Hundreds of members of the Islamic movement of Nigeria, the official name of the Shiite sect in the country were arrested and taken into custody after a largely peaceful demonstration by members of the sect to demand the release of their leader, Sheikh Ibraheem El Zakzaky, was violently dispersed by the Nigeria police force. While hundreds of members of the sect were arrested, others were not as lucky as live fire from the security men hit a few of them. It is a fate that has become almost a daily dose for members of the minority Islamic sect in the country who are barely tolerated by the Sunni majority Muslims, especially in the northern part of the country.
Last Monday’s clash between members of the sect and the security forces was not the first in recent time. On Friday before last Monday, thousands of members of the group from all the northern states stormed Abuja to give verve to their daily protest at the unity fountain to demand the release of their leader, El Zak Zaky who has been in detention, against valid court judgment ordering his release, for more than two years.
El Zakzaky’s woe started in December 2015 when his followers, in a move that many people have described as foolhardy, stopped the chief of army staff from passing in front of the now demolished headquarters of the Shiite in Zaria, while on his way to the passing out parade of the Nigeria Army recruit. The army, as a last resort after several plea to members of the group to peacefully remove the barricade they had set on the road failed, forcefully cleared the road, killed some members of the sect and arrested their leader and his wife who have remained in detention since then.
Emboldened by the Federal high court of Abuja judgment which held that the continued detention of El Zakzaky without trial amounted to a gross violation of his constitutionally guaranteed rights therefore he should be released; members of the sect have been having regular protests in some states in the northern part of the country to demand his release. Initially, the protests centered on Kaduna and Kano, two states in the north with about the largest Shiite concentration.
In Kaduna, where the state government had out rightly banned the Islamic movement of Nigeria, such protests were usually met with the heavy handedness of the security forces. Members of the IMN had claimed that many of its members had lost their lives while embarking on such peaceful protests.
Frustrated by the little result that its protests in the far northern part of the country has achieved, the group moved its protest to the Unity Fountain in Abuja, perhaps to get closer to the seat of power and gain more global attention. For about 80 days prior to the last Monday’s bloody clash with security men, members of the sect daily sat out at the unity fountain, sometimes making feeble forays to the entrance to the national assembly and the headquarters of the National Human Rights Commission to press home their demand for the release of their leader and his wife.
The recent Malud celebration in Kaduna and Abuja, where large number of followers of the Tijjaniya sect of Islam trooped to Abuja to mark the posthumous birthday of its founder provided a good cover for members of Shiites to blend in and move thousands of their followers to Abuja. Their peaceful protest last week Friday was one of the largest and took security agencies by complete surprise. Some parts of Abuja were completely grounded for hours before the Shiites were eventually dispersed.
Embarrassed by the failure of the police to detect and possibly nip the protest in the bud, the FCT commissioner of police, Sadiq Bello reportedly banned the Shiites from carrying out their daily sit out at the Unity fountain in Abuja.
But as they are wont to do, members of the sect defied the police directive and gathered at the Unity fountain where they had planned to march to the National Human Right Commission to demand the release of their leader.
But the police, who were still smacking from their embarrassing failure to prevent the huge protest on Friday were not ready to take chances. They deployed the full armada of their riot preventing capacities to stop the Shiites from assembling and organizing another protest. Hot water was splashed, tear gas canisters were fired and when the combination of these did not appear to deter the resilience of the stone throwing Shiite members, live bullets were fired which eventually led to the casualty that was recorded.
Despite the strong response of the state to their protest, members of the Movement appeared undeterred as they vowed to continue their protest until their leader and his wife were unconditionally released.
According to the spokesman of the IMN, peaceful protest by members of the sect is constitutionally guaranteed and no amount of intimidation, even the killing of their members will deter them from going ahead to peacefully protest until the leader of the sect is released from detention.
Expectedly, the police response to the protest by the Shiites has elicited harsh response from some activists in the country and the opposition Peoples Democratic Party.
According to Femi Falana, the attack “unleashed on the Shiites by a combined team of armed soldiers, police and state security service (SSS) personnel is totally unacceptable in a democratic society”.
“It is highly condemnable as it was uncalled for. In order to press for the release of their detained leader, Sheik Ibraheem El-zakzaky and his wife, the Shiites have staged peaceful protests in Abuja since last week.
“This morning, security forces attacked the peaceful rally, killed some of the protesters and injured others in a barbaric attack in a desperate bid to stop the Shiites from further exposing the lawlessness of the Federal Government.
“In the process, the security forces breached the fundamental rights of the protesters to life, freedom from torture, freedom of assembly and freedom of expression” he said.
Falana who is the lawyer representing the IMN said “the Federal Government has not adduced any justifiable reason why it has continued to incarcerate the El-zakzakys in utter contempt of the Federal High Court. If the Federal Government is genuinely desirous to stop the protests, it has to comply with the valid and subsisting judgment of the Federal High Court forthwith.”
The Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in its reaction condemned the police action and demanded for an immediate inquest into the violent clash between security forces and members of the Shiite movement.
With the resilience shown by members of the sect over the years, it is certain that they will continue to protest for the release of their leader. And with the government’s seeming intolerance to any protest by members of the sect and the readiness of the police to use full force to disperse them, casualties from such clashes between the police and members of the sect is unlikely to abate soon.