Bloodshed in Zaria
Shiite Muslims and the Nigerian army: No love lost
Draped usually in a black flowing gown made of silk, with a white turban sitting firmly around his head, the leader of Shiite Muslim in Nigeria, Sheikh Ibrahim El-Zakzaky, cuts the image of a divinity – certainly that is not the quality he will attribute to himself. For a man of El-Zakzaky’s conviction, such portrayal belongs only to Allah. “There is no god but Allah and Muhammad is His Messenger,” Quran says.
Notwithstanding, members of Islamic Movement of Nigeria (ISM), the group he founded about 40 years ago in Zaria, Kaduna State, tend to view him as an icon of divinity.
So when the cleric, according to the media reports, lost his three sons, Mahmoud, Ahmad and Hameed and dozens of his members during a similar military attack in July 2014 while protesting in solidarity with the Palestinians who were being bombarded by Israeli troop in Gaza, the group developed resentment against the Nigerian army.
Since the clash, the Shiite leader had continued to express his anger against the military at functions the Movement organises across the country, describing government officials as “ people who engage in all-out war against its citizens to satisfy a foreign interest in exchange for worldly pleasure or reward”.
He once described the present government “as a bunch of wild beasts, with an insatiable appetite for the citizens’ blood. They killed mostly children dramatising the tragedy of Karbala. What we have is a heartless government backed by a wild beast military with a license to kill.”
Observers believe that the tension created by the July incident and other running battles with the establishment led to the confrontation between the group and the army, which later resulted in the last weekend massacre where hundreds Shiite adherents were killed and other maimed.
Since the incident, opinions have been divergent as to whether the killings was premeditated, as member of IMN alleged, or it was provoked by the sect members as the military authorities alleged. Shiite Muslims in Zaria reportedly block road anytime they are on procession denying other road users access. That was the case on Saturday when the clash occurred as captured by several camera phones.
According to the video footage that has gone viral on the Internet, the youth members of IMN denied the convoys of Chief of Army Staff (COAS), Lieutenant Tukur Yusuf Buratai the access to pass while the latter was on the way to pay homage to the Emir of Zauzau, Dr. Shehu Idris.
Amidst entreaty by army officers on the convoy of COAS, the youths started chanting “Allah Akbar” while brandishing machetes and sticks. Some of the youths could be seen picking stones while their leaders were having conversation with the military officers.
At a time, an army officer was shouting at a soldier aiming his gun at the group: “Don’t fire! Don’t fire!”
As the negotiation was going on, protesters were picking stones or any missiles around. Some of them were even taking photographs with their camera phone as the dialogue continued between soldiers and leaders of the youths.
For as long as the footage ran, all the pleas by the soldiers fell on deaf ears. So it was difficult to establish the action that triggered the shooting.
The army during a press conference held in Kaduna on Monday alleged that the youths later targeted vehicle of the army chief with dangerous weapon, and at that point, it was necessary to dislodge the protesters because they were out to assassinate their boss. In the event, many lives were lost, said the army authorities.
“The life of the COAS was under threat and they (the army) had no other option than to force their way through the blockage including the use of lethal weapons,” said Major General Adeniyi Oyebade.
COAS has also come out to say that he escaped “by the grace of God”.
Ibrahim Musa, the spokesperson of IMN and editor of the sect’s publication, Al-Mizan, has described this claim as a “blatant lie”.
In an interview with Press TV, Musa said: “The story line they (the army) try to dish out to the public is a blatant lie. We have never stopped anybody from passing along Sabo Geri road. This is not the first time we have been hoisting the flag at Husainiyyah,” the Shiite’s temple.
At the beginning of the month of Rabiul /Auwal- the birth month of the progenitor of Islam, Prophet Muhammad, Shiite group ceremonially change the flag on the dome of the worship building to herald the coming of the month.
“So there is no point saying we have been trying to assassinate the COAS. What we believe is that this is an orchestrated plan by the government of Muhammadu Buhari to attack the Shiite community. Even Jonathan government attacked Shiite community; they could not achieve that. This government has decided to finish what Jonathan could not finish. It is a conspiracy between Whabbist, Israelis and their American surrogates. We believe Allah will not give them necessary support,” Musa continued.
In another interview, Musa alleged: “We believe that this incident is planned and executed by the government which has been looking the other way while the army was killing members of the Movement for a period of over 27 hours from Saturday without any statement and is still quiet as the army continues with its killing spree.” The presidency response has been terse. “It is a military affair, ” said the President’s spokesperson, Mr. Femi Adesina.
The military has however denied this allegation, saying they “have nothing against the sect… but nobody should take the law into his hands”.
