The Zaria Attacks: Is History Repeating Itself?

With the Boko Haram issue going on in the North East, Nigerians woke up to news that the Army had attacked a Shiite group in Zaria, Kaduna.  Most people in southern Nigeria don’t know much about this group or what has precipitated this civil disturbance. Others who are more cognizant of the situation are wondering if we are seeing history repeat itself and make way for yet another insurgency.

The Background

The Shiite group is known as the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) and is led by Sheikh Ibrahim Zakzaky. Security authorities have known about the leader and this group which is said to seek the establishment of an Islamic state through an Iranian-styled revolution.

Back in July 2014, there was a violent crackdown of the Army on the sect while they were carrying out a pro Palestinian solidarity march when they were suddenly attacked by members of the Nigerian Army. This attack led to the death of 34 people including 3 sons of the IMN leader El Zakzaky. The Army claimed it was attacked by the civilians, even though eye witness report showed that the civilians were unarmed and even the Army themselves reported no injuries, no casualties, no loss of equipment.

The military was under a different leadership and had been accused of human rights violations then. However, there have since been leadership changes and the current leaders have zero tolerance for human rights abuses and have taken steps to ensure the military do not torture or kill innocent civilians. This however has not impressed the group who probably still view the military in insolent regard.

Recently, the members of the IMN embarked on their annual Ashura march which commemorates the death of Hussein the grandson of Prophet Mohammed. The march was from Kano to Zaria in Kaduna state. During this march, a Boko Haram suicide bomber attacked the crowd while in a southern city of Kano. This attack did not stop the march. Instead, it led to an increase in the number of individuals who joined the procession.  The attack probably fueled some renewed sentiments against the military who they see as quick to attack unarmed citizens, but unable to defeat the armed Boko Haram insurgency.

The procession finally made its way to Zaria and many motorists complained about having to park for almost 5 hours while waiting for the procession to move past the highway and free up the roads.

Why the Army Attacked

In Nigeria, when “VIPs” are maneuvering through traffic that is caused by a simple traffic light, they are absolutely impatient and insist on having their way, talk less of a high valued individual such as the Chief of Army Staff (COAS). The COAS was in Zaria on Saturday to pay homage on the Emir of Zazzau, and also attend a review parade by 73 Regular Recruit Intake at the Nigerian Army Depot in Zaria when his convoy ran into the Shiite procession or a group of unruly youth (depending on the different narratives)

The COAS armed convoy attempted to disburse the crowd but were unsuccessful. The Army alleges that the members of the group put up barricades and specifically targeted the convoy of the COAS. This is understandable considering the history of this group with the Nigerian Army.

However, the group insists they were simply carrying on with their procession and were gathered for a ceremony at their Husainiyyah base, to change the flag on the dome of their building. Either way, the crowd refused to give way and this put the Army Chief in a compromised position. His troops had to engage and this led to loss of lives.

The military decided to keep vigil in Zaria overnight, but then more IMN followers from other parts of the North made their way into the city to protect their leader Sheikh Zakzaky. This led to a shoot out over night and the deaths of many more IMN members. El Zakzaky and his wife were arrested by the military and are in protective custody, while his house and the IMN center were completely decimated.

The Crime

The army says the IMN is guilty of attempted assassination, but in reading the reports on the matter, it appears the crime really is “the violation of people’s rights of way on public highways” including that of the COAS.

The Acting Director, Army Public Relations, Col. Sani Usman stated that “The Nigerian constitution guarantees the rights of any group of persons. It gives the Sheikh El-Zakzaky’s followers the right to hold a peaceful march or procession unhindered, while it also guarantees other people’s right, including the Army’s right of passage on public highways. It is important to note that over the years, this group has subjected ordinary citizens using public roads to untold hardship, delays, threats and disruption, simply because they insist on using the public space irrespective of inconvenience and hardship on other law-abiding citizens and motorists. This cannot be tolerated and must stop! ”.

Did the Military Handle the Situation Well?

When the procession blocked access to the roads for ordinary citizens, they had to wait for over 5 hours till it had cleared. But when it blocked access to the roads for the COAS, loss of life ensued. The Army claims a group of armed thugs specifically targeted the COAS convoy, throwing sticks and stones, thus the military responded with guns. This has led many to ask questions as to whether the military has handled the situation well.

In giving security awareness training to members of the public, security professionals always recommend that prior to traveling, individuals should get information about the security situation of the routes they intend on using, and the areas they intend on visiting.

The military being the professionals that they are would have gotten information about the procession disrupting the flow of traffic. If this is the case, could they have chosen to go by air to the military base as opposed to road travel? The COAS convoy probably thought they could disperse the crowd peacefully.

But having fore knowledge of the procession and the traffic disruption, the military convoy could have prepared themselves to employ the use of rubber bullets or other non-lethal crowd dispersal tools. And turn to the use of force only as a worse case scenario.

One could argue that the military does not go around with rubber bullets because they must be combat ready at all times. Then if that is the case, the police who have been trained on riot control and are responsible for quelling civil disturbances within the country, should have been called in ahead of time knowing that there was an upcoming VIP movement or at least called in as back up when things were looking dicey and would have controlled the crowd with rubber bullets, tear gas and other non-lethal means.

Why This Matters

In Nigeria, history tends to repeat itself. This Zaria issue is a cause for concern as similar violent crackdowns against gathering members of religious sects is what birthed the Maitatsine Uprising and Boko Haram insurgency.

The key difference between the aforementioned and the IMN is that the Maitatsine and Boko Haram leaders tended to preach overwhelmingly anti-government rhetoric. Therefore, any actions the government security agencies took against their members was always met with fierce battle and resistance. The IMN members have not appeared to respond with overwhelming violence or battle determination, and recent reports indicate that relative calm has been restored to the area.

Typical military statute gives priority to combat rather than dialogue. The military must do all that they can to protect the life of the IMN leader who is said to be in safe custody. This is important because history has shown that any harm to the leaders of the sect typically exacerbate the unrest. When Maitatsine leader Marwa was killed, his members fled to other states to continue their attacks and vandalism. When Boko Haram founder Mohammed Yusuf was killed, members fled to regroup, and later reemerged under a more deadly force under a new leadership.

Finally, the government needs to insist that their religious leaders understand and promote the existence of peace and harmony within Nigeria. In this instance, the government could have carried out advance dialogue with the sect leader and senior members regarding the need for their procession to free up the highways and arrangements could have been made well ahead of time to ensure a procession more considerate of other road users.

What Next

This incident led to protests across the north, as other Shiite marched in solidarity with their leader while protesting the death of their fellow brethren. Even as far away as Iran, protesters gathered outside the Nigerian embassy in Tehran condemning the attacks, while President Buhari purportedly received a call from the Iranian president regarding the same.

The issue with this reaction is that innocent civilians have been dying on an almost daily basis in the hands of Boko Haram insurgents. Security experts both in the country and around the world have continuously called on religious leaders and other Muslims to speak out against the violence perpetrated by Boko Haram in the name of religion. Such protests against the death of fellow human beings should not be reserved for only when it is affecting one sect.

Investigations into the matter are still ongoing, but once it has been completed, the focus should not be on accusations and finger pointing, it should be on the appropriate actions the government must take to prevent the situation from happening again. History should not repeat itself.

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