The explanation for the violence being meted out to the Shiites in recent days suggests that the rationalisers think that the victims deserve their fate because of their rebellious attitude to authority. That line of thinking is false, a weak justification of cruelty. In the past few days, an uncertain number of Shiites (some reports suggest up to 50 of them) have been killed in gory circumstances while protesting in Kaduna and Abuja. The brutal killings of the Shiites are not new, and a lot has been said already about their violent encounters with the Nigerian forces.
Different government dispensations have subjected the Shiites to unthinkable violence; they have continued to imprison their leader, Sheikh Ibraheem El-Zakzaky, despite the court’s orders to the contrary and killed his children as well. In 2016, a public inquiry report by the Kaduna State Government revealed that the Nigerian Army massacred 347 Shiites when they stood in the way of the convoy of the Chief of Army Staff, Tukur Buratai. Not only were they gruesomely murdered following that incident that happened in December 2015, but the government also reportedly conspired with the Army to bury their bodies en masse. Then, they demolished El-Zakzaky’s houses. The man’s health is deteriorating. With the degree of humiliation he has been subjected to, it seems they want him to suffer to his death. Whatever people think about their manners, these crimes against these people merit an investigation.
In 2015, when President Muhammadu Buhari appeared on television for his first and only media chat ever, he seemed to justify the murder of the Shiites. At first, he said he would wait for an official report of the investigation of those killings before jumping to a conclusion. Then, typical of Buhari who can never help himself, he went ahead to judge the Shiites for creating a fiefdom within the Nigerian state. He claimed the residents of Zaria have been facing hell from the Shiites, and that their stoning an army general triggered the wave of violence that descended on them. It was apparent Buhari had already made up his mind that the Shiites were guilty and what was wreaked on them was due justice. He is not unique in that respect. In April this year, the Muslim Rights Concern put out a press release to explain their stand on the El-Zakzaky issue. They claimed that they were initially in support of a different treatment for the Shiites until they invited residents of Zaria to speak of the experience of living with the Shiites. They claimed that hundreds of Muslims testified that their lives were regularly threatened because of the culture of harassment and intimidation by the Shiites. As a result, they decided they would take sides with law and order even if the rights of El-Zakzaky and the Shiites had to be sidestepped in the interest of peace.
Here are a few points to consider: One, while it might be true that the Shiites are a belligerent and tiresome set of people nobody enjoys living with, their “crimes” do not merit the scale of violence meted out to them. They might be a lawless lot, but that does not mandate their slaughter. No matter what anyone thinks of them, they have a right under the law to assemble and protest over any issue including the continued detention of their leader. Two, while the Shiites might be lousy neighbours and noisome pestilences as the testifiers alleged, and while it might also be true that their religious zeal threatens the well-being of the people of Kaduna, their conduct cannot be isolated from the general spirit of law and disorder that permeates the entire Nigerian society.
We live in a country where even our leaders conduct themselves as above the law; a country where the Nigerian Health Insurance Scheme boss, Prof Usman Yusuf, who was suspended from office by the governing board, based on allegations of corruption used the police to penetrate a public building he should be barred from; a country where cows roam the streets of the Federal Capital Territory and even the major cities; a country where public infrastructure barely ever works; a country where herdsmen attack villages and massacre people with impunity and without the fear of God while the President vainly struggles to manufacture one excuse or the other for them; a country where there are no enforceable instruments we can use on our leaders to guarantee their accountability to the public. We cannot live in a country where public service and public conduct are just dysfunctional and justifiably claim that the Shiites are the problem. Whatever their faults are, their conduct cannot be extricated from the larger issues of Nigeria where lawlessness itself is a governing ideology. The instruments of the law exist to curtail the Shiites’ excesses and get them to act within the ambits of decorous behaviour, but never to violently repress them with unmitigated cruelty.
Three, of all the accusations of harassment made against the Shiites, not once were they accused of murder for their leader.
Unlike Buhari’s followers.
In 2011, when Buhari lost an election he could never have won, his followers went on the rampage. By the time their madness was exhausted, they had killed an estimated 800 Nigerians. Not a single one of them was prosecuted. Not a single one is on trial, and it is unlikely they will ever be called to account for their sins. Buhari himself has never expressed remorse about the fanaticism of his overzealous followers. When they conduct themselves above the law such as when they attacked a man for naming his dog Buhari, or attacked Charly Boy in Wuse Market, Abuja, for protesting against Buhari with his #OurMumuDonDo group, they are not shot for their lawlessness. Instead, it is their victims who are blamed for overreaching themselves. Buhari does not apologise for his followers’ behaviour neither does he caution them. The man seems to revel in his followers’ worship of him and the way he savours their devotion is, frankly, quite disturbing and depressing. Over the years that the talakawas have made him their patron saint, Buhari seemed to have developed a god-complex. That, apart from the ideological divergences of Sunnis and Shiites, perhaps explains his hatred of El-Zakzaky and his equally devout followers. By crushing El-Zakzaky, the President is not working outside the ambits of the law to restore the integrity of the same law and order which they claim the Shiites violate; he is a jealous god using the power of the state invested in him to destroy a rival.
The persistent justification for treating Shiites as sub-human citizens against whose raw flesh some zombie soldiers can use lethal weapons is too superficial a reason in a socio-political context where people are ruled through an incoherent law and order enterprise. To keep claiming they are being punished for their unruly conduct when Buhari’s followers have done worse things is a lie. If belligerence against instituted authority is enough condition for shooting people in the streets, Buhari’s followers ought to have been given a similar treatment for their sins in 2011. So, why are the Shiites being represented as a singularly volatile demographic? In 2015, one of the fears that permeated the polity was that if Buhari lost the election, his followers would resort to an all-out war, a fate that was thankfully averted when the incumbent, President Goodluck Jonathan, conceded the election. One can only hope he is kind enough to put them on a leash if he loses in 2019. His followers have not just been triggered by perceived offences to their religion, they have turned Buhari into a material symbol of their religion and they will kill for his sake. They lack restraint; they are bloodthirsty and their tendencies to violence far outstrip those of the Shiites. Have they been punished once? No.
So, why so much cruelty against the Shiites?