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White Paper on Army-Shi’ite Clash

On Monday last week, the Kaduna State Government issued a white paper on the report of the Justice Mohammed Garba Judicial Commission of Inquiry that probed December last year’s clashes in Zaria between soldiers and the Shi’ite group Islamic Movement of Nigeria. More than 300 people died in that clash, one of the worst in this region’s history. Considering that Federal and most state governments too often sit on the reports of commissions of inquiry and never bother to issue white papers on them, we congratulate Governor Nasiru el-Rufa’i and the Kaduna State Government for issuing this white paper.

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The white paper’s highlight was however controversial. KDSG declared that IMN, which is Nigeria’s biggest Shi’ite group, is an insurgent group because its activities threaten the country’s peace and security. It said, “For all intent and purpose IMN is an insurgent group and ought to be treated as such.” It cited two other Shia groups, Al-Thaqalayn and Rasul A’azam which are active in Kaduna State, both of which testified before the Judicial Commission of Inquiry and said the Shia faith “can be observed and ought to be protected within the boundaries set and permitted by the Nigerian constitution and other laws.”

In several editorial comments we made on this saga since last December’s events, we never shied away from noting that IMN’s conduct and practices in pursuit of its religious beliefs are essentially lawless and inimical to peace and public order. This characterisation however falls far short of being branded a terrorist or insurgent group. Blocking highways is very bad behaviour but it does not amount to taking up arms against the Nigerian state, as Boko Haram and the Niger Delta militants did. The consequences of a group being tagged insurgent are that its members are no longer entitled to any constitutional protections, including the right to life. We urge authorities to act proportionately in order not to unduly inflame insecurity situations.

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KDSG’s white paper had other issues. It ended up rejecting most of the commission’s recommendations. KDSG said for example that the commission “failed to consider many observations included in the memos submitted to it by individuals and groups.” This is a strange remark. Hundreds of memos were presented to it, including by government agencies and private individuals but not including IMN, the main antagonist. Dozens of people also testified before the panel. Obviously it was under no obligation to accept any particular submission but must weigh it against the facts as presented by others and as observed by commission members themselves, who visited many of the clash sites.

The commission’s report blamed the Army, the federal and Kaduna State governments as well as IMN for the clash and the high number of casualties. This was a reasonable conclusion but KDSG rejected it and said, “All IMN members and its leadership are jointly and severally liable for all violations of the law in the last 30 years, and are therefore responsible for the clashes and its consequences.” The fact that IMN’s action in blocking the highway precipitated the clash does not necessarily mean that other agencies acted responsibly, given the unduly high level of casualties. 

Other aspects of the commission’s report which KDSG rejected include its findings that the burial of clash victims did not conform to the law and its finding that KDSG’s demolishing of IMN sites was improper.  The white paper insisted that “officials complied with the Burial Law of the State. Section 7 sub-section 1 of the Burial Law Cap 20 Laws of Kaduna State 1991 requires the burial of persons who die in this type of circumstances within 24hrs. The Interpretation section of Rule 115 Geneva Convention also states that in circumstances of this nature, dead bodies could be buried in a mass grave.” With respect to the demolished sites, it said “the debris at the Hussainiyya Baqiyatullah and at the residence of Sheikh Ibraheem El-Zakzaky was removed on the grounds of public health and safety. All the IMN buildings that were demolished were constructed without statutory title and building permit as required by the Land Use Act and Section 26 of the KASUPDA Law No.12 of 2015.” 

Trouble is, these matters all came up before the commission, government officials made their case before it but the commission found otherwise after examining all evidence. For KDSG to insist that all its submissions were right and must be ratified as such is not fair to the panel’s members, all of whom were selected by Governor el-Rufa’i and his aides and all of whom are eminent, experienced and knowledgeable persons. The government’s stance unfortunately lends credence to IMN’s charges that KDSG had already predetermined its conclusions and that it set up the commission of inquiry as a mere smokescreen. Such perception could discourage other persons from serving in such commissions in the future.

Last week, the Borno Elders Forum [BEF] also sounded a note of caution to KDSG’s declaration of IMN as an insurgent group. BEF’s statement signed by its chairman Ambassador Usman Gaji Galtimari warned that there are many similarities between how Federal and Borno State authorities mishandled the Boko Haram crisis when it first reared its head in 2009 and the way the IMN issue is presently being handled in Kaduna State. We urge the Federal, Kaduna State and all other state governments in Northern Nigeria to hearken well to the Borno Elders’ remarks, which carry a lot of moral weight. No two such situations are entirely similar and they may not necessarily lead to the same end, but the similarities in these two cases are eerily close. It is not too late to engage IMN in a sincere dialogue, backed by a big stick, to make it reform its practices and pursue its religious practice entirely within the law. 

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