By Dayo Benson
IT was dusk. The blistering afternoon sun had given way to a creeping cold weather. The dry and dusty day was gradually transforming into a moisture atmosphere. As motorists made their way home that evening, they cast a glance at the debris of the ruin that the operational headquarter of the religion sect had become.
Few weeks ago, the empty land stream with stones and broken blocks and pieces of flattened roofing sheet was the ‘sovereign’ territory of Sheik Ibrahim Zakzaky, spiritual leader of the Shiite, also known as Islamic Movement of Nigeria. This is Huyssainyah, few minutes’ drive from the Depot, Nigerian Army, Zaria and a walking distance from the Police Area Command. Elsewhere in Gyaellsu, a nearby residential neighborhood, the expanse occupied by the sect leader and his followers had been leveled, leaving behind a wasteland, at least for now.
Penultimate Monday, the Nigerian Bar Association, NBA, led by its President Augustin Alegeh, SAN, secretary Afam Osigwe, publicity secretary, Gbolahan Gbadamosi, executive director, Mrs Ifueko Alufohai, and other senior bar members in the company of journalists drawn from print, electronic and on-line went on a one-day fact finding mission to Zaria.
Fact finding mission
Other lawyers on the mission included former NBA president Mr. Lanke Odogunya, Mr. Joe Gadzama SAN, former NBA general secretary Mr. Emeka Obegolu, immediate past attorney general of Ekiti state Mr. Wale Fapohunda and NBA branch chairmen from Kaduna and Katsina state among others. Precisely December 12, 2015, the Zaria-based Shiite members in their multitude had encountered the convoy of Chief of Army staff, Lt. Gen Tukur Burutai. The sect members, who had taken over the major road, had denied the convoy passage despite pleas by some senior military officers in the army chief entourage.
Tension: Tension mounted as reasoning failed to prevail. Soon, the charged atmosphere boiled over and the situation became unmanageable by both sides. By the time the miasma melted, scores of the sect members including two of Zakzaky’s children lay dead, they were killed by soldiers. Zakzaky was subsequently arrested, he has remained in detention. His enclaves in Hussainyah and Gyaellsu were pulled down by mortar and caterpillar.
It was against this background that the NBA undertook the fact finding mission. According to the NBA president, the essence of the visit was to find out what transpired between the military and the Islamic group on that fateful day and the fall-out. Before setting out for the assignment, the NBA team paid a courtesy call on the Emir of Zauzau, HRH Alhaji Shehu Idris, whose palace used to share a fence with the Shiite sect.
Speaking at the palace, Alegeh emphasized that the NBA had come with an open mind. His words, “as an association, we do not have any view on what transpired in Zaria, we have come to listen and leave. And what we have heard will provide an opportunity for us to write our report and make it available to our members and the public. The NBA is not a judicial panel. “
Traditional rulers’ support: In his response, the Emir of Zazzau, HRH Alhaji Shehu Idris, expressed his delight and that of his council of chiefs to receive the NBA president and his team, saying “in listening to the NBA president, we have learnt a lot and we assure you of our support and co-operation at all times”.
Democracy and the rule of law
He added that “Nigeria is enjoying democracy and the rule of law which would not have been possible without your participation. I assure you of the support of traditional rulers across the country and if there is anything you want us to do to further support you, don’t hesitate to call on us because we have great respect for members of the bar association.”
One of the chiefs, Alhaji Dalhet Musa Abubakar, who spoke on behalf of the palace on the sect activities fielded questions from journalists. Abubakar, who is the Tarkarfi Zauzau, has been a full time member of the Emirate Council of Chiefs since 1993. Before going into details, he called on NBA to educate Nigerians on their rights and duties in a democratic dispensation.
As he puts it, “people misunderstand their constitutional rights. I should know that where my rights interferes with another person’s, I lose my own right because the constitution has not given me the right to infringe on anyone’s right. So, it is basic that Nigerians should understand this.”
Addressing the issue of the Shiite group, he said, “it was being led by a certain Sheik in Kaduna and in 1986 something happened, and Sheik El-Zakzaky assumed the mantle of leadership. A citizen of Zaria, his (Zakzaky) family house, shares a fence with the palace to the right. For many years, the house which lays few meters away from the Emir’s palace became the sect’s operational base, while the royal father was able to manage and tolerate them. Sometimes, their activities were reported to the State Security Council.
This was the situation until the sect acquired a property in Gyaellsu, opposite the Kongo campus of the Ahmadu Bello University, and relocated.”He reviewed that residents who could not cope with the sect’s presence in the neighborhood moved elsewhere and sold their houses, while the only potential buyer was Zakzaky, no matter how high the asking price.
With their large number, their word became the law in the community and they imposed the code of conduct, operating like a potentate in the desert. “They determined when residents would go in and out of their houses under the guise of protecting them. They also decided non-residents who could go in and out of the area.” A former governor of Kaduna State, Dr. Muktar Ramadan Yero, who had gone to pay a condolence visit to a bereaved family friend, was denied entry to Gyaellsu by Zakzaky’s followers.
