. . . AS SHI’ITES, COMMUNITIES COUNT HEAVY CASUALTIES
By Sonde Abbah
It was like a scene from an epic Hollywood movie. One moment the whole place was quiet; the next moment all hell broke loose as a detachment of fully armed soldiers swooped on members of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) at Kugbo, near Abuja. The Shi’ites, as they are commonly known, were on a procession to mark an annual religious programme and to also protest the protracted detention of their leader, Ibrahim El Zarkzakky, despite numerous court orders for his release.
By the time the showdown was over, a number of casualties had been recorded. According to the military’s version, three IMN members died in the process. The Shi’ites however gave a significantly higher number. By their own estimation, in total about 45 of their brethren were mowed down by soldiers penultimate week in the course of the procession staged from various entry points into the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), including Zuba and Kugbo. Their claim was buttressed by Femi Falana, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) and lawyer to the MNI leader who asserted that hundreds of Shi’ites have been killed extra-judicially in the past three years alone.
Due to their radical brand of Islam, the Shi’ites are not the darling of too many Nigerians; nonetheless universal outrage has trailed the military’s scotch-earth response to the group’s generally peaceful protests. To most Nigerians, it’s unacceptable to unleash armed soldiers on unarmed civilians in peacetime, be they Shi’ites or any other groups of citizens. To make matters worse, the Army, in a bid to justify their strong-arm tactics, famously deployed the odious analogy which President Donald Trump of USA recently used to justify his unprecedented clampdown on illegal immigrants. Trump had contended that migrants were “Food for action”; he restricted his barb for migrants whereas the Nigerian military’s own barb targeted fellow Nigerians – in this case, Shi’ites.
That shocking blunder has unwittingly brought to the fore once again the issue of wanton killings across Nigeria on the one hand, and the frequent deployment of armed soldiers to perform what ordinarily should be purely police functions, on the other. Operating under various code names such as Operation Crocodile Smile, Operation Python Dance, Operation Zaki and the like, battle-ready troops have been deployed to areas such as the Niger Delta (to combat restiveness); South East (to checkmate the pro-Biafra agitators) and Middle Belt (to confront incessant killings by bandits and herdsmen), etc. These are, needless to say, aside from the once-in-a-while military operations like the invasion of some communities in Plateau State over the killing of a retired general, Idris Alkali and, of course, the Shi’ite incidents.
Incidentally, the prevailing bloody narrative began in 2015 when the Army clamped down on members of MNI near Zaria, Kaduna State. Alleging that the Shi’ites had attempted to kill the Chief of Army Staff, Lt. General Tukur Buratai (whose convoy was passing there), the military retaliated in full force. By the time the dust had settled, hundreds of Shi’ites lay dead even as their leader and his wife were whisked into detention. Ever since then it has been confrontation upon confrontation between MNI and the military, with thousands of former reportedly mowed down in cold blood.
Last year it was the turn of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) to taste the military’s might. As IPOB’s agitation waxed strong, the military swooped on the South East. Although IPOB leader, Nnamdi Kanu, escaped in the heat of that operation, many of the group’s members lost their lives, even as the whereabouts of Kanu’s father still remains a mystery. In the same vein, swaths of the oil-rich Niger Delta had been militarized during agitations by the region’s reactive youths for a more equitable deal in the nation’s of scheme of things.
In the midst of a well-documented feud involving some locals and settlers, a detachment of soldier stormed there, allegedly unleashed mayhem and then whisked a number of the inhabitants to Abuja. The same commando style was also evident in Plateau State last month during the long-drawn search for the remains of Major General Alkali (rtd.) aside from frequent raids on communities, burning of houses and killing of inhabitants, indiscriminate arrests of locals and passers-by (including a PUNCH newspaper correspondent and a heavily pregnant woman) were reportedly the order of the day.
These expeditions somewhat reincarnate those undertaken by the same Nigerian Army in Udi, Bayelsa State and Zaki Biam, Benue State during the President Olusegun Obasanjo era. Instructively, barely a few months ago a detachment of soldiers from a base in North Bank, Makurdi, Benue State invaded a nearby community following the killing of a soldier there and burned down about a hundred houses despite that elders of the village had handed over the youths suspected to have had hands in that killing.
What is particularly worrisome about the military’s rather unusual involvement in those and similar operations, say Nigerians, is not only the highhandedness that characterize them but the performance of chores that are constitutionally in the realm of the Police functions. Analysts as well as other Nigerians from different backgrounds who spoke to DESERT HERALD echoed similar concerns. Instructively, socio-cultural groups such as Afenifere, Ohaneze Ndi Igbo and the Middle Belt Forum have all, at various times, raised the alarm over the steady militarization of every nook and cranny of the nation”.
“What particularly bothers me is that here is a country where for many years now a motley gang (Boko Haram) has held sway in the North East, with the military so far unable to defeat them”, laments Dongwa Isewo, an Abuja-based lawyer. “One finds it odd that rather than deploy our soldiers to go and fight such insurgents and the bandits terrorizing many of our states, soldiers are being let loose on civil matters that the Nigeria Police, Civil Defence, etc, can easily handle. This, in my mind, is a dangerous precedent!”
What is normally done in civilized societies is that the military are deployed as a last resort. But since the advent of the Muhammadu Buhari presidency in May 2015, the military seem to be used as a first resort. Virtually every civil disobedience or protest is confronted by heavily armed military troops.
Conversely, elsewhere in saner climes soldiers are sequestered in their barracks; they are rarely seen except during national emergencies. As the 2019 general electrons draw nearer, the poser on many lips is: will the military take the back seat as is the norm or will they be drawn into the fray more and more with the attendant risks? Nigerians and the International Community are waiting with baited breath to see how the ugly narrative pans out.