In this interview, the spokesperson for the Nigeria Army, Colonel Sani Usman, explains the circumstances that led to the bloody confrontation between members of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria, IMN, led by Sheik Ibrahim El-Zakzaky, and the Nigeria Army, penultimate Saturday. Not the first of its kind, but the activities of the IMN and the handling of the matter by the army personnel have, this time, generated a lot of attention. Excerpts:
What is the update on the leader of the Shiite sect, El-Zakzaky, especially his whereabouts?
I can tell you that, contrary to the rumour that is going on, he is alive.
What exactly happened that Saturday that led to the clash and bloodbath?
One thing I want you to understand is that there wasn’t any procession that day. What happened was that quite a number of important activities were going on in the country on that day including the Chief of the Army Staff Annual Conference, in Dutse, Jigawa State. The Emir of Dutse was also celebrating his 20th anniversary on the throne; so it became incumbent on the Chief of the Army Staff to wait behind and be part of the programme. That same day, we were having the Passing Out Parade of the 73 Regular Recruits Intake in Zaria and then there was the graduation ceremony of the Kaduna State University.
Now, part of the tradition had been that whenever a very important dignitary is in Zaria, which is the headquarters of ZauZau Emirate, it is imperative for such a guest to pay a courtesy call on the Emir; so we were on our way from Dutse to Zaria, first and foremost to pay the courtesy call on the Emir of ZauZau, who had to cut short his engagements in Kaduna where he had attended the convocation ceremony to be with us.
So when did the crisis begin?
Sometime around 2:30pm, along Sokoto Road, by the Railway Clinic, a group of youths started coming from the PZ end, close to the spiritual headquarters of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria.
What they did was to start encircling the convoy of the Chief of the Army Staff. We came down, we pleaded with them and we wanted them to see reason but, before you could say Jack Robinson, some of them had started throwing stones and you could hear loud bangs.
People who were responsible for the safety and security of the Chief of the Army Staff had to clear the way for the Chief of the Army Staff.
They had made bonfires and there was stone-throwing all over the place and no amount of pleading could get them to see reason.
They made it clear that they had done it to several other people and that the Chief of the Army Staff was nobody and he could not pass through that road.
Remember again, there were series of arguments. They alleged that some days ago, some security operatives went to a particular village and murdered their people. Meanwhile, there was nothing like that. What actually happened was that there was an altercation between the Islamic movement and some other Islamic sect over the location or ownership of a mosque. Then they changed the argument that they were having a funeral procession.
For goodness sake, there was’t any funeral procession and, of course, when the leader was giving an interview on the BBC Hausa Service, he said they were hoisting a flag.
Please, which flag are you going to hoist at 2.30 in the afternoon?
And, in any case, in the Federal Republic of Nigeria, there is no flag that is more important than the National Flag.
I want to honestly tell you that all these things were premeditated, they were planned and, before you knew it, they started encircling.
And the advance party of the Chief of the Army Staff, some 15 minutes earlier, passed through the same place without any incident.
The arrival of the Chief of the Army Staff was well publicised and these people were aware that the convoy was that of the Chief of the Army Staff and they decided to ambush it.
Were these people armed?
Certainly they were armed
What sort of arms were they carrying?
The least were machete and catapult.
They also had petrol bombs and were always hiding behind trees
Had there been any issue between the authorities and the Shiite Islamic Movement in Nigeria before that day?
Many Nigerians and those who have had encounters with these people know that they have always constituted a nuisance. I would rather ask you to find out from those living in Zaria or those who traverse the road between Zaria, Kaduna and Kano; they will tell you of their agony, but I can tell you of a particular incident during one of their processions. There was a woman whose child was sick. Her husband was in Abuja and she wanted to get to the hospital but she was stuck in one place for over five hours. Some time last year, a soldier was attacked with a machete on the head. We have living witnesses. Even this recent one, the Chief of the Army Staff’s car was stoned and scratched.
Considering the ugly situation which happened last year when the sect leader lost three of his sons, and now this, don’t you think the situation could have been better managed?
Let me make this clear, the Nigeria Army does not have any problem with anybody or any group of persons. We are against criminals and criminality and whoever is not ready to operate within the ambit of the Nigerian law, something must be done about that. In any case, to be better handled by who? The perpetrators who made an attempt on the life of the Chief of the Army Staff or the Nigeria Army?
When you say assassination attempt, was there truly an assassination attempt?
What I want you to understand is that there is abundant evidence and there are witnesses to the circumstances that led to the events of Saturday. What I want you to know is that they were quite aware that the Chief of the Army Staff was passing and it was made abundantly clear to them that it was the Chief of the Army Staff and his entourage performing a legitimate official duty and they refused to budge. Rather than reason, they started taking position as per military tactics on a federal road.
So, how did the military get to his home and started exchanging gun fire?
Like I told you earlier, that aspect is subject to inquiry and I don’t want to discuss that.
The headquarters of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria appears to have been levelled. What would you say informed the decision of the Nigeria Army to take such a step?
What I want you to understand is that we are targeting criminals and criminality. And whatever transpired is subject to inquiry and I wouldn’t want to comment on that; I would urge that we await the report of the inquiry. Some people have tried to insinuate that we were seeking vengeance, but there is nothing like that. Possibly, it is the Movement that would have said it has grouses against the Nigeria Army, but the Nigeria Army has never been against any individual or any group of individuals.
Why would they have a grouse against the Nigeria Army? Has the Army offended them in any way?
Just as earlier said, like losing sons and earlier they were talking about the incident that happened in Zaria.
Let me tell you, when the present Chief of the Army Staff came on board, he requested for all the files, and he wanted to get to the bottom of the crisis that happened last year and ensure that justice is done.
People are worried because a mishandling of a similar thing in Borno led us to the crisis of Boko Haram? So, why didn’t the military take action knowing what it had known about the sect and not waiting until an alleged attempt on the life of the Chief of the Army Staff?
I can understand their worries given the history of Boko Haram, but I can assure that the Nigeria Army and every reasonable Nigerian has learned lessons from that ugly incident and we don’t want that kind of thing to repeat itself and that is why it needed to be nipped in the bud. And unlike the previous instance when the law was circumscribed, the law is being followed diligently and I will implore Nigerians to be patient.
*This interview was first aired on Channels Television last Tuesday.