The last December confrontation with the Chief of Army Staff convoy was not an isolated occurrence. Sometime in 2014, the commandant, Depot Nigerian Army had a similar encounter with the group. He ordered his convoy to drive through the crowd. This led to a showdown. The Emir and his entourage also had a narrow escape on their way to the security meeting sometime ago. The palace spokesperson who stepped out of his car had his turban pushed off with an arrow poked on his head. An attempt was made to forcefully open the outer tank cover of the Emir’s car, with an intention to set it ablaze.
According to Abubakar, there were security reports on all incidents and they were reported to the police who appeared helpless. Surprisingly, Zakzaky reported the 2014 incident to the National Human Rights Commission and Amnesty International. At the Depot, Nigerian Army, the Commandant, Brigadier- General C.G. Musa, who said he has been in the saddle for six months, informed the NBA team that the General Officer Commanding 1st Division Kaduna would be in a better position to recount what happened.
Sovereignty of Nigeria
He, however, emphasized that nothing should detract from the sovereignty of Nigeria as a nation, adding that “the situation we have here is such that they (Shiite) seem to be above the law. What we do is to curtail their excesses whenever they exhibit them and we also try as much as possible not to have confrontation with them. When they have their rallies, they take over the road and nobody dared ask questions. A lot of people come here to report and we send the reports to the police.”
He stated that whenever Zakzaky was returning from his operational base in Hussainah to his residence at Gyaellsu, a distance of about five kilometers, the entire road would be blocked. According to Brig. Gen. Musa, the sect member would chase the police and the Federal Road Safety officials and take over the roads completely. He said they mounted check-points and imposed curfew in the neighborhood.
“The police was handicapped, they couldn’t do anything and nobody dared to go and arrest anybody, so it was like a parallel government within a system,” he added. Tackle the threat before it would metamorphose to another monster: Brig. Gen. Musa corroborated the allegation of forcing the governor to trek, adding that they once stopped the vice-president’s convoy. “That was how bad the situation was,” he stressed. The General advised that it is necessary to tackle the threat before it would metamorphose to another monster that would be difficult to tame.
At the Nigerian Police Area Command, the sing-song about the Shiite resonated with the same refrain. The Area Commander, M.D Sheu and Assistant Commissioner of Police confirmed everything the military said about the group. According to him: “Prior to that incident, we had many reported cases against the Shiite group, including cases of murder. The pictures and case file of people killed are here (brought out three pictures), we have forwarded them to the Inspector General of Police.”
The history of violence as far as the Shiite is concerned is a non-issue. They are violent and they preach violence. As a matter of fact, they don’t believe in the existence of a country called Nigeria. They are operating a state within a state and they apply their own laws,” said the area commander. He added that if any of their members is arrested, the station will be attacked in a bid to rescue the suspect. He described the situation as a sensitive issue that demands collective effort to address because of its religion undertone and freedom of worship which they claim.
Giving a background of how the sect was conceived, a member who identified himself as Abdulrahman Abubakar, Chairman of its Education Committee, addressed the NBA team. He said the aim and objective of the mission is “for us Muslims to live our lives according to the rules and regulations set by our creator in the universe, in line with the teachings of the holy Quran and the sayings of the Prophet”.
He explained that the movement started in the late 70’s when El-Zakzaky was a student. He said the movement was a response to communism, socialism and other “isms” which was the order of the day then and more importantly to show that Islam has something to present in form of an ideology, which he has been preaching with his followers.
Zakzaky, according to Abubakar, has suffered several persecutions in the course of preaching this ideology but he remains steadfast. He said their leader is independent minded and does not ask for favour unlike other Ulamas (Islamic scholars). Group does not preach violence: Abubakar pointed out that the group does not preach violence and it shows respect to fellow Muslims despite ideological differences. “We have good rapport and understanding with non-Muslim,” he added.
He emphasized that what is important to the group is not the differences with other religions but understanding of those differences, noting that many Christians have identified with the cause of the group which he described as the movement of peace.
Movement of peace
“We have principle of unity among Muslims and respect among people that differ from our faith. We try to accommodate one another, “Abubakar said. Another adherent of the movement, Dr. Abdullahi Danladi, an associate professor at the Ahmadu Bello University said the membership of the group is about five million across the country. He said the vigilante operation in Gyaellsu was put in place because of rampant cases of stealing and pilfering among residents.
He affirmed the Shiite faithful are peace loving and accommodating. “The Sheik shares pieces of meat to all neighbors both Muslim and Christian during festive periods and pastors do join us to celebrate on such occasions,” Danladi said. However, a resident of Gyaellsu, Danlad Musa, revealed that neighbors who reject the gesture would incur the sect’s wrath. As he puts it “they give us meat with one hand and take away our peace with the other hand.”
At the end of the submissions, the NBA president noted that there must be a solution to the problem which he said was avoidable if things were done differently. He restated that the incident having occurred several times in the past, the primary aim of the visit is to ensure it does not happen again.