Zaria Killings and the Conspiracy of Silence

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With allegations of mindless killings of innocent citizens by the Nigerian security agents fast becoming a regular occurrence, there appears to be no end in sight following the massacre of more than 30 members of the Shia Islamic Movement in the ancient city of Zaria, Kaduna State. And as the army insists it was provoked by the sect to pull the trigger; the latter claims its only offence for which scores of its members were shot dead, is the peaceful demonstration held in solidarity with victims of Israeli occupation of Palestine. Expectedly, questions are now rife as to which version of the two positions is true. However, highly placed Nigerians want the Jonathan administration to do everything possible to unravel what truly transpired between the Islamic group and the military that fateful Friday.

For those incurable optimists always ready to score the Goodluck Jonathan administration high in its handling of the security challenges in the land; that Friday’s killings of scores of Shia members, allegedly by the military in the ancient city of Zaria, North-West Nigeria, must have left them shell-shocked, if not stunned beyond words. The Islamic sect, led by controversial cleric, Sheikh Ibrahim El-Zakzaky, reportedly clashed with the Nigerian Army during a peaceful protest in solidarity with victims of the ongoing Israeli occupation of Palestine. In the past 34 years, the Sheikh had led his followers annually without a reported incidence of violence but the 35th edition turned bloody as his three promising sons died from gunshots fired by the soldiers, with a fourth lucky to be alive, albeit with injuries sustained from gunshots. Ahmad El-Zakzaky (24), the eldest of the three was until his death, a final year student of Chemical Engineering at the Shenyang University of Technology, China and was due for graduation in April, 2015. Like Ahmad, Hameed El-Zakzaky (22) was a student in the Department of Aeronautical Engineering in the X’ian University of Technology (XUT), China; while the youngest, Mahmoud El-Zakzaky (19) studied at the International University in Beirut, Lebanon until his death.

Expectedly, a rare wellspring of sorrow has gripped the cleric and his family even as an unusual silence on the part of the establishment is eliciting fear in the minds of the people. But what could result in the total breakdown of law and order to warrant a professionally trained army to fire live bullets at a civilian populace?

Briefing newsmen at a press conference 24 hours after the murder of his sons and thirty other members of the Shia community, Sheikh El-Zakzaky said his group was targeted, noting that his children were gunned down after observing the Eid prayers at the Hussainiyyah Baqiyyatullah, describing the incident as the “indiscriminate shooting of peaceful protesters.” Battling tears, he bared his mind on what truly happened this way: “Ahmad was arrested on Friday and subsequently killed by soldiers in Zaria after the completion of the pro-Palestinian peaceful procession, called Quds Day, in solidarity with the Palestinians under Israeli occupation. Ahmad was arrested with his two other brothers, Hameed and Ali, after their brother, Mahmoud was gunned down by soldiers. Ahmad was murdered in cold blood because he was seen alive in Basawa Barracks even though they shot him on the legs. The soldiers subsequently killed him before they took him to the Ahmadu Bello University Teaching Hospital (ABUTH) in Shika,” he narrated.

According to the cleric, there was a slight chance for Mahmoud to have survived if only the soldiers had allowed him take the 19-year-old to the hospital for treatment after he was shot in the stomach. “After the soldiers shot him,” he recalled, “we tried to take him to a hospital but the soldiers blocked the roads. That was how he bled to death.” To some social critics, the death of the members of the Shia Islamic Community marked again another dark chapter in the history of civilian/army relations in Nigeria even as some fear the last may not have been heard of the tragedy yet. And with calls for a thorough and impartial investigation to be carried out with a bid to ensuring that justice is served; not a few Nigerians have been thrown into a near-panic mode as tension of a probable outbreak of violence seems imminent.

Reacting to the Zaria killings, former Vice President Atiku Abubakar called on government to do the needful by carrying out investigations on the tragedy, noting that those found to have been on the wrong side of the law should be appropriately punished. Wondering why a protest would suddenly attract the use of live bullets, Atiku said caution must be the watchword when dealing with individuals or groups who share different views with the rest of the society.

Writing on his Twitter Handle, @atiku, the ex-Vice President said: “I am deeply disturbed by the fatal shooting of protesters in Zaria. I have always advocated restraint in dealing with dissidents, be they political or religious. The incident needs to be thoroughly investigated by the authorities in order to restore calm and public trust in law enforcement,” warning law enforcement agents and clerics to exercise restraints in their conducts. “Our law enforcement agents must be careful not to alienate the people who are partners in our search for peace and progress,” he wrote, adding that “it is important that religious leaders preach calm and restrain their followers from activities which disturb the peace.”

Like Atiku, Rights Activist and President, Civil Rights Congress, Comrade Shehu Sani, is worried that the impunity which is fast becoming a trademark of the armed forces could plunge the nation into another phase of chaos in the not-distant future.

In a press release earlier in the week, Sani said the incident must be handled with utmost sense of responsibility, pointing out that anything short of justice portends danger for the peace and stability of the country. “The killings are cruel, inhuman, barbaric and dangerous act with wider security implications for the peace and stability of the country. The impunity and brigandage by our security forces undermines the peace and stability of our country and by extension, the authority and credibility of the government,” the statement reads in part.

