By Rotimi Fasan
IF there is one area in which the Buhari administration has consistently showed itself up as politically unsophisticated and fallen short of democratic values, it is in its handling of issues bordering on human rights. The administration has generally demonstrated a high level of unresponsiveness and disinterest in matters concerning individuals, groups and sections of the country it does not agree with.
These do not have to have done anything deliberately aimed at undermining the authority of the president or his administration. They only need to have questioned the position of the administration or advanced a position different from the official one. But while the administration maintains studious silence and complete nonchalance to political critics, it wields the big stick against those who have directly challenged the authority of the administration or the so-called inviolability of Nigeria’s unity.
Among several others two groups have felt and are directly feeling the heat of the Buhari administration in this respect. More than most they appear to have aroused the ire of the administration in a manner that has left it unexplainably wounded even when many Nigerians don’t seem to share in the administration’s sense of anger or injury. The two groups in question are the Indigenous People of Biafra, IPOB, and the Shia group.
Both fringe groups with apparently vocal members are respectively led by Nnamdi Kanu and Ibrahim El Zakzaky. While Kanu’s IPOB is a revivalist group that calls for a return to the failed state of Biafra, the El Zakzaky group professes an extreme form of Islam that puts it at odds with the Islamic establishment. While both groups have not openly canvassed violence against the Nigerian state their mostly youthful members have very frequently employed violence and force in the propagation of their ideas. Indeed, the Shiite group has operated in a manner that underlines it complete lack of respect for constituted authority.
Its members have been known to take over control of governance in certain parts of the country where they command large membership, openly brandishing weapons of violence in a way that directly challenges the authority of the state and cordoning off and taking control of sections of the road it bars other users from.
Without mouthing unnecessary platitudes on human rights and the right of free expression (which the group does not seem to concede to others), the activities of the Shiites, left unchecked, could well lead to the emergence of another murderous organisation in the mould of Boko haram. There is no doubt in my mind that it needed to be brought under control. The latest incident that led to the incarceration of its leader brought it into head-on collision with the military, the only other group that is sufficiently equipped to call the bluff of the Shiite. The point at issue, following the latest encounter between the military and the Shiites, was the degree of lethal force used by the former.
Reports have it that hundreds of Shiites were killed in cold blood, while their leader was shot and nearly killed. This has deservedly earned the Buhari government condemnation of human rights groups, local and international. There is no reason why a disciplined soldiery should go overboard in its response to a belligerent group that lacks both the firepower and professional training of the former.
It also speaks to our culture of impunity that both the Shiite and the military that called their bluff operated in the spirit of insouciance that has no respect for constituted authority. Just like the Shiites, the military didn’t feel accountable to anyone beyond the Buhari administration whose support on the issue it seems to enjoy. The case of Kanu and IPOB is far less complicated. While members of this group in their agitation for the creation of Biafra have randomly called for demonstrations against the state, they’ve been guilty of forceful enforcement of their orders.
There have been reported cases of forceful closure of markets and attacks on persons who failed to heed the orders of the group. This would not conform with the group’s claims of non-violence. But the group’s subtle and not-so-subtle use of violence fades beside the undisguised use of violence by agents of the State that were called to respond to the group’s activities. Like in the case of the Shiites the use of lethal force cannot be said to be proportionate or justified. What is even worse for the Buhari government from the perspective of the law is that it has failed to obey the law, choosing to cherry pick what court order to obey. Six of the eleven charges brought against Kanu have been dismissed in the latest round of court appearance. Before this the IPOB leader was granted bail and set free but the Buhari government chose to ignore these court rulings as it has failed to respect the position of the courts in the case of El Zakzaky.
There is no logic in the action of the Buhari administration. There is no reason why it should expect to be taken seriously if and when it chooses what court rulings to be obeyed when dealing with opponents. The action of the government seems to have the personal imprint of the president who, as a military man, was notorious for his rigid disregard of democratic rulings. What the administration has succeeded in doing is lionising both El Zakzaky and Nnamdi Kanu in the eyes of the world. Neither men had the support of the leading members of their communities, at least not in the manner they chose to go about their agitations. A government sensitive and responsive to its environment would have diffused the tension created around the persons of both Kanu and El Zakzaky long before now.
In the case of Kanu in particular the government has no business incarcerating him for most of the time it has been in office for no other reason than his fight for self-determination for the Igbo. Nothing makes his campaign a criminal act. This was a man, more or less, an upstart in the view of many that has been turned into a folk hero, political leader and a keen spokesperson of his people by the uncreative and unwarranted bile and disdain of a government that sees every challenge to its position as a slight and a call to arm.
Why should a supposedly democratic government ignore court rulings that do not agree with its position and so create avoidable tension in the land? Is this the outcome of disdain for a people or the arrogance that comes with power? At what point will this government see that its continued incarceration of Nnamdi Kanu and Ibrahim El Zakzaky is not in its interest much less the interest of the country?