The recurring spectacle of members of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN), more popularly called 'Shi'ites,' clashing with law enforcement agencies, with attendant loss of lives, has become an embarrassment to the government and people of Nigeria which must end forthwith.
The recent unfortunate incident in Abuja was just the latest in a string of similar clashes since 2014 and each time, the sect lost many of its adherents while law enforcement officers also recorded casualties. This is not acceptable in a civilised society where both government and the governed exercise their respective authority and rights with sensitvity and maturity.
The group, inspired by the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran and drawing membership from persons disenchanted with existing religious and political establishments, claims to exercise its constitutional rights as granted in Sections 38 and 40 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. So covered, it conducted, in Abuja, as it does annually in various northern Nigeria cities, processions called Arba'een March around towns 'in commemoration of martyrdom of Imam Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet ... , (but) merging it with our call for the release of our leader, Sheik El Zakzaky' said the sect's spokesman Ibrahim Musa.
In principle, no one can and should deny the basic freedoms of expression and assembly of a group of citizens. But this is not an absolute freedom.As a fundamental objective and directive principle of state policy, constituted authority, meaning the government, is charged with the "primary purpose," of assuring "the security and welfare of the people." This is to say that whatever in its wisdom government considers inimical to this primary purpose must be prevented. This would include a circumscription, within the ambit of lawfulness though, the basic freedoms of citizens.
It must be noted, with much regret though, that in four or so years, the IMN has conducted itself in a way that has put it on collision course with law enforcement officers. Its pro-Palestinian demonstration in July 2014 cost it the death of many followers including three children of its leader. In December 2015, the sect clashed with men of the Nigerian Army in Zaria. This caused the death of hundreds of its members, including again, three of the sect leader's children. El Zakzaky's home was destroyed and he was injured and arrested with his wife. He has remained in detention ever since. The Shi'ites' annual Arba'een Symbolic Trek which Musa says is conducted worldwide seems to be incessantly characterised in Nigeria by physical altercation with the police and the army: this happened in Kano last year and in 2016. In each case adherents and law officers died. Sadly, this has repeated itself in Abuja lately.
Three points must be emphasised. First, a group may have the constitutional right to occupy public space in its religious procession or even a protest march. But it has every moral and legal obligation to, in the process, conduct itself as not to jeopardise in any way, public order and safety. If need be, a group should seek the assistance of the police to this end. The record of Shi'ites activities in this respect leaves much to be desired.
Second, government, through the law enforcement apparatus, is morally and legally obligated to protect the rights as well as the lives of citizens, even in the face of provocation. It is not for nothing that the police and the military forces are described as 'disciplined professions.' One reason is their capacity to exercise a high level of self-control when confronted with tough situations -including provocation by citizens that they are engaged, ab initio, to protect. Deriving from this, it is most unbecoming that every engagement between Nigerian law officers and Shi'ites results in loss of lives. That does not at all speak in favour of professionalism on the part of the former. The Police and the military forces must consistently keep in mind their first and most important duty to protect lives of all within the borders of this federation. No nation can afford trigger-happy law officers. If permitted, in due time there may be no citizens to protect. Indeed, Amnesty International is the most prominent of a number of organisations that have expressed objection to the "excessive force" of the Nigerian security forces on Shi'ites demonstrators.
Third, both the Kaduna State Government and the Federal Government continue to play into the hands of the Shi'ites by taking wrong and unhelpful decisions. It may be recalled that the judicial inquiry set up by the Kaduna State Government and headed by Justice Mohammed Garba of the Court of Appeal (Port Harcourt Division) established that 348 Shiites were killed during the army operation against them. The panel recommended that the perpetrators be charged. To date, no action has been taken in this direction. Instead, the state government declared the IMN a security threat and an unlawful organisation the membership of which attracts seven years imprisonment.
Besides, El Zakzaky has been incarcerated by the Directorate of State Services since the 2015 incident in spite of several court orders that he be released to police custody as well as paid the sum of N50 million as compensation. It is on this account too that Nigerians have been told by state actors that state security should be superior to the sanctity of the rule of law. This government stance has not been helpful at all.
What is worse, even foreign powers that have tasted consequences of religious clashes, have been warning Nigeria about the expediency of managing clashes with the Shi'ites with care even as they have noted that the nation has demonstrated lack of capacity to handle such sensitive issues, so far.
So, Nigeria's leaders and indeed the security and intelligence agencies should be careful with the way they resort to self-help and extra-judicial powers in handling the Shi'ites or any other such movement. In the same way, the adherents should note that they can't take the law into their hands and expect the law enforcement agencies to watch. The law must be allowed to rule. And all stakeholders in the polity must learn to live this ethos.