In December 2015, Nigerian authorities arrested Ibrahim al-Zakzaky, longtime leader of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN), a Shi’i Muslim organization whose antecedents emerged around 1980. The arrest followed clashes between the IMN and the Nigerian Army in Zaria, the IMN’s headquarters; the military accused the IMN of attempting to assassinate Chief of Army Staff Tukur Buratai. Since that time, al-Zakzaky has remained in detention, despite reports of ill health, and the IMN has continued to agitate for his release.
This week, the Nigerian Army has cracked down on IMN protests in Nigeria’s capital Abuja.
The Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) said on Wednesday that security forces opened fire with live ammunition on members who had marched in the hundreds to demand the release of their leader Ibrahim Zakzaky.
The number of people killed since Saturday in the protests hit at least 48, according to the IMN, contrasting with the military’s official death toll of six.
Clashes erupted between soldiers and IMN supporters in Abuja on Saturday, Monday and Tuesday, said Ibrahim Musa, according to an IMN spokesman.
The protests are timed to coincide with Arba’in/Arbaeen, a major Shi’i pilgrimage and commemoration (see here).
As with many other conflicts, there has been a war of words and information raging as well. Both sides have presented themselves as the victims, with the Nigerian Army highlighting images of wounded soldiers and the IMN highlighting the military’s violence and presenting its fallen comrades martyrs. The IMN has also accused the army of “commission[ing] its men and paid agents to massively infiltrate the Arbaeen procession scheduled to hold in Abuja in the coming days to induce violence with the view to smearing the movement in the eyes of the world once and for all.” It’s hard to credit some of what the IMN says; although I do not consider the IMN a terrorist group, the IMN’s insistence that “there is no single Shia group that is in any way linked to terrorism across the world” is a bit much.
But if both sides have acted aggressively and have framed events in one-sided ways, that does not mean that “both-sidesism” should be our main framework for understanding these events. You’re probably not going to be inviting the IMN to your next birthday party, but that does not mean that the Nigerian military has acted with respect to human rights and freedom of religion.
In that vein, the analyst Matt Page rightly took U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Tibor Nagy to task for deploying “both sides” rhetoric to avoid a more meaningful intervention:
Amnesty International (which is openly despised by the Nigerian military, we should note) made a similar point:
An investigation by Amnesty International shows that the horrific use of excessive force by soldiers and police led to the killing of at least 45 supporters of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN) over two days, as the Shi’a Muslim group held a peaceful religious procession around Abuja.
Amnesty researchers visited five different locations in Abuja and Nasarawa state where wounded IMN supporters were receiving treatment, including two locations where bodies were deposited. Researchers spoke with victims, eyewitnesses and medical practitioners, and analyzed videos and photographs of those injured and killed during the protests, which took place on Saturday and Monday.
“We have seen a shocking and unconscionable use of deadly force by soldiers and police against IMN members. Video footage and eyewitness testimonies consistently show that the Nigerian military dispersed peaceful gatherings by firing live ammunition without warning, in clear violation of Nigerian and international law,” said Osai Ojigho, Director of Amnesty International Nigeria.
“Those injured were shot in different parts of the body – head, neck, back, chest, shoulder, legs, arms – and some of them had multiple gunshot wounds. This pattern clearly shows soldiers and police approached IMN processions not to restore public order, but to kill.”
The Nigerian Army should show restraint, but Nigerian authorities also need to move to address the most prominent issue: the continued detention of al-Zakzaky. He should either be tried, speedily, or released. An editorial in the Nigerian newspaper This Day makes the case well:
Given that the continued detention of Sheikh Ibraheem El-Zakzaky, leader of the Shi’ite Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) has given rise to repeated protests in Abuja, the federal government should be held responsible for the violence in which innocent bystanders are getting caught. That lives are now being lost in what started as a civil action to compel respect for the rule of law is an indication that the crisis is getting out of hand. That also signposts the security implications of a situation in which El-Zakzaky is allowed to die in incarceration that has been deemed illegal by our courts.
If there is anything that the crisis has proved, it is that without justice, there can be no peace and that the flagrant disregard to court orders [a court ordered al-Zakzaky’s release in 2016 – AT] which has become the hallmark of this administration is dangerous for the health of our society.
There’s a lot more to say, but I’ll leave it there for now. The situation is bad and the authorities should move to defuse it.