Nigeria is a multi-religious country in which the two main faiths, Christianity and Islam, are sub-divided into numerous sects and groups, not all of which accept each other. Our Constitution protects all of them by guaranteeing religious freedom. Any attempt to deprive any religious group from the freedom to practice its religion runs the risk of provoking a major conflict with that group. It is in this context that PREMIUM TIMES wishes to draw attention to the dangers associated with the widespread attacks on Shiites, a Muslim religious movement, in various parts of Northern Nigeria. The attacks are directed at members of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN), Nigeria’s foremost Shi’a group.

It would be recalled that the Kaduna State Government had issued a legal notice in relation to the Commission of Inquiry Report on the “Clash Between the Nigerian Army and the Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN)”. The Order, which came into operation on October 7, 2016 declares that: “the Society that bears the name, style, guise or nomenclature of the “Islamic Movement in Nigeria”, is hereby declared an Unlawful Society in Kaduna State.” The justifications for the order, according to the Government, are the imperative for the promotion and protection of public safety, public order, public morality or public health; and/or the rights and freedom of all persons in Kaduna State.

The Order is anchored on the findings of the Judicial Commission of Inquiry into the clashes between the group with the appellation “Islamic Movement in Nigeria” (IMN) and the Nigerian Army in Zaria between Saturday 12th and Monday 14th December 2015. The findings, says the Government, draw attention to acts, which if allowed to go unchecked will constitute danger to the peace, tranquillity, harmonious co-existence and good governance of Kaduna State.

The Commission itself was very problematic because although one party, the Nigerian Army, participated with a huge array of lawyers, the other party to the confrontation, the IMN, neither sent memoranda nor appeared before it. They stayed away because they had lost hundreds of their people who were killed by soldiers, with many more arrested and jailed, while their leader, Ibraheem El-Zakzaky and his wife, had been in detention with the SSS since December last year. They had also pointed out that some members of the Commission of Inquiry had been on record proposing that Muslims should kill members of the Shi’a religious group. It was therefore not surprising that they boycotted the Inquiry. As such, the fact of the matter is that the Commission heard only one side of the story.

Nonetheless, the Commission of Inquiry was categorical in its findings that the Nigerian Army was wrong in “shooting its way” through the blockade set by the IMN that led to the initial killing of seven members of the IMN. The Commission also found that the claim by the Army that the IMN had a large stockpile of dangerous weapons was false as they could only produce one locally made pistol and some catapults, knives, swords and bows and arrows as evidence of the purported “large arsenal” of arms. The Commission therefore concluded that the use of lethal force by the Nigerian Army leading to the massacre of 347 members of the movement was wrong, illegal and punishable. The Commission subsequently recommended that steps should immediately be taken to identify members of the Nigerian Army who acted contrary to their Rules of Engagement and professional ethics and participated in the killings of the IMN members and other citizens between December 12 and 14, 2015, with a view to bringing them to justice by prosecuting them.

Rather than punishing the Nigerian Army for its crimes, what we have witnessed so far is the proscription of the movement. Many of the members have also been attacked and killed since the proscription order.

The Nigerian media were awash with reports of attacks and killings on Wednesday, October 12. Early that morning, four members of the Shi’a sect were reportedly killed in the Tudun Wada area of the Kaduna South Local Government Area, when some irate youth attacked them, burning down the residence of the group’s leader in Kaduna and demolishing the Shiite’s Islamic school in the area. The police in Sokoto have also reported that hoodlums killed a Shi’a member in Tudun Wada quarters of Sokoto North Local Government Area en route to a processional march.

There was also a violent confrontation at Tamaje area of Sokoto South Local Government between a mob and sect members. In Katsina State, the police said at least three persons died during a clash between its officials and members of the IMN in Funtua, Funtua Local Government Area of the state. The Commissioner of Police in the state, Usman Abdullahi, said two policemen were injured during the clash. According to him, the police arrested 46 persons comprising men and women for participating in the banned procession. He said the incident occurred when members of the Shi’a group attempted to burn the Police Area Commander’s office in the town during the procession.

The IMN released a statement last Wednesday stating that at least 13 of its members were killed in multiple clashes with the police and some hoodlums in Funtua, Sokoto and Kaduna. Some States – Kaduna, Katsina, Kano and Kebbi had earlier banned the group’s annual procession.

The alleged reason for the attacks where that they were commemorating a religious rite called “Ashura”, which involves processional marches. Over the years, these processions have been done peacefully in many parts of the country. This year, however, there were concerted attempts by both security agencies and other Islamic groups to stop them.

The Order of the Kaduna State Government has clearly become a trigger that unleashed these attacks on members of the Shi’a community all over the country. It is estimated that there are about three million members of this religious community across Nigeria and it is highly irresponsible for state governments to proscribe their operations.

One of the most dangerous convictions is for members of a religious community to believe that their freedom to exercise their faith, according to their belief, is being embargoed. Also, in this situation, the detention of the Shi’a leader, Sheikh Ibraheem El-Zakzaky and his wife since December last year, with no charges filed against them, is frightfully unacceptable. Their followers have been demanding and demonstrating for their release and all the security agencies have been doing is attacking them.

Members of the IMN believe that the Nigerian Government is trying to kill their leader. So far, the army has killed six out his seven sons and now his organisation has been proscribed in Kaduna and Plateau States, while their members are being attacked all over the country. It appears that there is an attempt to push the Shiites in Nigeria to popular revolt. We have enough insurgencies and violent conflicts in Nigeria and PREMIUM TIMES calls on authorities and the civil populace to beware of pushing our country toward more violent conflicts.

PREMIUM TIMES is aware that the attack on Shiites also has an international dimension. In Syria, Bahrain and Yemen, Sunni forces under the leadership of Saudi Arabia have been attacking Shiites in proxy wars. The majority of Nigerians have indicated having no interest in being drawn into these proxy wars. It is important to know that the Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN) is not just an organisation, it is a Shiite Islamic religious movement. The religious movement has about three million members and has branches in all 36 states in the country and banning them could lead to a series of violent clashes all over the country. There is no doubt that banning the organisation would be understood by its members to mean banning their constitutional right to practice their religion.

PREMIUM TIMES believes that the argument for the proscription – that they are not registered – is a flimsy one. It is true that the IMN is not registered. The Nigerian Constitution however allows citizens the freedom of association and movement with or without registration. There are thousands of religious and other associations operating in the country without registration. Members of the IMN should be free to associate, as long as they respect the laws of the country and do not infringe on the rights of others. Nigeria must step back from this dangerous trend that would lead us into spooking yet another religious crisis.