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President of Nigeria, Bola Ahmed Adekunle Tinubu
By Owei Lakemfa
Violence was expected last Friday, July 28, 2023 when the Shia population in the country marked the Ashura Festival held worldwide by the Shiites. The prediction almost did not come to pass but for a last minute duel near the Wuse Market, Abuja when as usual, armed security men engaged the Shiites, and bullets flew.
No, it is not as if the Shiites are bounded to violence, but the security services, including the armed forces, seem to have locked it in their brains that the Shiites will always be violent, so a counter-force must be on ground. It is like a cat and mouse game and the mouse cannot plead innocence even if the facts on ground supports its claim. Even if the Shiite processions are peaceful, the security services assume they have a duty to disperse them because the latter would not have taken permission from the police.
Yet, the Constitution grants every Nigerian the right to peaceful assembly and movement. Some may ask: why do the Shiites not give peace a chance by not holding street processions? The answer is simple: it is part of their religious tradition, especially Ashura, a day of mourning which commemorates the beheading of Imam Hussain bin Ali in Karbala, in today’s Iraq in 680 CE. So long as the Shiites do not endanger public peace nor infringe on the constitutional rights of other Nigerians, they should have the right to practise their religion.
A primary problem we are faced with today emanates from our cumulative 29-year military rule during which public processions must be licensed by the state, otherwise, it would be seen as a challenge to the government in power. Maximum force is then used to subdue or subjugate the marchers or protesters.
Tragically, the shootings during such encounters are indiscriminate and passers-by sometimes fall victim. For example, on January 21, 2020, a journalist, Alex Ogbu of Regent Africa Times who was covering a Shiite procession at the Berger Roundabout in Abuja, was killed when a police officer shot him in the head.
It is difficult to give an accurate statistics of how much Shiite blood has been shed in our streets. But Senior Advocate of Nigeria Femi Falana had on Monday, November 5, 2018 petitioned the National Human Rights Commission to investigate the extra-judicial killing of 492 members of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria, IMN, the main Shiite group within four years by the Nigerian Army and the Nigeria Police Force.
In one encounter on December 12, 2015, 348 Shiites were killed by the army in Zaria for allegedly blocking the convoy of the Chief of Army Staff. Two days later, the army shot Shiite leader, Sheik Ibraheem Elzakzaky and captured him and his wife, Zeenat. The couple have remained in detention for eight years now despite at least four court orders, including that by the international ECOWAS Court setting them free.
The Shiites of course are not angels; they commit infractions. But whenever they do, they should be charged to court rather than government resorting to illegalities and extra judicial massacres.
The two-month-old Tinubu administration need not inherit the alleged enemies of past administrations; it should set Zakzaky and other Shiite detainees free in accordance with the lawful orders of the courts. This will send a clear message to the police, security forces and the military that the Shiites are not the enemies of Nigeria.
In any case, if the leaders of Saudi Arabia and Iran who lead the two main Islamic tendencies, the Sunni and the Shia, have closed ranks and signed peace agreements, there is no reason why the Nigerian state should be seen perpetuating a war against the Shiites.
Nnamdi Okwu Kanu, the 55-year-old leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra, IPOB is another political prisoner that should be set free. He was illegally abducted in Nairobi, Kenya on June 18, 2021 and has since been detained by the SSS. He had previously been arrested on October 14, 2015 and granted bail on April 28, 2017. After his home was raided in September 2017 by the military, during which 28 IPOB members were allegedly killed, he fled the country.
It is true that Kanu is a separatist leader who advocates for the secession of Eastern Nigeria, if necessary, by force of arms, and he is uncouth. But the fact remains that he is a political prisoner who should be protected under our laws and international conventions. Cases such as Kanu’s are better handled politically, especially when we have millions of Nigerians who as Igbos, believe rightly or wrongly, that they are marginalised and treated as second class citizens in the land of their birth.
Holding on to Kanu indefinitely or jailing him would not resolve our National Question. Rather, it can further complicate matters. I reiterate that the Tinubu administration does not need to inherit the enemies of the Buhari administration. Also, the issue is to address the question of marginalisation raised and how to drastically reduce or curb the serious insecurity, social and economic crises this has engendered especially in Eastern Nigeria.
We should also learn from how we handle separatist agitators. For example, after the country returned to civil rule, the Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra, MASSOB led by Ralph Uwazuruike emerged in 1999. When it was repressed, a more intemperate breakaway faction, the Biafra Zionist Movement , BZM, led by Benjamin Onwuka emerged in 2010.
After the BNM attacked the Government House, Enugu on March 7, 2014, and later, the Enugu State Broadcasting Service, it was repressed and Onwuka was imprisoned for three years. That same year, a more virulent strain, the IPOB emerged; and with Kanu’s abduction, the most violent separatist, Simon Ekpa has emerged. Unlike Uwazurike, Onwuka and Kanu who operated in Nigeria, Ekpa is operating from Europe with Finland as base.
The case of Yoruba separatist agitator, Sunday Adeyemo, a.k.a. Sunday Igboho, is the most straight forward. The Buhari administration could not check banditry in the country and Igboho decided to lead a self-defence movement in Western Nigeria. The SSS in the early hours of July 1, 2022 invaded his home in Soka, Ibadan. The SSS claimed there was a “hot gun duel” Igboho fled to Benin Republic where that country’s authorities arrested him and his wife while trying to board a flight to Germany.
The Benin government eventually gave him a conditional release from prison, but have kept him in the country. A simple amnesty is required for Igboho so he can be free to return home.
The simple advice to the Tinubu administration is: set all political prisoners free while also addressing the grievances of the Nigerian people.