Protests by members of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN), better known as Shiites, demanding the enforcement of a court ruling that ordered the release of their leader, Sheikh Ibrahim El-Zakzaky and his wife, Zeenat, assumed a dangerous dimension last Tuesday, when a clash between the police and the protesters at the National Assembly, turned bloody, leaving two policemen with gunshot wounds. Members of the Islamic sect who had staged a protest to the parliament, the second time in one week, having earlier led a similar protest on July 4, allegedly overpowered one of the policemen providing security at the gate, snatched his gun, shot two officers, broke down the gate to forcefully gain entrance and also vandalised and burnt some vehicles. The protesters returned on Thursday, this time to the Federal Secretariat, Abuja, where they engaged the police in another confrontation, throwing rocks, water sachets and other objects at the police who fired tear gas canisters and gunshots at them. There was pandemonium in the area as workers scampered for fear of being caught in the crossfire.
Security breaches by the Shiite sect have become one too many, since the arrest and detention of El-Zakzaky. In April 2018, there were violent clashes between the sect members and the police on the streets of Wuse 11 and Maitama Districts of Abuja, following attempts by armed policemen to disperse them with tear gas canisters and water canons. Similarly, in October 2018, a clash between the Shiite members and an Army convoy led to the destruction of vehicles, including an attempt to overrun the escorts to cart away the ammunition and missiles the troops were escorting, according to the army.
Trouble between the Nigerian state and the IMN began in December 2015, when members of the sect, in a routine religious trek, which the group had come to be associated with, blockedthe Kaduna-Zaria Road. The convoy of the Chief of Army Staff, Gen Tukur Buratai, who was travelling on the road at the time was held hostage and pleas by the army for the sect members to leave the road fell on deaf ears, leading to a violent clash in which a soldier reportedly lost his life. The irked soldiers consequently invaded the residence of El-Zakzaky, where they killed over 300 people including three sons of the sect leader and arrested several others, including himself and his wife, Zeenat. The army however denied the mass killings. One year after his incarceration, Justice Gabriel Kolawole had in a December 2016 ruling ordered the release of El-Zakzaky on the grounds that the government’s justification of “holding him for his own protection” was insufficient.
This newspaper condemns in no uncertain terms, the refusal of the federal government to release El-Zakzaky, a move in total defiance of the provisions of the rule of law. The administration of President Muhammadu Buhari has gained notoriety for disobeying court orders and detaining citizens unlawfully. This is alien to the democratic system of governance which Nigeria subscribes to and must not be encouraged by all right thinking citizens. The defence of the government that El-Zakzaky and his wife are being held in protective custody defies logic as already held by the court.
The state needs to learn from not too distant history. The handling of the Boko Haram sect and consequent extrajudicial killing of the sect leader, Mohammed Yusuf in 2010, by the police, is what has snowballed into a hydra headed monster the country has been battling with, which has come at great human, material and financial cost. The poor handling of the current situation by the government, in our view, has potential for worsening the precarious security situation the country is already challenged by, hence the need for an urgent resolution of the impasse, the first step which would be respecting the order of the court to release El-Zakzaky.
Be that as it may, the resort to self help by members of the sect is highly condemnable and must be treated by security agencies as the security breach that it is. While we note that every Nigerian has a right to lawful assembly and protest, as guaranteed by the 1999 Constitution (as amended), members of IMN have, through their actions, abused this right and such actions must not be condoned.
It is in the light of this that we call for diligent prosecution of all those arrested in connection with the security breaches at the National Assembly and the Federal Secretariat, last week, to serve as a deterrent to others. The police has already charged 38 suspects before Magistrates Courts in Abuja for criminal conspiracy, mischief, unlawful assembly, obstructing a public official, disturbing public peace, rioting armed with deadly weapons and causing grievous hurt, under sections 97, 326,180, 149,107, 243, 113 and 267 of the Penal Code. This is a welcome development.