IN continuation of the ingrained pattern under the regime of Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), the Shi’ites suffered yet another brutal attack in the hands of security forces during their annual religious procession in the federal capital, Abuja, on Tuesday.
As expected during such attacks, media reports pointed at deaths, while the police say they recorded 53 arrests. The police also said a Volkswagen Golf vehicle, flags, petrol bombs, weapons, mobile phones, and charms, were recovered as exhibits. But the Islamic Movement in Nigeria said eight of its members were killed during the procession to mark the religious ritual of Arbaeen.
This is a heavy toll for a civil protest, part of the fundamental human rights expressly guaranteed under the 1999 Constitution in sections 33 to 40. The excuse of the police that the Shi’ites were causing hardship to other motorists is weak. This really cannot justify the teargassing, stabbings, shootings and killing of people by security forces. This is an act of state terrorism. To be clear: There is no moral difference between a state agent such as a soldier killing dozens of civilians versus this same action being perpetrated by a non-state actor.
Tuesday’s attack is not an isolated case. Repeatedly, the Nigerian military, police, and State Security Service officers engage in brutal human rights abuses under Buhari. The root of Tuesday’s violence dates to 2015, a few months after Buhari assumed office and appointed Tukur Buratai as the Chief of Army Staff. That year’s Ashura march, which coincided with Buratai’s tour to Zaria, Kaduna State, ended in a violent clash between the Shi’ites and Army contingent.
Claiming that members of the sect wanted to assassinate the Army chief, the soldiers attacked the protesters with guns, bayonets, and grenades over two days. Scores of Shi’ites lost their lives, many more were injured, and detained. The Human Rights Watch said, “It is almost impossible to see how a roadblock by angry young men could justify the killings of hundreds of people. At best, it was a brutal overreaction and at worst, it was a planned attack on the minority Shia group.”
A judicial inquest by the Kaduna State Government said 347 Shi’ites died in the attacks. The IMN leader, Ibrahim el-Zakzaky, and his wife were detained and charged to court. Despite several court orders, the Federal Government refused to release the detainees until last August. In the interval, Shi’ites regularly protested the detention of their leader. The protests usually ended in attacks, shootings, and killings by the security agents. In 2014, three of Zakzaky’s sons were killed, along with 32 other sect members, during a clash with soldiers during a religious procession in Zaria, the HRW added.
In a democracy, this is not right. A democratic government does not allow the military to superintendent internal civil security, but this has become the practice on Buhari’s watch. The military is best suited to fighting a war. Buhari and the COAS, Farouk Yahaya, should stop this forthwith. In the worst-case scenario, the police should be deployed to protect the marchers and prevent a breakdown of law and order. Instead of stemming the agitations by the IMN, the brutal persecution is achieving the direct opposite.
The accusation being trumpeted by the government that the Shi’ites are violent, proscribed and a terror group misses the point. Terror groups like Boko Haram and ISWAP do not stage protests in public since they are not protected under the law. It was not out of place that the IMN members staged protests for government to release their detained leader.
All this puts Buhari’s avowal that he is a ‘born-again’ democrat to a severe test. Now, there is damning evidence he has not passed that test at all, his military background is perhaps still strong, but democracy stands for full freedom of expression, protests, and criticism against the government.
Notable in his reign of tyranny is the utilisation of the military against peaceful #EndSARS protesters at the Lekki Tollgate in Lagos in October 2020. One year after, the military is still in denial of perpetrating the bloody shootings on unarmed youth. #EndSARS was the culmination of the protests by the youth against pervasive police brutality, and harsh extortion by the disbanded police Special Anti-Robbery Squad officers. The Buhari regime is behaving like other brutal oppressive regimes in Sudan, Belarus, Myanmar, and seeking to suppress the democratic right of Nigerians to protest.
Buhari is deploying the military incorrectly. Conversely, democratic governments are utilising the military for noble purposes, not against citizens. To ease the fuel supply crisis in the United Kingdom, the Boris Johnson administration plans to mobilise the army to stand in as the drivers of the tankers from the refineries to the petrol stations. That is a good cause.
When Hurricane Eta landed in Nicaragua, Honduras, Panama, and Guatemala in November 2020, around 250 troops from the United States JTF-Bravo, Army South, Special Operations Command South, and other US Southern Command teams were deployed to Central America’s hardest-hit areas, saving at least 289 lives, and delivering lifesaving supplies to the storm-ravaged areas. During the devastating flooding in Germany last June, the US 52nd Civil Engineer Squadron at Spangdahlem Air Base, along with other volunteers from the base, filled and distributed hundreds of sandbags over two days to help protect homes and businesses in the area, says the United Service Organisations, a group of NGOs.
Therefore, the President should end the brutal clampdown on the Shi’ites by the military and police. These state atrocities are crimes against humanity and those responsible should be brought to justice.