Coming for Buhari
Determined. Unrelenting. Nigerian Shi’ites appear determined to extract justice from the Nigerian state in respect of its incarcerated leader, Sheikh Ibrahim Yaqoub El-Zakzaky.
The members of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN), in their hundreds, marched to the National Assembly in Abuja, on July 9, 2019, to seek the release of their leader, who has been held in protective custody for almost four years by the President Muhammadu Buhari administration.
While addressing the bloody drama that played out at the National Assembly, Anjuguri Manzah, Abuja Police Spokesman, claimed: “The FCT Police Command has foiled a violent move by members of the El-Zakzaky Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) to forcefully invade the National Assembly on Tuesday, 9th July, 2019.”
In the aftermath of the protest, the Shi’ite group vowed to continue protesting until their leader, who they allege has been poisoned by the Buhari administration, is released. They made good on this threat two days later – on July 11, 2019 – when they protested simultaneously in Lagos and Abuja.
El-Zakzaky and his wife, Zeenat, have been in detention since December 2015, despite a court ruling ordering their release.
‘State within a state’
The story of how El Zakzaky got radicalized and involved in the Shiite movement is no longer a closely guarded secret. The Iranian revolution of the early 1980s was instrumental in his emergence as a religious leader.
However, his problem with the Buhari administration dates back to December 12, 2015, when the Nigerian Army reportedly used inappropriate force against the Shi’ites’ street procession in Zaria, Kaduna State, to clear the route for the Chief of Army Staff, Lieutenant General Tukur Buratai’s convoy.
In the ensuing three-day violent crackdown, the army admittedly killed 384 members of the Muslim group with 347 bodies secretly buried in a mass grave while hundreds were arrested, on December 14, 2015, including their leader, El-Zakzaky and his wife, Zeenat.
The Kaduna State Judicial Commission of Inquiry which was saddled with the responsibility of investigating the outrage, in September 2016, recommended the prosecution of the soldiers involved in the killings in Zaria. This, according to reports, was ignored while charges were brought against 177 members of the Muslim group in the killing of Corporal Dan Kaduna Yakubu – who was the only military casualty in the incident.
The El-Zakzaky movement was subsequently banned.
Buhari’s apparent discomfort with El-Zakzaky is not hidden. He is alleged to have said that the Shi’ites by their activities were trying to create “a state within state,” though he also said the death of civilians cannot be justified.
In 2018, Muhammed Ibrahim Gamawa, an IMN youth leader said: “under Buhari’s government any Shia in Nigeria is under threat and can be gunned down any day, any time, any minute. We are not safe, we are an endangered species in Nigeria.”
Dishonouring the rule of law
The bloody episode at Zaria over, El-Zakzaky was arrested and would later be charged to court for alleged conspiracy and culpable homicide.
However, a Federal High Court in Abuja, presided by Justice Gabriel Kolawole, on December 2, 2016, ordered the immediate release of El-Zakzaky and his wife. The court also ruled that a fine of N50 million be paid to him and his wife, including the provision of an accommodation to them. The court gave a 45-day ultimatum for the Federal Government to obey its judgment.
The court order was never obeyed. Instead, the Nigerian government filed an appeal against the ruling. It would not be the only time that the Buhari-led regime would say no to a court order except that this was considered potentially inflammable because of the religious angle to it.
Adherence to the rule of law is a promise that President Buhari vowed to keep when he assumed office in 2015. “Let me reiterate this administration’s commitment to due process, merit and total observance of the rule of law as central pillars of a prosperous and democratic society,” he said.
While delivering his address at a Common Wealth meeting, in May 2016, he also affirmed thus: “I am committed to applying the rule of law and to respecting human rights.”
In April 2017, the Vice President, Professor Yemi Osinbajo, in an interview with journalists reaffirmed the commitment of the Buhari-led administration commitment to obeying court orders. “I very strongly believe that we must obey the law. It is our duty as government to respect the orders of the court.”
It would seem that these promises have been kept in the breach. Critics continue to point at the El-Zakzaky example. The only plausible excuse adduced by the Nigerian state is that national security is at the core of the matter. But this has been countered by many who believe that the law is supreme, and must be respected in the case of the Shiite leader who has been granted bail by a court of competent jurisdiction.
More than meets the eye
Some posers have been raised by a few who share an uncanny feeling that there is, perhaps, more to the El-Zakzaky saga than the question of national security. One is the claim that his detention might just be another avenue to fritter the country’s meager resources. Recall that the Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, had claimed that feeding the high profile detainee was costing the Nigerian Government some N3.5 million monthly.
Dismissing the claim of Mohammed as lies, a prominent member of the Shiite group, IMN, Ibrahim Musa, on November 9, 2018, rather said that their leader was not being cared for properly. “When some members of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria met the Sheikh early last month, among the things he complained of is the poor feeding he is facing since transferred to Kaduna six months ago,” he said.
Even a more disturbing argument is the view that President Buhari’s refusal to release El-Zakzaky is not unconnected to the fact that he is a Sunni Muslim, a sect who are not at home with the Islamic orientation of Shi’ite Muslims. This remains largely debatable.
So, will El-Zakzaky ever get the chance to breathe an air freedom under the Buhari administration?
Some others have argued that the continuous detention of the cleric is something that Nigerians can relate with, given Buhari’s publicly stated position on how Nigerian courts have slowed him down in his quest to dispense his brand of justice. That Buhari is bitter with the nation’s alleged corrupt judicial system is, therefore, common knowledge.
There is a great doubt that President Buhari would allow himself to be brow beaten into releasing the incarcerated Shiite leader. If anything, the experience of the former National Security Adviser under the then President Goodluck Jonathan administration, Sambo Dasuki, provides a big lesson. The former security goon is still under custody despite several court rulings.
There is, indeed, a big doubt. Femi Falana, a human rights lawyer, on April 25, 2019, during a public lecture marking the 30th anniversary of the Committee for the Defence of Human Rights in Lagos, captured it more succinctly:
He said, “I just remember…trying to write a letter to the Attorney General of the Federation and I found, very painfully, that whereas the Buhari/Idiagbon regime complied with all court orders for the release of those who were held illegally under the state security detention persons Decree No 2 of 1984, we cannot say the same today under a democratic government.”
By John Chukwu…
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