On December 12, 2015, the military took the law into its hands and massacred over 347 members of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) who allegedly blocked the convoy of the Chief of Army Staff, Lt.-Gen. Tukur Buratai. Although the military has used several lies to justify the killings, a panel set up by the Kaduna state government to investigate the killings indicted the Nigerian army for the Zaria massacre. Specifically, the panel indicted Maj. General Adeniyi Oyebade, the General Officer Commanding the Nigerian Army’s 1st Devision in Kaduna for authorising the operation. The Panel only stopped short of indicting the Chief of Army Staff General Burutai who also bears responsibility for, and has defended, the killings on several occasions. Regardless, the army stands accused of grave killings of civilians and crime against humanity.
The Panel rightly pointed out that the killings are a crime against humanity and those responsible must be brought to justice. The report also blamed the leader of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN), Sheikh Ibraheem El-Zakzaky for the clash and recommended that he should be investigated and prosecuted. The government said that the action was taken to preserve peace and stability in the state.
Since then, the members of the group – this time not only in Kaduna but also in Abuja, Kano, Katsina and Jos have been protesting the government’s actions and also demanding for the unconditional release of their leader, ElZakzaky, his wife and other members of the IMN who had been in detention unlawfully since their arrest in 2015 following the sect’s clash with the Nigerian Army.
Sadly, the sect’s members are being systematically mowed down and killed in several states for protesting the ban on their sect and the continued incarceration of their leader and members or for simply embarking on their religious processions. Some weeks ago, soldiers again opened fire on the group who were on a religious procession which began around the Suleja area of Niger State. They encountered soldiers around Zuba, a satellite area of Abuja and issues quickly escalated. Videos appeared online showing irate members of the sect throwing stones at soldiers with soldiers shooting live bullets at them as if in a war situation. Hostilities resumed again two days later, in Wuse, Abuja with security agencies shooting members of the sect protesting the killing of their members.
We note the increasing crackdown on Shia Islam in Nigeria since the ascension to the president of Mohammadu Buhari, a Sunni Muslim. In 2016, President Buhari confirmed Nigeria’s membership in the Islamic Coalition against terrorism formed in 2015 by Islamic countries following the order of Saudi Arabia, the leading Sunni nation. Iran was conspicuously left out of the coalition. On the surface, it appears an innocuous move, but underneath the move is a pandering towards Saudi Arabia and other Sunni countries who have never hidden their hostility towards Shia Islam. To make matters worse, the Nigerian government condemned the Iranian-backed Shia Houthi militia resistance group fighting the Saudi-backed government of Abid Rabbo Mansur Hadi in Yemen for targeting the Holiest city of Islam, Mecca, in a ballistic missile attack – a claim hotly disputed by both the Houthis and their Iranian backers.
The reality is that the Buhari government is dragging Nigeria into a Saudi-Iran proxy war. Paradoxically, those two countries have somehow managed to keep this conflict out of their lands, and have turned other countries into proxy battlefields for political supremacy.
We note and commend the restraint show by Shiites who, despite the shocking scale of persecution and killings, have not resorted to taking up arms against the Nigerian state. Nigeria is still a volatile country trying to overcome the Boko Haram insurgency. It cannot afford another deadly conflict. We urge the federal government to desist from persecuting the Shia’s in Nigeria, release its leader on bail as granted by the courts and also punish all those involved in the killing of IMN members. A stitch in time saves nine.