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By Sufuyan Ojeifo

Of what value is democracy to the Nigerian State when elements in the executive arm of government are acting above the law, treating the courts with condescension? Yet, we delude ourselves that our nation is running a presidential system of government anchored on the time-tested principles of power separation as well as checks and balances. And how meaningful are these when the other arms of government are unable to keep a tight rein on the executive arm against abuse of power and maladministration? 

On December 14, 2015, in Zaria, an influential emirate in Kaduna state, the Nigerian military clamped down on the leader of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN), Ibrahim El-Zakzaky and his wife, both of whom have since the incident been in the custody of the State Security Service (SSS), despite court orders for their release. Interestingly and in its clichéd fashion, the Nigerian state has consistently defended its continued detention of citizens Ibrahim El-Zakzaky and his wife on security grounds.

At this instant, while I am not in a position to doubt the sincerity of the claim that they are being kept in protective custody in their own interest, as a layman in security matters, I consider the premise plausible. I presume that it is possible that some fifth columnists could capitalise on the tense relationship between the Shiite leader and government to eliminate him, in particular, and thereafter turn round to point fingers of guilt at the government. Against this backdrop, therefore, one may consider the action of the SSS to be in apple-pie order.

However, no matter how proactive, preventive, responsive and logical the government may have acted in the circumstance, the question about impunity of the state and its agents for disobedience of court orders in the current democratic setting continues to rankle. I have not, in the least, been surprised that the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari, like that of former President Olusegun Obasanjo, who is also a retired army general, does not characteristically have the temperament to obey court orders.

To be sure, the travails of the El-Zakzakys were a conspiracy of sorts – yet to be unraveled, but reportedly put in the context of a confrontation between soldiers in the convoy of the Chief of Army Staff, Lt. General Tukur Buratai, and scores of members of the Movement who barricaded the thoroughfare while they (Shiites) were observing their peaceful procession. The ensuing bloody onslaught by the military, which happened thereafter, in which hundreds of Shiites members were killed, without a single casualty on the side of the military, is still beyond human comprehension.

It is not impossible that the clash could have had a premeditative dimension if located in the context of no-force resistance from the Shiites as could be seen in several videos released on youtube from the CCTV that captured the “military invasion,” of their spiritual home in Zaria. There abound tensed historical relationship and supremacy contest between the minority Shiite and majority Sunni in the bigger Islamic corpus in Nigeria. So, could it not have been possible that the Sunni Muslim tendency, with its faithful occupying strategic positions in government, have seen an opportunity to whittle or dismantle the sheer influence of the Shiite Muslim tendency and its leader, El-Zakzaky, which influence has continued to present a bugaboo?

Please, do not mind my petulance; I am just trying to interrogate these possibilities to see what motivated the reported soldiers’ invasion of the spiritual home of the El-Zakzakys. Truth is, it was not my intention, ab-initio, to delve into the arena of real or imagined conflict between the Shiites and the Sunnis, knowing full well how tendentious the enterprise could be. My motivation, essentially, was to deconstruct the rapidity with which the Nigerian state responded to the rumour of the death, in its detention, of El-Zakzaky.

I understand the Shiites are fearless and resilient defenders of their persuasions; that they can fight to the finish. It would, therefore, have been stupid for the government to have imprudently handled the rumoured death of El-Zakzaky. Before the rumour that quietly did the round about two weeks ago, precisely Thursday, January 11, followers of the Shiite leader had periodically embarked on protest marches in the streets of Abuja and Kaduna to press for the release of their leader and his wife whose health they claimed was not good. One does not need to be told that these passionate followers will react negatively and dangerously if anything untoward happens to their leader in the custody of the Nigerian state.

That was, indeed, the fear that gripped Kaduna on January 11 when the rumour filtered in. It is, somewhat, to the eternal credit of the Nigerian state, through the SSS, that it responded swiftly to the rumour by arranging what passed for El-Zakzaky’s first public appearance since his arrest and detention. The media parade served its purpose: put a lie to the rumour and confirmed that the Shiite leader was not very sick as has been claimed by his followers in recent times; and that, significantly, he was alive. That, basically, doused the tension that was growing. One cannot but commend the government for that strategic intercession.

Beside, Nigerians would recall how, in a more decisive fashion, President Buhari had on July 13, 2016 taken a proactive step to prevent cattle rustling when he launched a special military task force in Zamfara State to fight “bandits.” About 1,000 troops were deployed for the operation, which is still ongoing, while there is a standing instruction to all military and paramilitary outfits in the country to prevent cattle rustling. That intervention had since shown how important cattle are in Nigeria’s political economy.

Again, when news filtered in with videos on the internet that Nnamdi Kanu, the “disappeared” leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPoB), had started raising a secret “uniformed” group to “fight the state,” the president did not waste time in summoning Army and Defence chiefs, issuing an immediate order to them to root out IPoB. Call to mind that the president took this action, less than 48 hours, after he returned from the United Kingdom from a prolonged medical vacation.That intervention too was good to nip in the bud a potential irritation.

All these have shown that the Nigerian state has the capacity to respond swiftly to potential danger signals and flashpoints. That it has chosen, for instance, to respond slowly to the rash of genocidal attacks by Fulani herders on communities in Benue, Plateau, Southern Kaduna, Taraba, etc. is indicative of Buhari administration’s tacit endorsement of the vengeful acts. But, whatever its reasons are for acting languidly, the Nigerian state cannot absolve itself of complicity in the charge of ethnic cleansing. Professor Wole Soyinka and Pastor Tunde Bakare, two strong opinion leaders who supported Buhari to power, shared that position when they accused the state of “conspiratorial silence.”

Back to El-Zakzaky, it is clear that the Nigerian state is not ready to take a gamble yet by releasing him on the orders of the court. The fear of a freed El-Zakzaky is the beginning of wisdom. So, for how long will he be kept in the custody of the Nigerian state, in brazen deprivation of his constitutionally-provided and circumscribed human rights and civil liberties? I suppose for as long as the Buhari government is in the saddle. That is the reality and the direction that both parties are headed. As long as state security is not ruptured and the lives of the El-Zakzakys are preserved, the rendition of the impunity song, paradoxically, in our supposed constitutional democracy continues to, very sadly, accentuate our labyrinthine bind as a nation.  

*Ojeifo, an Abuja-based journalist, writes viaojwonderngr@yahoo.com

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