Sani, an unrepentant critic of military dictatorship, also spared a moment to warn the Khaki boys that laws were enacted to be obeyed by all Nigerians, the armed forces inclusive. “Security forces established, recognized and funded by constitutional guarantees must operate within the ambit of the laws and democratic tenets,” he added.

Similarly, the Sultan of Sokoto, Alhaji Muhammed Sa’ad Abubakar on Tuesday called for a full-scale investigation into the killings of the Islamic group and cautioned against sparing anyone found to have erred on the side of the law. The traditional ruler disclosed this when he hosted members of the Alumni Association of the Nigerian Defense Academy, 18th Regular Course, 1975, to a dinner in Sokoto.

According to him, the Zaria killings must not only be investigated but that appropriate sanctions must be meted out to those found guilty as he insisted that until this is done; the reign of impunity will continue to linger in years to come. “Whoever is found wanting,” stressed the Sultan, “should be properly punished in line with the laws of the country, as this will serve as deterrent to others.”

Lamenting the incessant killings of Nigerians in a supposedly democratic administration, the revered Sultan called on political leaders to be honest in their dealings with the people, insisting that without honesty, social justice will elude the nation. “If we are not truthful with one another, we will never have solutions to our problems,” he added.

In the same vein, the Muslim Media Watch Group of Nigeria (MMWGN) also wants the federal government to immediately institute a Judicial Commission of Enquiry to unravel the cause of what it called the “extra-judicial killing” of the more than 30 Shiites, mostly youths in Zaria.

In a statement issued in Ilorin, the Kwara State Capital, coordinator of the group, Alhaji Ibrahim Abdullahi noted that failure to institute an independent probe panel would “make overzealous security operatives to in future engage in criminal activities the likes of which have been witnessed in Lagos and Abuja in recent times.”

But for grieving El-Zakzaky, the tragedy that befell him is not without parallel in history even as he recalled that great scholars and clerics had in the past put up with personal loss and frustrations in the hands of the authority.

Speaking shortly after the dead were buried in Zaria, the Sheikh insisted that the attack on his group was totally uncalled for. “So many things have happened to great servants of Allah in the past. Imam Khomeini’s sons were also killed, but he never lost focus. We will never lose focus. Why should we be provoked? We don’t attack; we only talk about faith and what we stand for. We are a peaceful people and no one can accuse us of ever instigating violence’, he told a gathering of sympathizers.

But despite his call for calm pending the disclosure of the findings by investigating authorities, Sheikh El-Zakzaky is infuriated by the indifference of the Jonathan government which he said is yet to make any contact with him since the unfortunate incident occurred about two weeks ago. “The government is yet to contact me. As you know, the President is yet to make any public statement on the matter. The Minister of Defense is also yet to do that. What has happened has happened and people have been coming to see me”, he said.

However, military sources who had declined comment on the killings, suddenly offered one penultimate Monday through Defense Spokesperson, Brig. Gen. Chris Olukolade, who posited that his men shot in self-defense. “The people from within that crowd (Shiites procession) shot at soldiers. We don’t want to be drawn into any controversy. We are interested in ascertaining what really happened,” said Olukolade, who also faulted the claim by the cleric that he’s yet to be contacted more than a week after the unfortunate incident. “On the day of the incident,” continued the Army General, “the officers in Zaria met him, had discussions with him and even exchanged telephone numbers with him,” a claim also affirmed by Presidential Spokesman, Dr. Reuben Abati. In a media briefing in Abuja a week after the Zaria carnage, Abati said the allegation of conspiracy of silence on the part of government by the Sheikh “is not true.” The incident occurred on Friday. The National Security Adviser (NSA) contacted him (El-Zaskzaky) on Saturday and condoled with him. The Chief of Army Staff has also initiated investigation into the incident.”

But despite the seeming optimism the Islamic group wielded from the outset; it now appears anything short of an independent enquiry will not be acceptable to it, given the statements credited to Sheikh El-Zakzaky earlier on Monday. Reacting to Abati’s claim that the military had commenced investigation into the killings, the Islamic movement wondered what manner of report the army expects the public to look forward to when it is clear case of one being a judge in his own case.”

“One would have expected the Nigerian Government to constitute a high powered independent public inquiry committee to investigate the insensitive, unprovoked, free killings by the Nigerian Army under the command of Lieutenant Colonel S. O. Okwu conducted on innocent and peacefully protesting people against the evil crimes the illegal Zionist state of Israel is unleashing on the people of Palestine,” reads part of a statement signed by Dr. Abdullahi Danladi, of the Resource Forum of the Shiites Islamic Movement, adding that “as the Nigerian Army conducts its in-house investigations, the world is watching with keen interest to see the outcome.” The Forum also exonerates the cleric and his followers of any wrongdoing, and challenged the Army to prove otherwise. “On your preliminary investigation which you claimed has contradicted Sheikh Zakzaky’s statement…As your higher level investigation is going on, we maintain that a Zaria-based Islamic scholar, Sheikh El-Zakzaky and his followers did not unlawfully engage in an act of civil disturbance,” read the concluding part of the statement.

Meanwhile, Nigerians of diverse class and origin all seem to have agreed that the Zaria killings is one tragedy too many, which must not be swept under the carpet. And while it might be too early to trade blames, they contend the Army must learn to resist the temptation to pull the trigger at the slightest provocation. It is left to be seen how an already overwhelmed administration would pull this off in the weeks ahead.

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