WASHINGTON – The news coming from Abuja, the Nigerian capital, about the violent clashes between the personnel of the Nigerian Police and protesting members of Islamic Movement of Nigeria a.k.a Shiites is sad and shameful. Yet it is not surprising to many observers. Reported fatalities include a Deputy Commissioner of Police, eleven members of the movement and one journalist who was confirmed to be a staff of Channels Television. Many people sustained several levels of injury; amongst them are two Assistant Superintendents of Police who are currently receiving treatment. I offer here, my deepest condolences to the Nigerian Police Force and the families who have lost their loved ones to such an avoidable clash. The wide condemnation this incident has attracted even beyond the shores of the country is expected but regrettable.
In reflecting over the events that led to clash, many questions come to mind. It was reported that the police first fired canisters and live bullets at the protesters resulting to the initial fatalities. Why? Regardless of the level of provocation, I think it is wrong for police to engage apparent non-violent protesters with live bullets. Such an action falls below international good practice especially in crowded areas where defenceless civilians could be casualties.
This is not the first time that confrontation between the Shiites and security agencies has led to loss of lives. However, this very incidence is particularly painful considering that non-actors became victims; the death of the young journalist, Precious Owolabi who is said to be a youth corps member on an assignment to cover the crisis is heart breaking. In saner climes, the Inspector General of Police should have quietly thrown in his resignation rather than offer some meaningless and disjointed explanation, but NO! this is Nigeria.
The Nigerian Police is one institution in this country that has been consistently unlucky with leadership. The immediate past Inspector General was such an embarrassment that many who have gifts of divinity predicted that he was probably bewitched. The image of his gaffes and bumpy speech of ‘transmission’ fame will not leave our collective memories in a hurry. Many have argued that this latest incident arose due to a mixture of incompetence and failure of intelligence. For a group that has been demonstrating for three years and seven months in and around Abuja, what will it take to infiltrate them? Why did the security agencies not put them on the spotlight to find out when they started arming themselves? Here my memory does not fail to remember that security personnel who should have been deployed on such sensitive assignments will rather be sent on more lucrative errands as escorts for cash and VIPs.
I must confess that I do not know much about the Islamic Movement of Nigeria. I read up their primary pillars and how they somewhat vary from other major sects of their religion. In an interesting coincidence last year, I visited a senior member of the group in company of a high-ranking Catholic clergy. I was pleasantly surprised about the kind of cordial conversation they had on issues of religious tolerance in the country. Nevertheless, witnessing such a remarkable conversation does not form a sufficient backdrop for me to make any knowledge-based conclusions about the movement. Yet, I still find it difficult to reconcile the fact that such a man with a polished and calm mien is said to be one of the leaders of this revered group in Abuja.
That said, the truth remains that any amateur who comes across the processions or protests of the IMN would easily decipher that where they are mismanaged, they can be potentially lethal. The first thing an observer will notice is that they have the numbers. Unconfirmed statistics indicate that they are more than three million devotees across the country. They come out in their thousands for each protest and regularly obstruct traffic in a most irritating manner. Secondly, it is evident that they are much organised, which begs one to ask if they are receiving some form of professional training. The third observation is that they are very courageous and daring. For whatever reason, a group that confronted a heavily armed serving Chief of Army Staff with sticks and cudgels must have some misdirected bravery. They seem unafraid even when death stares them in the face, and that is the more reason why they should be treated with a lot of caution. Finally, these protests have been going on since 2015. Has anybody tried to find out how they accommodate themselves, feed and converge day after day?
The average Nigerian, especially residents of Abuja are to an extent undeniably suffering from the activities of The Islamic Movement of Nigeria. For over three years, it has become a nightmare when they disrupt human and vehicular traffic in the town. Yet, I would have expected the Federal government to before now acknowledged the impact of these protests on citizens, and engaged this group and the cause they stand for, by being a little more thorough, sincere and circumspect in dealing with them. They should not have waited for the Shiites to read in between a press statement to find out that an olive branch has been extended to them.
If government is honest about opening up channels of dialogue with them, I will assume there are more strategic ways of doing so. I want to believe that there are prominent officials of this government who are members of the group and who could potentially serve as reliable channels for a result-orientated engagement.
I do not know the legal arguments that could be used to justify the continued detention of the Shiite leader. I do not want to make assumptions or conclusion on this either. However, I am aware that he has been granted bail by courts of competent jurisdiction. If a court makes orders, it is only obligatory for a country that is law abiding to obey such orders. To do otherwise is completely unacceptable and a violation of the Constitution. The defence of the Presidency that the order is being contested in court is faulty and comes across as an attempt to manipulate the law to achieve a predetermined end. The continued detention of Sheik El-Zakzaky and his wife -whom it has been reported suffers poor health – is completely unacceptable. They should be released immediately.
From all indication, it is becoming evident that this group constitute a security risk. We need to review whether keeping their leader in detention will make matters better or worse for everyone. Public lawyers and knowledgeable activists have pleaded with government to allow the release of Sheik El-Zakzaky and his wife on medical grounds, but all pleas seem to have been ignored. I have even learnt that two powerful foreign countries are lobbying for and against the continued detention of the Shiites leader. Is it true that President Buhari has become a pun in a proxy war and diplomatic crossfire? Is the Nigerian government thinking of what violence the potential death in detention of Sheik El-Zakzaky and his wife can provoke? If legalities fail then a political solution can be sought to avert this looming catastrophe. When people are pushed to the wall, as it seems then no one can be sure what to expect from them.
To make matters worse, one does not need to work too hard to find out that the Shiites group has interesting international affiliates that are difficult to ignore. They are said to have strong branches in Iran, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Iraq and Lebanon just to mention but a few. Mere reference to these countries will conjure familiar and frightening memories to every student of contemporary global politics and security. A friend narrated to me how a diplomat who was recruiting activists to support the cause of Shiites in Nigeria approached him in an international conference somewhere outside the country. Yes. They take it this seriously! It has also been reported that solidarity protests are already going on in India, Canada and the United Kingdom for the prolonged detention of Sheik Ibrahim El-Zakzaky and his wife. You may wish to hate this group or like them, but those who wish to ignore them should do so to their own peril.
What happened in Abuja last week bears a resemblance to how Boko-Haram insurgency began. The picture is very clear that these hostilities may continue to escalate. Sadly, sufficient time has been allowed for government to find amicable and innovative ways to resolve outstanding issues with the group. They should do so. I understand that government is even contemplating a decision to issue an executive order to proscribe and later crackdown on them. That will be a wrong move, which may turn counterproductive. That was how Boko Haram slowly transformed from what many dismissed as a ragtag army of disgruntled youth to one of the most dreaded terrorist organisations in the world. We are still grappling with herdsmen tormenting us here and there. The bandits are attacking with more ferocity and boldness. The different characters of the Nigerian centrifugal challenges are mutating day by day, and now the Shiites are becoming a force to reckon with. Those who monitored the deteriorating relationship between the Islamic Movement of Nigeria and government are very concerned whether history is doomed to repeat itself in Nigeria. I hope they are proven wrong in the coming weeks. We cannot afford another national conflagration.
Uche Igwe is political economy analyst and governance expert. You can reach him on firstname.lastname@example.org