Army/Shiite Clash: Zaria

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Kaduna State Governor, Nasir el-Rufai
Kaduna State Governor, Nasir el-Rufai

By Dr. Hakeem Baba-Ahmed

The people of Zaria, my hometown, woke up to a nightmare last week Saturday. For more than twenty years, they lived and gave space to one of their very own as he led a religious movement reportedly numbering a couple of millions. Zaria historically has upheld the best traditions of Islamic scholarship, and had found itself at the heart of the stresses and tensions which colonial influence brought to bear in the competition for the future of colonial and post-colonial Nigeria. Colonial authorities grafted their own frontier institutions of western education in a city which was unapologetic over its tendency to lean away from establishment. The heady mix of deeply-rooted and competing Islamic intellectual traditions and a vast infrastructure of western education created in one city the semblance of unusual religious tolerance, and constant volatility in competing tendencies and styles.
In the last fifty-odd years, the Izala movement emerged with one foot in Kaduna and the other in Zaria to effectively challenge the Darika tendencies that were dominant in most of Muslim North. This marked the beginning of massive turbulence and struggles for control between tradition and reform, which the rise of Shiism heightened by capturing the more global Sunni/Shiite divide. Fringe and popular clerics such as Maitatsine, Sheikh Jafar Adam, Muhammed Yusuf and Sheikh Albani rose and were felled by bullets of rival militants or the state.
So how did the Shite Islamic Movement of Nigeria survive and expand beyond all these skirmishes, becoming the most sophisticated, organized and distinctive group with members in virtually every town and village in the North? It would appear that its leaders learnt a valuable lesson early on, when their militancy and brushes with the law in the early days of their movement (inspired by the Iranian revolution) threatened to decimate a sect whose tenets were extra-ordinarily hostile to all of the existing and received Islamic traditions known in West Africa. Quite possibly benefitting from quality advise and massive funding from Iran, the leaders chose quiet recruitment, disciplined pursuit of western education, well–funded organization and cultivation of a personality cult of the leader as its strategy.
Minimizing confrontations with the state, it built an intimidating following targeting rural Muslims which it called out on special occasions to frighten a Nigerian state routinely engaged in fighting religious intolerance and fringe groups. Its elaborate economic welfare strategies held together adherents, and gave meaning to lives of alienated young people. Its attractive version of sanctioned sexual co-habitation made it particularly attractive to young men, and allowed the sect to spread faster than any sect did in West Africa. Today it has some of the most highly-educated members in academia and private sector, and its young is rarely without skills or trade. Its brand of anti-US and Israeli opposition, as well as resistance against Boko Haram gave it a sharper ideological edge.
A weak Nigerian state pampered and tolerated a movement that showed the potential to threaten it, without actually doing so. Gaping holes were left unattended from massive and sustained interference from Iran under the cover of religious freedom. Local communities in and around Zaria learnt to walk around the members of the Movement. Gradually its leader became virtually untouchable, a larger-than-life figure whose fanatical followers learnt more about group identity than the elements of the faith. In Zaria the Movement squeezed and intimidated a community which sulked and gave more room. Their outings and marches took days or weeks to conclude, and snatched routes and highways away from the public using nothing more than organization and sheer numbers.
A confrontation between a march and the military in Zaria ended in the killing of over 20 members of the Movement, including two of El-Zakzaky’s children, less then two years ago. The Movement buried its dead, and in spite of shrill cries for investigation and justice, the Nigerian state has done nothing about it. Then the former Governor of Kaduna State was humiliated on a visit to a sick party loyalist at Gyellesu by Shiite thugs. Nothing happened. People of Zaria took note: the Movement was above the law. Every law, except its own.
Saturday last week was what every Zaria resident feared: a Movement believing itself untouchable, meeting resistance that will not accept its authority. The proverbial unstoppable force met the immovable object. The manner the military reacted to the provocation and humiliation of having the Chief of Army Staff beg Shiites for the privilege to drive through their roadblock on a public highway will suggest that soldiers in Zaria had had enough of the insular insolence of the Shiites. It is now obvious that the onslaught that took hours to plan and unleash in multiple centers following the roadblock incident was designed to make only one point: the Shite in Zaria had crossed a line, and the military or government (or both) was not going to let them keep it. Nothing else explains the force deployed, the elaborate preparations, the siege and the casualties that were registered in the reaction of the military.
The passionate debates about events in Zaria tend to generate a lot more emotion than reason. Some people feel Shiites provoked, and deserved whatever treatment they got from the military. Many who think this have lived with the Shiites in and around Zaria, had cheer-led the military assault and some even ransacked bodies of killed Shiites for money. There is also profound indignation and shock, on the other hand, that the military could lose its head, or calmly plan and undertake such attacks on civilians under a government that is sworn to uphold rule of law. People now worry who is next. Those who think the Shiites got what they deserved are wrong. What they deserved was justice from a state which had no business fighting a civilian population the way it did. Those who blocked and threatened General Buratai from driving past could and should have been arrested and prosecuted. If their leader encouraged it, he should have received the same treatment.
In the next few days, anger and the demands for investigation will overcome any sympathy for the military assault. There should be legitimate concern that the military does not appreaciate the fact that it handed over to the Shiites a victory it will exploit to the detriment of national security. The last thing the Nigerian government needs is genuine national and global sympathy for a group which thrives on offending its laws and directing its loyalty exclusively to a foreign nation. The state has lost a vital moral high ground, and will now have to contend with damage control that will tax all its capacities. El-Zakzaky and detained Shiites will have to be released, tried or jailed. This process will be used to boost the image and symbol of martyrdom, and this is precisely the stuff upon which Shiism feeds. His supporters will not relent. The longer he stays in military detention away from the judicial process, if it is necessary to put him through it, the more challenging managing this crisis will be.
Damage control has already suffered serious setback. The astounding silence of President Buhari, beyond the one-line statement of his S.A Media to the effect that it is all a military affair is difficult to explain. He needs to speak, directly to Nigerians, and re-commit his government to upholding the rule of law and protecting national security. A judicial inquiry should commence immediately to investigate what happened in Zaria. Sheikh El-Zakzaky, his family and detained adherents must remain unharmed. Dead bodies should be released to relatives for burial. Any Shiite or soldier who has broken laws should be persecuted without delay. At all cost, this incident, must not be further mismanaged to open a new front in our nation’s battles for its soul and future.

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