in custody which I do not pray for it could result in many needless deaths. He ordered their release within 24hours to the Police who shall within 45 days take them, guarded by escorts to a safe place”. He imposed a fine of N25 million each on the DSS for his and his wife’s illegal detention. Instead of obeying the verdict of the court, the government arraigned him in another court and charged him for murder four days later. Since then, his followers have been restive. The tension has reached flash point, dagger point, danger point.
The hard fist of fear is stalking us and putting all of us in a pressure cooker. We should ask our officials whether we want our country to be wedded to the thrill of incessant violence over matters that can be sorted out swiftly. Now the storm has come. Abuja is not sitting easy. Everyone is scared of the danger-whistle that is rocking the city to its feet. Scores of people have already been killed courtesy of the mega demonstration mounted recently by the Shiites asking for the release of their leaders and the strong-arm response of the security agencies. Their placards read: “Free Zakzaky”, Free our leader.”
It doesn’t appear the government is ready to release him and his wife. The Minister of Information, Mr. Lai Mohammed is invoking the theory of the clash between individual freedom and national security and or rule of law. He weighs in expectedly on the assumed supremacy of national security over the rule of law. Hear him: “Every government in the world will at a point in time balance individual freedom with national security”. He is not released. He is in a house provided by the government with his family, why? It is because the court said we must release him within 45 days, rebuild his house and there is nobody today within Kaduna State or anywhere else that wants to accept El Zakzaky as a neighbour. So, who do you release him to, for him to be killed?”
Mr. Mohammed sounds like the world’s most benevolent guardian, one who doesn’t want his ward to come into harm’s way since he knows that the world is full of trouble makers. But the risk is that of El Zakzaky to take just as most if not all Nigerians are taking risks from day to day. For how long can Mr. Mohammed save the man from an assumed death plan? Is it the man that is asking for this protective custody or is it the security people that are asking on his behalf? The point is that, the court has made its judgment public and the responsibility of the government is to obey it. If Mr. El Zakzaky chooses to put himself in harm’s way, it is his choice, not that of the government.
Many people in Nigeria are not enthused by the mannerisms of the Shiites in Nigeria. That is a fact. Burning a Police car is an offence. Blocking a public highway against the Chief of Army Staff or anybody at all is provocative, unacceptable and unruly. We have always had processions in Nigeria mounted by faith-based organizations, mourners, and merry-makers.
Each of them has the responsibility of ensuring that the freedom of movement of other people is not impeded in any way.The Shiites seem to think that once their road show is freedom-related or religion related, they have the freedom to do whatever they want irrespective of the inconvenience that it imposes on other people. They are wrong. Their activities must be conducted within the acceptable framework of Nigerian laws.
In the recent clash with security officials, Shiites were reported to have used stones, matchets, knives and petrol bombs. Demonstrations are acceptable vehicles for airing grievances in a democracy but they must be peaceful. Those who mount violent demonstrations forfeit the right to be treated with kid gloves but killing them is clearly, clearly over the top. Nigerian security officials have established a solid reputation for brutality marked by extra judicial killings of defenceless, unarmed and peaceful demonstrators. Whatever is the bad behaviour of demonstrators the response must be measured.
All over the civilized world, demonstrators are treated with graduated, not extreme force, that leads to death. Such restraining but not deadly instruments as tear gas, water canons, pepper spray and rubber bullets are frequently used. Why Nigerian Security officials prefer the use of equipment that have irreversible finality is baffling, very baffling. It demonstrates again and again that we have very little respect for human life.T