For the umpteenth time recently, members of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN), also known as Shiites, engaged security agents in what turned out to be another violent clash in Central Area District of Abuja. Some of the protesters were arrested while some policemen sustained injuries. This followed a similar one on April 16 in which at least one person died and over a hundred of the Shiites were arrested.
The religious sect is protesting the continued incarceration of their spiritual leader, Sheikh Ibraheem El-Zakzaky, who has been in detention, along with his wife, Malama Zeenatuddeen, since December 13 2015, following a bloody clash between soldiers and his followers during the sect's annual al-Quds Day in Zaria, Kaduna State. They reportedly blocked the convoy of the Chief of Army staff (COAS), Lt Gen Tukur Buratai, a day earlier. The military had justified their action by claiming that the group wanted to assassinate the army chief.
For the next few days after that clash, soldiers raided the sect's Husainiyya Baqiyyutullah headquarters during which many were killed and scores arrested and clamped in detention, including the Sheikh and his wife. One year later, on December 2, 2016, a Federal High Court in Abuja ordered the unconditional release of the cleric and his wife on bail, and awarded them N50million as damages for unlawful detention.
Since then the federal government has not obeyed the court order. First, the Minister of Information, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, said the cleric was being held in the interest of national security. On another occasion, the Department of State Services (DSS) said he was in protective custody. However, the court ruled that protective custody was alien to law and to the Nigeria Security Agencies' Act which established the DSS.
Since then his followers, other prominent Nigerians and international bodies like the Amnesty International, have called on the government to obey the orders of court in respect of El Zakzak. His followers have taken more assertive steps to press home their demand for their leader's rights to be respected, starting on April 13, by daily protesting in prominent places in the Federal Capital Territory and other Northern states.
The continued detention of Zakzaky against the order of a competent court poses a serious danger to Nigeria. That is why the recent warning of former United States Ambassador to Nigeria, John Campbell is timely. He cautioned the Nigerian government to tread carefully the way it is handling the Shiites' spiritual leader, as the issue could worsen the nation's security problems. He drew parallels between the ideologies and emergence of the two groups - Boko Haram and the better organised IMN, and the similar approaches of Nigeria security agencies. He warned that were the Sheikh to be killed, like Boko Haram's Mohammed Yusuf, Nigeria may be heading for another insurrection, this time by a group that could boast of about three million adherents in the 19 Northern states of the country. This is not helped by the fact that IMN has links to Iran, an Islamic Republic and a modern power.
Before Campbell spoke, the Northern States Governors' Forum had made a similar call. After an emergency meeting, they released a statement asking the Buhari Administration to tread cautiously on the El-Zakzaky issue because the country already has the serious problem of Boko Haram to contend with.
They acknowledged that security agents' poor handling of the confrontation with misguided Boko Haram members, culminating in the extrajudicial murder of its leader, Mohammed Yusuf, in July 2009 radicalised the sect into one of the most violent terrorist groups in the world and a scourge that has unsettled Nigeria and other countries in the Lake Chad belt, consumed tens of thousands of lives, destroyed hundreds of billions in property and created over two million internally displaced persons (IDPs).
This newspaper supports the call for caution and circumspection in the handling of this delicate matter. The security agencies need to study the structure and ideology of this group so that it can adopt the best measures going forward. Knee-jerk approaches and the penchant for resorting to brute force do not always work. Those who understand IMN insist that they thrive on victimhood, and that the threat of arrest and death does not always stop them when they are unduly provoked. With the Boko Haram insurgency, the relentless herdsmen-related killings and other security challenges that have stretched the armed forces thin, Nigeria can ill-afford to open a war on another front.
Now that El-Zakzaky's followers are only calling on the government to respect its own courts and to prosecute their leader and members according to the laws of the land, it is our considered opinion that this is a legitimate call in a democratic society and must not be an excuse for resort to strong arm tactics.