The incessant clashes between the police and adherents of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria, known as Shi’ites, have raised fears that another conflict is about to get out of hand in the country. Even the civil society is calling on the Buhari government not to repeat past mistakes, because the Nigeria Police itself is not doing the right thing to suppress the issue. Police duty is to maintain law and order and protect lives and property, especially in discharging their duty; it is gratifying that the legislature has always enacted the enabling laws for the discharge of this onerous duty.

However, recently, the table has turned; it looks like there is a conspiracy to emasculate the police to the advantage of law breakers. After all, before now, for a group of people to embark on any procession that was likely to affect the freedom and business of members of the public, they must apply to the police to enable the police to plan, monitor and prevent hoodlums from hijacking such a protest.

Buhari’s government stands accused of abusing human rights and oppressing a minority group after regular clashes, especially between the Shi’ite group and the government, in which scores of people were killed including a Channels TV journalist, Precious Owolabi and a Deputy Commissioner of Police, Usman Umar, recently. The bone of contention is the continuing detention of the Shi’ite leader, Ibraheem El-Zakzaky, and shooting and killing many of his members by the police in the process of calling on government to free their leader, who has been in detention since December 2015.

Violence broke out when soldiers at a military checkpoint reportedly prevented the sect’s procession from entering Abuja to mark Arbaeen, which occurs 40 days after the Day of ASHURA, a day of mourning for the Shi’ites. In the past, the event had often ended in clashes owing to the intervention by security forces. The march was a protest, not just a religious rite, since it was also meant to pressure the authorities to release El-Zakzaky.

At that time, security forces killed more than 300 adherents of the movement in the so-called Zaria massacre in Kaduna State.

Till date, causes of the conflict between the Shi’ites and government could not be ascertained, as the IMN and the army give conflicting accounts about what happened exactly on December 12, 2015, though an army statement alleged that the IMN members, on the order of El-Zakzaky, attempted to assassinate the Chief of Army Staff, Lt. Gen. Tukur Buratai, en route to a military ceremony in Zaria. The statement said hundreds of the sect members barricaded Buratai’s way, spurned warnings to disperse, then started pelting his convoy with dangerous objects. It said troops responsible for the army chief’s safety had to protect him by clearing the barricades forcefully, but did so in accordance with the army’s rules of engagement and code of conduct.

Nigerian Muslims are mainly Sunnites and there was no real voice for the Shi’ites until the IMN was founded in the 1980s by El-Zakzaky. Then, the movement grew out of student enthusiasm for the Iranian Revolution. The number of Shi’ites in the country now is estimated at three million, a number big enough to scare the central government. The Shi’ite ideology is in opposition of what the establishment follows, especially Saudi Arabian Wahabism. And the IMN has a lot of followers in the north. That’s the more reason the government needs to take the bull by the horns, otherwise, we are entering another Boko Haram in the making in this country.

The sect, a few weeks ago, invaded the National Assembly where the members reportedly attacked the security official on duty. Incidentally, two of the sect’s members were then said to have been shot in their legs, but they burnt down three cars and vandalised other property during incident. It is now imperative for the government to focus more resources and attention on fighting the Boko Haram terrorists rather than turning their guns on unarmed peaceful citizens they are obliged to protect. The IMN is now gradually becoming a terrorist group with its actions and deeds in recent days. The Federal Government needs to release El-Zakzaky, his wife and other members of the sect in various detention cells to allow peace to reign in the country.

Many Nigerians are increasingly worried that the IMN could turn into another Boko Haram in our hands. Though the movement itself denies any plans to take up arms against the state, its spokesman, Ibrahim Musa, had said it before now, rejecting comparisons between the Shi’ites and Boko Haram. He further stated that the movement was guided by and led by the principles of Islam, and Islam is a religion of peace noting that it doesn’t force people to follow its doctrines and ideologies.

Indeed, the movement fundamentally believes and proclaims that “there is no government except that of Islam”. Its founder, El-Zakzaky, since the early 1980s, has called for an Islamic revolution to create an Islamic state in Nigeria, an end to Western influence in the country and the stringent adoption of Islamic legal principles and systems. The movement is very critical of northern Nigeria’s traditional, religious and political elites, including the Sunnis who are the majority of the country’s Muslim population. No statistics are available, but the Shi’ites are thought to make up just two or three per cent of Nigeria’s 178 million people. Present in small numbers in Nigeria for a long time, Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution inspired a strong growth in the Shi’ite community and persuaded its leaders to challenge traditional and secular Muslim authorities more vigorously.

Recall that Boko Haram also started as a non-violent group that now turned deadly after its leader, Muhammad Yusuf, was killed by the police in 2009. And since then, the central authorities have learned nothing from what happened in the North-East. Instead of the government listening to the sect’s members’ agitation and trying to address their problems, it adopted a strong arm tactic. Shooting and radicalising the group in the process will only lead to more violence and aggravate their militancy, maiming and killing of people including the military forces.

However, it has now come to a stage where dialogue alone will not be enough to solve a problem which has assumed international undertones. I have no doubts that Saudi Arabia and Iran are engaged in a proxy war in Northern Nigeria, as they are in Yemen. That is why we also have to rely on international actors, like the U S, the British, the French and other leading powers in the world. The government, especially the police, too has its own share of the blame on the anomalies and incessant protests of the Shi’ites as it failed to salvage the situation.

For me, responsibility lies primarily with the government. It must follow the rule of law and comply with court rulings, that ordered el-Zakzaky and his wife’s release. The cleric, who is in his mid-sixties, has reportedly lost the sight in one eye during the 2015 clashes, and has only been seen in public thrice since he was detained by the Department of Security Services. What are they doing in the custody of the DSS for four years, after being granted bail by two to three separate courts of the country?

– Orunbon, a public affairs analyst, wrote in from Abeokuta

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