The army’s response speaks to the current challenge it is facing in the fight against Boko Haram insurgents. Boko Haram members have killed about 17000 people in the northeast since 2009, according to Amnesty International. And military personnel have recorded more casualties than any armed force.
Notwithstanding, the army authorities have not successfully justified the visit of soldiers to the house of the Shiite leader where they killed several members of IMN and injured many more including, family members of Sheikh El-Zakzaki.
According to a telephone conversation between the cleric and an official of the Iranian government, Sheikh Hussein, which has also gone viral online, the soldiers had killed about 30 to 50 household members of the cleric as at the time of the conversation. The footage of the siege of El-Zakzaki’s house is also circulating on the Internet. The cleric reported that the siege lasted for almost 11 hours.
“From 10pm they have been shooting all through the night. I am inside the house. Allah alone can deliver me. They have put the house under siege. They have shot everybody. About thirty must have been killed,” he reported to the Iranian man who told him to debrief him every hour.
The military raids continued at the Shiite spiritual centers in two other areas in Zaria, which lasted into Sunday morning. “The killing was so brutal at Gyallesu that even those injured in the shooting were identified and killed in cold blood by the soldiers,” Musa said.
Muslim groups in the country have condemned the action of the military, saying the soldiers were bereft of good judgment.
In a statement on the website of the Nigerian Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs (NSCIA) signed by its Secretary-General, Prof. Is-haq O. Oloyede, “the loss of lives and property is indeed unfortunate and such should have been prevented.”
The Islamic Republic of Iran has also condemned the killings. Iran’s foreign policy foregrounds the protection of Shiite groups worldwide. Little wonder then that Iran’s Foreign Ministry on Monday summoned Nigeria’s envoy in Tehran, Ambassador Tukur Mani, over the massacre, according to the state’s news agency, Fars News.Iranians have also visited Nigerian embassy in Tehran to protest against the Nigeria government.
The leader of the London protest said this at the Nigeria High commission: “We stand here today to condemn the action of Nigeria army who are not different from Boko Haram, who are not different from ISIS…” Students in America and other countries have also registered their displeasure with the way soldiers handled the crisis.
In a telephone interview with The Guardian, the Chief Missioner of Ansar-Ud-Deen Society of Nigeria, Sheikh Abdul Rahman Ahmed said the loss of life is “avoidable, uncalled for and, it could be better handled by the army.”
He said Nigeria could ill-afford such conflict at the time when the fight against Boko Haram is ongoing.
Asked to comment on his view about the activities of Shiite Muslims and their approach to Islam, he declined to comment, because he is involved in the efforts to resolve the crisis, “so I will not comment on that now.”
National Missioner, Nasrul-Lahi –L- Fatih Society (NASFAT), Sheikh Abdulllahi Akinbode also expressed displeasure at the attack.
He said regardless of sect or name, no Muslim deserved to be slaughtered like common criminals by the military. “They can call themselves Shiites or whatever name, but they are Muslims. And what Allah wants is to live and die as a Muslim.
President of the Society, Kamil Bolarinwa however told journalists that they would not give further comment because they do not have enough information about what transpired.
However, activities of the Shiites Muslims in northern Nigeria are often time perceived negatively by successive Nigerian governments. This is more so because of the group’s belief that “there is no government except that of Islam.” The government believes that such sentiment fuelled extremism displayed by the members of Boko Haram.
Even the Sunni Muslims who are predominant in Nigeria consider this view radical. Some branch of Sunni Muslims regards the Shiite as heretic. The Shiite Islamist group from Lebanon, Hezbollah, is being characterized as a terrorist group by a number of countries such as USA, France, Australia, Canada, and Netherland.
Meanwhile, hundreds of people in Zaria and Kaduna metropolis have continued to jubilate over the measures taken by the army against the activities of the sect.
Hajiya Memunat Siraj told The Guardian “ the excess of the Shiite people has finally been put under control now because they don’t see us as anything in Islam.
“They believe that they are more superior to anybody. When they are going in thousands on procession they, block the highway and they don’t believe other people have rights and if you talk to them they deal with you”.
Another resident of Zaria city, Alhaji Musa Ahmed commended the army to controlling the excess of the group, while warning that “soldiers should not over do it by engaging in excessive destruction of lives.
“They should not kill people anyhow even though the Shiites have tried to confront the army chief who is a symbol of military authority in the country. This is why I blame them. They have actually overstepped their boundary.”
Whichever way the matter turns out in the end, the Muslim groups in the country have demanded an inquiry into the matter.
“We urge the Federal Government to immediately constitute a Judicial Commission of Inquiry to thoroughly unravel the immediate and remote causes of the current mayhem. Besides, the Commission should also investigate the past incidents involving the Movement so that justice can be done,” NSCIA stated.
How government handles the case will test the peace of the northern region and the discretion of the APC government.