With national and global media attention riveted on the assertive push-back by victims of the murderous Fulani militants/herders and federal duplicity, ongoing episodes of repression and disdain for the rule of law by the central government are going almost unnoticed. Amnesty International has been calling for the release of Ibrahim el-Zakzaky and his wife from detention since 2017.
The news that Zeenat, detained along with her husband, el-Zakzaky, leader of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria, had come down with the deadly COVID-19 disease was soon followed by a court order that she be released to an isolation centre for treatment. The court later withdrew the order. Assuredly, the prolonged detention of the el-Zakzakys and other members of the Shi’ite sect in defiance of court orders is unjust and lawless. It is another clear demonstration of the Buhari regime’s dictatorial rule. Rather than align with universal democratic practice, the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), persists in running a government that violates basic rights and tramples on the rule of law. Under him, the security agencies often adopt Gestapo tactics. The long-running saga of the el-Zakzakys is appalling and offensive to decency.
Recently, a son of the detainees revealed that Zeenat had tested positive for COVID-19. Entreaties to correctional centre authorities in Kaduna where she is being detained that she be released for proper care fell on deaf ears. Similarly, the Kaduna State Government that is prosecuting the Shi’ite leaders for incitement to murder failed to intervene. The IMN members resumed street protests in the Federal Capital Territory, Kaduna, Zaria and some other northern cities. They were (as usual) met with brutal force. One person died from police bullets in Abuja and several others suffered gunshot wounds or were rendered unconscious by tear gas.
The bloody drama began in December 2015 when the Shi’ites, notorious for staging disruptive street demonstrations in the northern states with total disregard for others, recklessly blocked the convoy of the Chief of Army Staff on the Kaduna-Zaria highway, leading to a violent confrontation. Later, troops attacked the Zaria headquarters of the IMN, as well as other Shi’ite premises in Kaduna State. The death toll was appalling. A judicial panel set up by the KDSG determined in 2016 that 347 sect members were killed and buried in mass graves, contrary to denials by the military. Shi’ites insist that almost 1,000 were killed, including several sons of el-Zakzaky. A report by Human Rights Watch quoting unofficial sources, said up to 110 others had been killed by 2018 in subsequent crackdowns on Shi’ite protesters in Kaduna, Kano, Katsina, Yobe, Plateau, Sokoto and Abuja. It said three IMN members with severe gunshot wounds were denied medical care and died of their injuries.
Two wrongs do not approximate to a right and a democratic government should not engage in law enforcement with barbarity. The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights says firearms should never be used “simply to disperse an assembly” and prohibits intentional lethal use of force by law enforcement officials “unless it is strictly unavoidable in order to protect life and all other means are insufficient to achieve that objective.”
Since the el-Zakzakys were detained in December 2015, they and several other followers have remained in detention sites, moved from military custody to the State Security Service confinement and later, to civilian correctional services custody. Eventually charged for allegedly being accessories to murder, the government has defied several court orders granting them bail or leave to obtain medical treatment at home and abroad. One such court indulgence in 2019 authorising el-Zakzaky to receive medical treatment in India became farcical after the Nigerian government applied diplomatic and strong arm methods to deny the medical team a free hand to attend to its patient. He was returned home to captivity without receiving the medical attention he had sought.
This travesty should stop. No government has the right to detain anyone indefinitely. Since the detainees have been accused of violating the law, arrested and arraigned in court, the rule of law and justice system should be allowed to operate unfettered. Indefinite detention outside the law is reprehensive; disobedience of court orders is lawless and subversive of the constitution and democracy. As a creation of, and guarantor of law and order, the government is duty-bound to operate strictly within the law. But the Buhari regime exhibits contempt for the rule of law; it had similarly at various times, held a former National Security Adviser, Sambo Dasuki, an online publisher, Omoyele Sowore, in defiance of court orders. It has meted out violence and arbitrary arrests to self-determination groups, youth protesters under the #EndSARS hashtag and harassed judges.
Buhari must conform to democratic norms. By his actions, he lends credence to allegations that he is pursuing personal vendetta, ethnic bias in some cases and in the case of the Shi’ites, that he is enmeshing the country in the global Sunni Muslim-Shia Muslim rivalry. That struggle has made conflicts in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen intractable as Saudi Arabia and Iran, the Sunni and Shia champions respectively, promote proxy wars and jostle for influence in other countries, said the Council on Foreign Relations. Amnesty International and HRW have separately warned that unbridled repression could radicalise groups and create another insurgent front. Those accused of breaking the law should be dealt with according to the law; the law presumes everyone to be innocent until otherwise proved by a competent court.
The el-Zakzakys should be allowed medical attention; the government should obey all court orders. There should be speedy trial of all accused persons as the delayed justice is decidedly unjust. Buhari should drop his martial culture and behave like an elected civilian leader, not like the military dictator he once was.