Killing the Shiites: In whose interest?

I have also heard people argue that the shooting and killing of Shiites is a preemptive measure because of the fear of what they will become in future?

Clem Aguiyi

“If justice is taken away, then what are sovereignty if not great bands of robbers.”

-Augustine Hippo


Coming from a family with a history and tradition of military service, I have tried to avoid commenting on the activities of the military because of my tremendous respect for the institution and because I believe that the men and women who put their lives in harm’s way so that we may live in a safer and better society need to be supported and appreciated.

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In recent time, however the activities of the military have come under intense scrutiny, especially with regards to their relationship with the civil population because of our habit of using them for what ordinarily should be the duty of the police. The many clashes between the Army and Shiites would have been avoidable if the police who were trained to disperse riots were alive to their responsibilities.

According to the Shiites Islamic Movement of Nigeria, over two thousand of their members have been killed by the army between 2015 and now. Very recently, about fifty flag wielding Shiites who were protesting the continued detention of their leader were again shot and killed by the army.

Where did the Shiites go wrong with Nigeria? Apart from the group’s rejection of secularism, the Shiites are not known to have taken up arms against the Nigeria State. Consequently, Nigerians are in darkness and find it difficult to understand the reason for the heavy high handedness against Shiites. Perhaps, if we know, we will understand why the Military are shooting them at the slightest provocation.

Nigeria is a country with large Islamic population, and the overwhelming majority of Nigerian Muslims totaling over 80 million are Sunni Muslims with ties with Saudi Arabia. Shia Islam with ties with Iran had little presence in Nigeria with as little as 6 to 10% of the Muslim population. This makes the Shiites a minority religious group.

The Shia movement in Nigeria was led by Ibrahim Zakzaky, who had been trained in Shia theology in Iran. In the early ‘80s, Zakzaky founded the Islamic Movement, which spread among Shia in Northern Nigeria.

Not much was known of the group until 2015 when the Army reportedly massacred over 1000 members of the group. The government’s official story then was that the group planned to assassinate the Chief of Army Staff, Gen Tukur Buratai. The military claim was however countered by other accounts which acknowledged that a large Shia demonstration took place on the Sokoto road, near Zaria, where the Islamic Movement has a large presence. Such procession along this road by the group was not uncommon.

Coincidentally, General Buratai’s convoy was driving through and the military demanded that the demonstrators disperse, and they refused. Some sort of projectile then struck Buratai’s car (reports conflict as to what it was), and the soldiers fired into the air as a warning.

When that didn’t work, the military reportedly opened fire to cover their principal, after which they left the location forcing their way through. Every right thinking member of the public justified the army use of limited force on this very occasion with the hope that it will be an end to the matter. I recall posting an article on my Facebook wall strongly condemning the Shiites for their bad behavior.

What followed three days afterwards left the entire nation in total shock as the army descended heavily on the Shiites at their enclave, and according to media reports killed over 1000 members of the group including one of the wives and son of Zakzaky.

The 2015 massacre was not the end of the agony of the Shiites as many more have been killed since then with the latest being the October 2018 bloody shooting and killing of aggrieved Shiite protesters in Abuja which once again highlighted the oppression of this religious minority which some people say is driven by a Sunni Muslim elite backed by Saudi Arabia.

Many of the top functionaries in both the military and civil service in Nigeria are Sunni Muslims who allegedly are using their position to advance their branch of Islamic supremacy hence Shiites in Nigeria have suffered more discrimination under this current administration than with any other in the past.

There are also people who have argued that the Shiites are not proper Muslims hence the need to stop their apostasy and that the Shiites have intention to establish the Iran type of radical Islam in Nigeria which to the majority Sunni is unacceptable. The Shiites are also said to lack respect for constituted authorities.

I have also heard people argue that the shooting and killing of Shiites is a preemptive measure because of the fear of what they will become in future? Is such fear a justification for the wanton disregard for the lives of Shiites? People have a right to their religion and freedom of thought. People also have right to peaceful protest and assembly and the government must do everything possible to protect those rights for everyone including the Shiites.

In late 2016, the court ruled against the long detention of Zakzaky without being charged before a court. The court ordered his release but the government failed to execute till the judgement date. His followers are justifiably aggrieved by the government scant regards for court orders and judgments and therefore have right to protest against the government disobedience of court order. Perhaps if the government had obeyed the court order for the release of Zakzaky, may be the Shiites wouldn’t be on the street protesting. A lot of observers are raising red flags over the similarities between the 2009 capture and execution of then Boko Haram leader Mohammed Yusuf in police custody and the continued disobedience of court order for the release of the Shia leader.

Nigeria cannot afford to repeat the errors of 2009 now. Whatever is the crime of Zakzaky, federal government is not showing good example by flouting court order. You do not use injustice to achieve justice. The government must at all times show good examples and lead by such good examples. Flouting court orders calls for justifiable civil disobedience against the state. In case the people in government are not aware, they should know that Nigeria is not a jungle and no one should reduce it into a jungle where human lives are worthless.

The high casualty figure arising from the Nigerian soldiers handling of the Shiite protests has put the human rights record of the Nigerian government under scrutiny amongst rights groups.

No life should be taken without lawful and justifiable reason. Viral videos show fleeing Shiites being shot at; even after they had been dispersed, they were still pursued by gun wielding officers and killed in cold blood. The high handedness is very horrific and shows a clear disdain for the sanctity of life, and therefore unacceptable. The use of deadly force to quell protests by people accused of throwing stones and pellets at soldiers are disproportionate and unjustifiable. I lived in this country where a sitting president and his entourage were pelted with stones and other objects by northern youths yet his security details showed restraint.

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