•We commend the report of the inquiry commission and urge its implementation
Eight months later, the public now has a clearer idea of the December 12-14 , 2015, clash in Zaria between the military and Shiites, mostly members of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN), that left hundreds dead in its tragic wake.
Early accounts of the incident from the military had it that armed militants of the IMN had barricaded, close by their enclave, a public road on the route of the convoy of the Chief of Army Staff, Lt Gen Yusuf Buratai, and had taken up positions that suggested that they were set to launch an attack on the convoy.
Whether they acted pre-emptively or out of provocation – it is not yet clear – the army and the Shiites soon found themselves drawn into a bloody exchange of fire. By the time the guns fell silent three days later, no fewer than 300 Shiites had been killed, contrary to official reports that placed fatalities at a tiny fraction of that figure. An undetermined number of soldiers were also killed or wounded.
In its scale and gruesomeness, the Zaria incident is reminiscent of the killing of civilians by soldiers in Odi, in Bayelsa State and Zaki-Biam, in Benue State, during former President Olusegun Obasanjo’s time in office.
The commission of inquiry set up by the Kaduna State Government following the incident states unequivocally in its report that the army’s use of “excessive force” led to the heavy casualties, and that the army should be held accountable for that gruesome outcome.
The commission, led by Justice Mohammed Lawal Garba, has also recommended that the soldiers who participated in the killings be identified and brought to justice.
This recommendation should be implemented without delay. The Zaria incident must not go down, like previous military-civilian clashes resulting in heavy casualties, as the handiwork of “unknown soldiers.” It is also necessary to identify the individuals who gave the orders and bring them to justice accordingly.
However, it is not as if the military alone is to blame. The commission states just as forthrightly that, given his “total control” over the members of the IMN, its leader and spiritual head, Sheikh Ibraheem El-Zakzaky bears personal responsibility for all the acts and omissions of his followers in its clashes with the military, for failing to rein them in even when he had been urged repeatedly to do so.
If another incident of this nature is to be averted, Sheikh Ibrahim will indeed have to exercise greater control over his followers. Having induced in them a siege mentality that led them to carve out a portion of the city as an enclave off-limits to non adherents, he must now lead them by personal example to believe that they are entitled to, and will receive, equal protection under the law, and therefore have no reason to take the law into their own hands.
Monopoly on the use of force for the preservation of law and order is one of the defining attributes of a state. The existence of a parallel and unregulated countervailing force dilutes that monopoly and puts the entire polity at risk. Such a force thrives where a segment of the population perceives, reasonably or unreasonably, that it cannot count on the authorities for its safety or protection.
It is therefore incumbent on the authorities and the law enforcement agencies to dispel this perception. Whether founded or not, perception governs behaviour in significant ways. Security agencies should carry out their surveillance with due regard to, and respect for, the rights of citizens, regardless of creed.
As the commission of inquiry has recommended, the Federal Government should muster the political will to engage meaningfully with IMN and similar groups. There lies the path to averting bloody encounters of the kind that took place in Zaria.
Governor Nasir el-Rufai is to be commended for setting up the commission of inquiry and causing its report to be published. Such a demonstration of openness is rare in contemporary Nigerian politics. The commission deserves praise for discharging its remit expeditiously and with fairness to all.
What remains is the implementation of the commission’s report. There should be no delay in doing so.