Nigeria Awaits Buhari, el-Rufai over Zaria Shiite Panel Report

President Buhari and army chief Tukur Buratai

by Idowu Akinlotan, TheNation,

RESPONDING to criticisms over their handling of last December’s Shiite disturbance in Zaria during which hundreds of lives were lost, both President Muhammadu Buhari and Kaduna State governor, Nasir el-Rufai, appealed to Nigerians to wait for the outcome of the judicial probe of the crisis. Despite the urgency of the matter and the unquantifiable pains the disturbance inflicted on hundreds of families, interested parties managed to exercise the requisite patience. Finally, and even though the report has not been officially released, the media have published glimpses of the conclusions and indictments contained in the report. Headed by Justice Mohammed Garba of the Federal Court of Appeal, Port Harcourt, the 13-man panel confirmed 349 dead, probably all Shiite members, and one soldier killed. The panel indicted the General Officer Commanding Nigerian Army Ist Division, Kaduna, Oyeniyi Oyebade, a major-general, and a certain A.K. Ibraheem, a colonel, for mishandling the crisis and using disproportionate force.

According to witnesses, some of them government officials, victims of the massacre were buried in two mass graves, with some of the corpses conveyed in military trucks. Yet, the army said it counted only seven people killed. The public will now wait for government’s response to the very damning report, the first coming from Kaduna State government, the second from the army, and the third from the federal government. Given the way they initially approached the crisis, all three will be uncomfortable in responding to the obvious crimes against humanity committed by the soldiers. The army, it was clear, used excessive force when, according to the panel, it could have chosen alternative routes for their commanders to pass through Zaria. Until the report is released officially, it is not certain what the panel found out concerning the army’s theory that Shiite members planned to assassinate the Chief of Army Staff (COAS), Lt.-Gen. Tukur Buratai.

The second responder, Kaduna State government, also mishandled the crisis abysmally by prejudging the Shiites and demolishing their headquarters after the massacre. The religious group did not have building permits, the governor had said. Then finally, the Buhari presidency, basing its conclusions on unstated intelligence or findings, condemned the Shiites for attempting to set up a government within a government. There can be only one government, the president bristled during a media chat shortly after the disturbance. Commentators had noted immediately after the clash and the attendant massacre that the army’s disproportionate response and the state and federal governments’ connivance were fuelled by their hubristic interpretation of the powers of government and their inchoate appreciation of the fundamentals of democracy and the power of the ballot paper.

It now remains to be seen how both Mallam el-Rufai and President Buhari, in that order, will respond to the panel’s report. The judicial probe has called for the prosecution of the two named officers and other senior officers who participated in the massacre. Though the panel also blamed the government for its lack of proactive response to malfeasant and troublesome groups, including the often obtruding and disruptive Shiites, the main quandary the government will face will be how to disengage the officers and prosecute them. Much worse, the Kaduna State governor himself condoned the killings by his insensitive statements shortly after the clash and then took steps to, as it were, erase the presence of the Shiites in their Zaria redoubt. The president and the governor will obviously find out soon that the loathing they claimed the neighbours of Shiites in Zaria harbour against the religious group has no evidential value in mitigating the atrocities committed against its members. They will also discover that mass burial and the lack of records of victims constitute obstruction of justice.

It will not be enough for the Kaduna State government to release a White Paper on the crisis. The governor must come to terms with his comments and attitude over the clash. He will need to show remorse and offer a full apology. Next, the president himself must show remorse for the very biased and casual manner he dismissed the clash and prejudged the Shiites. He needs to issue a full apology as well. Then they must go on to make full amends for the oppressive and atrocious manner they have treated the leader of the movement, El-Zakzaky, whom the Department of State Service has detained unlawfully for many months. If they are smart, they must open talks with the Shi’a Movement and discuss compensation. Otherwise, armed with the report, whenever it is issued, the Shiites will exact a terrible price from the government. And if the government decides unwisely to bury or distort the report, the International Criminal Court (ICC) will be petitioned to retrieve the report and call the government, including those not indicted by the panel, to account. The federal and state governments, and the army are in unwinnable positions. The sooner they realise it, the better.