This piece was first published on the 30th of April, this year. However, considering recent happenings, there is need for it to be republished.
For Sheikh Ibrahim Yakub el-Zakzaky, a foremost Nigerian Shi’a scholar and leader of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN), and his wife, Malama Zeenatuddeen, today makes it 869 days since they were clamped in detention following their arrest on December 14, 2015 after a violent but avoidable clash between the Shi’ites and the military in Zaria two days earlier. On the surface, the clash was triggered by the blockage of a road by IMN members who refused to allow the convoy of the Chief of Army Staff, Lt. General Tukur Yusuf Buratai, to pass despite pleas by him and some top military brass in his convoy.
Following the very bloody clash that followed this infraction, members of the movement, contrary to expectations from the general public and even the government and its security agencies, did not take matters into their hands. Rather, they toed the path of law and order and respect for the constitution and constituted authority by going to court to challenge their arrest and incarceration. One of the accusations or allegations against them is that they do not recognize the constitution, constituted authority nor respect the laws of the land.
El-Zakzaky and his wife were granted bail in December 2016 by a Federal High Court sitting in Abuja. Justice Gabriel Kolawole, who presided over the court, ordered the immediate and unconditional release of el-Zakzaky and his wife. The judge also fined the federal government N50 million for their incarceration and ordered that a house be built for him in a town of his choice anywhere in Nigeria.
The government, who should show Nigerians, through its actions, that court orders are meant to be obeyed, has rather committed the same offence it was accusing the Shi’as – not obeying constituted authority and an arm of the same government. It is now getting to a year and a half.
The members of the IMN went further to petition the Presidency, the Office of the Attorney General and Minister of Justice, the Office of the National Security Adviser, the director general, Department of State Services (DSS), National Human Rights Commission, Nigeria Judicial Privileges Committee, Nigeria Bar Association and even the United Nations. Yet, their petitions drew blanks.
They then resorted to peaceful protests and not unexpectedly things got out of hand in Abuja on Monday April 16, 2018 and the police used tear gas, hot water cannons and, allegedly in some instances, live bullets to disperse them from where they had assembled at the Unity Fountain. Many people, including policemen, were injured and some vehicles of innocent people destroyed.
The government has given reasons for its refusal to release the detained Sheikh and his wife. At one point it said that nobody wants to be their neighbour; at another it said it was for their safety. Well, whether such reasons are justifiable in the face of the court order or not are left for legal luminaries. Our fear is that while we are still battling with Boko Haram, various militias and increasing violent crimes, this case needs to be handled with care because Nigeria can ill afford another religious crisis which has the potency of turning the Boko Haram insurgency into a child’s play.
Government will do well to study the IMN and the general history of the Shi’a. The Shi’a identity is rooted in victimhood and marginalization and this fuels the dissension and rebellion DNA in the Shiite. Therefore, the protests by IMN members will be difficult to stop despite it losing its members through arrests and killings. And from the behaviour of the members, such protests have not reached its peak. It will be ascending with each perceived provocation.
The government may explore three options to resolve this issue. To obey the court order, allow him die in their hands or send him on exile. The vice president, a legal luminary himself, may be exploring the option of negotiation. That may not work because el-Zakzaky is a man who prides himself on using the intellect above everything else. Therefore he may not give in to negotiation before government, first of all, obeys the court order. Moreover, Sheikh Hamza Muhammad Lawal, the man the vice president was led to believe would help in the process, may not be of much help because even though el-Zakzaky brought him up as his erstwhile beloved spiritual son, they have since fallen apart and Lawal is at loggerheads with the IMN. El-Zakzaky would not mind staying “forever” incarcerated but the more he remains in custody, the more the Shiites will continue their protests.
In 1998, the government of General Abdulsalami Abubakar was confronted with almost a similar situation inherited from the previous regime. It had the best advice which made it reach out to the late Dr Sulaiman Kumo, Group Captain Usman Jibrin and Alhaji Sule Yahaya Ahmad. I believe we still have such respectable people around.
The other option of sending him to exile may, on the surface, be a wonderful idea, but to the Shiites, especially the IMN members, it is pregnant with meaning and can be seen as a victory.
The IMN Shiites believe an Islamic Republic may not be attained without the exile of a leader. Islamic history is replete with examples of reformers who toed the path of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) in establishing Islamic Empires by first going on exile. The period of exile varies according to various factors.
The Prophet (SAW) first went to Madina on exile in the year 622 AD before returning to Makkah seven years later in victory. Sheikh Usman dan Fodio (Uthman ibn Fudiye), who tried as much as possible to follow the path of the Prophet, left Degel and went on exile to Gudu in February 1804 when he felt threatened in the former. In his book, Bayan Wujub al Hijra, Alal Ibad (description of the obligations of migration), Sheikh Usman dan Fodio discussed hijrah from darul kufr (loosely, land of unbelief) and its importance in the establishment of Islam.
Sayyid Ruhullah Musavi Khomeini, better known as Ayatullah Khomeini, overthrew the entrenched 2,500 year-old Persian monarchy and established the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979. However, he had to spend close to 15 years in exile before that feat was achieved.
This is the basic teaching of the Shiite, and el-Zakzaky and his followers believe in this process. So, you see, the exile option, in the end, will serve as a fillip for the Shiites to increase their activities because victory has come “near”. There are stages before that: that of unconcern (to your [their] activities) by the authorities; then tolerance (being tolerated); then using the carrot and stick approach; then conflicts/skirmishes; then persecution (first incarcerations, then killings), and lastly exile which heralds the “grand finale”. The only phase we are yet to witness is that of “exile”. Therefore sending el-Zakzaky into exile is a gamble Nigeria will not want because that will represent the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel for them.
To allow el-Zakzaky to die in custody is not an option going by our recent history concerning the extra judicial killing of Boko Haram founder Mohammed Yusuf. The Shiites will not carve out their own Sambisa; they will be everywhere and, unlike Boko Haram, they are very intelligent and even Machiavellian. Believe me, they know where and who to touch for maximum effect.
To continue keeping him in “protective” custody too is costly because his spirit would never be broken, nor would he ever beg for freedom. His followers would continue to escalate their protests. To him, and to them, that’s part of the process of, and an important phase in, achieving their dreams and, believe me, they welcome it because they have been working towards it.
This is the reason they see themselves as a “movement” or harka in Hausa. Harka can loosely be defined as “activity”. Therefore, without anything that will occupy them and mobilise them into “activities” that would galvanise them into “movement”, they get bored. Now they are not.
The third, hard to swallow but best in the circumstances, is for government to accept the verdict of the Judiciary, an arm of government in a democracy.
However, from whatever angle you chose to look at it, government’s disrespect of a court order, based on a superfluous understanding of national interest, does not portray it in good light. Such acts breed malcontent and also have the implication of festering breech of law and order by citizens, leading to anarchy.