IN any country other than Nigeria, what happened in Abuja on Monday, July 22, would have shocked and dumbfounded many. Any other country, whose seat of government is so violently convulsed as Abuja was, will be shaken and the citizens traumatised. (El-Zakzaky)

El-Zakzaky
El-Zakzaky

There will be local and international outrage. But this is Nigeria, a country that typifies, in all ramifications, the state of nature, where life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” as enunciated by Thomas Hobbes, the 17th century English philosopher, in Leviathan.

Today’s Nigeria under President Muhammed Buhari’s watch typifies Hobbes Bellum omnium contra omnes state of “war of all against all.” The irony is that this state, as the English thinker pointed out, existed when men lived without a common power to keep them in awe, and consequently lived in constant fear of violence because every man was against every man.

This is the 21st century, for crying out loud. Societies are organised and structured with a common power called government holding sway. Nigeria – a nation-state with all the paraphernalia, where the rule of law underpins the fundamentals of statehood, should not be an exception.

The constant fear of violence

Yet, in reality, we all live in constant fear of violence, with mayhem and carnage reigning supreme. Nothing about Nigeria shocks the international community again. The consequence is that global media giants hardly give the country a mention in their news bulletins no matter how earthshaking the story is.

We take in our stride stories that in other climes will elicit global shockwave. The world is moving on without Nigeria, the self-acclaimed giant of Africa, which has been reduced to a mere footnote in global affairs. Last Monday’s protest by members of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria, IMN, known as Shi’ites, in Abuja vividly illustrates this anomie.

When the guns quietened, a Deputy Commissioner of Police in charge of Operations at the Federal Capital Territory Police Command, Usman Umar, a National Youth Service Corps, NYSC, member and cub-reporter with Channels TV, Precious Owolabi, and at least six members of the Islamic sect lay dead. And there was no national outrage. Nigerians simply moved on. The international community didn’t blink an eye.

Also read: Who are the IMN Shiite protesters marching in Nigeria?

President Buhari condemned the ‘dangerous’ protests and ordered the protesters to stop. The group demurred, vowing to continue with the protest until their demand: the release of their leader, Ibrahim El-Zakzaky, incarcerated by the government since December 2015, was met. And true to their vow, they marched again in Abuja on Tuesday.

The troops rolled out armoured tanks. Gunfire thundered, the air was thick with tear gas, people were screaming and running helter-skelter, businesses were shuttered, as soldiers and police officers made arrests. As it happened on Monday, when the guns quietened, some Nigerians lay dead, to be buried in unmarked graves, some of the victims of circumstance beyond their control. And the vicious circle – more protests, more violence and deaths continue.

What is this tit-for-tat for? How did we get to this sorry pass? This orgy of bloodletting started in December 2015, barely seven months after Buhari was sworn in as president, when a confrontation between followers of the radical cleric Ibrahim El-Zakzaky, who were on a procession in Zaria, Kaduna State, and a convoy carrying the Chief of Army Staff, General Ibrahim Buratai, degenerated into a bloodbath.

When the guns quietened, at least 347 Shiite members – men, women and children – including one of his wives, three children, elder sister and nephew all lay dead. The group claims that about 1,000 of their members were slaughtered in the three-day blood-letting orgy.

El-Zakzaky and his wife, Zeenah, who, though survived the bloodbath suffered multiple gunshot wounds, were arrested and detained in Abuja on December 14. They have been held incommunicado ever since, except for a brief appearance sometime in January 2018, a ploy by the government to take the sail off the wind of reports that they were dead.

Before then, the Kaduna State government had set up a commission of enquiry to probe the massacre. The panel’s report which was submitted to Governor Nasir El-Rufai in July 2016, indicted General Officer Commanding, GOC, Nigerian Army’s 1st Division, Major General Adeniyi Oyebade, and other officers who participated in the operation and recommended that they “should be brought to trial before a court of competent jurisdiction.” Expectedly, nothing happened.

Instead, el-Zakzaky and his wife were hauled before a Federal High Court, Abuja. On December 2, 2016, Justice Gabriel Kolawole ordered their release. The judge in a well-considered ruling said their continued detention was a violation of the law which portended huge danger for the country, warning that “if the applicant dies in custody … it could result in many needless deaths”. He, therefore, ordered their release within 45 days and ordered the Department of State Services, DSS, to pay a fine of N25 million each to el-Zakzaky and his wife.

Government, however, contemptuously ignored the court order. Peeved, Justice Kolawole on January 20, 2017, said the trio of the then Inspector-General of Police, Ibrahim Idris; the Attorney General of the Federation, Abubakar Malami; and Director-General of the DSS, Lawal Daura, would be guilty of contempt of court and be liable to imprisonment if they continued to disregard its order of December 2, 2016.

Nothing changed! Instead, when pressure – local and international – mounted for their release, the Federal Government, like the Biblical Pontius Pilate, pretended to have washed its hands off the case by arraigning the man and his wife at a Kaduna State High Court in May 2018 on charges of culpable homicide and unlawful assembly. But nobody was fooled. The government was only deceiving itself. That arraignment is what the legendary Afrobeat exponent, late Fela, would call “Government Magic”, or better still: “Army Arrangement”. But it is sad that this is happening in a so-called democracy.

So, when President Buhari’s Senior Special Assistant on Media and Publicity, Garba Shehu, appeals to members of the group to halt further street protests and await the outcome of judicial decision on their leader’s fate, as he did last Friday, he is only being economical with the truth.

How can the presidency appeal to the “El-Zakzaky-led Shiite members to desist from needless violent street protests and await the decision of the court in Kaduna where their leader is currently being tried,” when the almost three-year ruling of an Abuja High Court was scornfully ignored?

Now that the Shiites have vowed to continue with their protests and government has also vowed not to relent on the crackdown, Nigerians should expect more carnage. Of what purpose is all this bloodbath? Truth be told, this vicious cycle is not inevitable. The mayhem in Abuja on Monday was avoidable. All Nigeria needed to avert the calamity is a different approach to leadership. All the country needs is a leader who believes in the rule of law. If we claim to be in a democracy, then the leadership must subscribe to the rule of law.

Buhari’s hard man posture on this issue is self-defeatist. It is undemocratic. It is counterproductive. And it endangers the Nigerian state. Even scarier is the fact that many locate the nexus of his hardline disposition to the sect and its leader in the poisonous sectarian rivalry afflicting the Shiites and Sunnis in the Middle East.

Does the group behave badly sometimes, even constituting a nuisance? Oh yes! There is no doubt about that. But there are better ways of handling such situations. Waging a brutal war is definitely not one of the ways. If el-Zakzaky dies in detention, the consequence may be cataclysmic. Do we need all that trouble when simple adherence to the rule of law will solve the problem?

As the Financial Times noted in its January 16, 2018, article titled, “Nigeria plays with fire in its handling of Shia sect”, Buhari’s approach to the challenges posed by el-Zakzaky’s movement is wrongheaded and reckless because it is tarnishing his government, heightening concerns about the conduct of the Nigerian army and jeopardising Western military assistance in the war against the terrorist group, Boko Haram.

If it was then, it is even more so now. This country deserves better. Even enlightened self-interest should dictate a change of tactic.

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