Power, Abuse and the Creation of the Apartheid State: The State v. El Zakzaky – Joseph Otteh
The Kaduna State government has now charged leader of the Shiite sect, Sheik El Zakzaky and three others (Zeenah Ibrahim, Yakubu Katsina and Sanusi Koki) for offences ranging from road blockages with dangerous weapons, homicide, unlawful assembly, and blocking roads to prevent movement of the convoy of the Chief of Army Staff. The offences stem from the December 2015 protests and clashes between members of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria (“IMN”) and the convoy of the Chief of Army Staff, Lieutenant General Tukur Buratai. These charges come nearly two and half years since the incidents happened and for about that same length of time El Zakzaky has been in detention – without charges – with his wife.
The new developments come at a time when members of the IMN have stepped up civic efforts to press for the release of their leader who, together with his wife, have been in what the government describes as “protective custody” since December 2015 notwithstanding the declaration of their detention as illegal by a court of law which also ordered their release from custody since December 2016.
It is important to recall the events that led to the detention of Sheik El Zakzaky and how it plays into this narrative. On Saturday 12th December 2015, military officials in a convoy of the current Chief of Army Staff, Lieutenant General T.Y. Buratai ran into a roadblock erected by IMN members. In order to get pass this roadblock, particularly after entreaties to IMN members had reportedly failed, soldiers opened fire on defenceless members of the group in order, according to Army spokesperson Col. Usman Sani, that the Army Chief’s convoy can get through the barricaded road. The shooting claimed several lives, including those of women and children. A soldier also lost his life in the incident.
Over the course of two following days, soldiers from the Nigerian Army attacked the residence of Sheik Ibrahim El Zak-Zaky, the leader of IMN, and, in the process, killed several hundred people and destroyed properties and houses belonging to the IMN sect. Many of the bodies of those killed were mass buried. The Justice Garba Judicial Commission of Enquiry, convoked by the Kaduna government to investigate the incidents found that at least 348 members of the IMN were killed during the clashes, and that this number may not include 7 members who were also killed during the road protests. The JCE noted specifically that the force used by the Army resulting in the deaths was “disproportionate”.
A government un-ruled by law
The Nigerian government – a government which came into power through the law – has since stood itself above the authority of law, not least in the way it has dealt the Shiites, particularly its leadership although this is not the only area where this is apparent. It is not just troubling that a constitutional government can ride rough shod over the authority of a coordinate branch of government in refusing to implement its adjudicated decisions, but even more so that it unabashedly perverts the use of the State’s instruments of governance to practice warrantless discrimination against unpopular individuals and groups.
Justice and Accountability for some, not others
While the JCE recommended the prosecution of IMN members who were “involved in the killing of Cpl. Dan Kaduna Yakubu”, it indicted the General Officer Commanding the Nigerian Army 1st Division in Kaduna, Major General Adeniyi Oyebade, as well as Colonel A.K. Ibraheem, who led the operation that culminated in the deaths of IMN’s members and recommended the criminal trial of both of them as well as the trial of other Army officers “who partook in the killings” while noting that: “The high number of casualties cannot be justified”.
Since then, the Kaduna State Government has commenced the prosecution of 259 IMN members for the murder of one soldier Cpl. Dan Kaduna Yakubu, who died during the clashes. However, of the more than 348 persons who were killed by the army, not one soldier, or their commander, has been charged for murder notwithstanding the recommendation of the JCE. The leader of IMN Sheik El Zakzaky, who has lost two of his sons to earlier killings by the military in Kaduna in 2014, sustained serious injuries during the clashes and has been in incommunicado detention since then.
Kaduna Governor, Nasir El-rufai who had earlier promised to use the “Commission’s recommendations in assigning administrative and criminal responsibility to those who allegedly participated in the violence” and “to punish culprits”first appeared like an honest, if principled mediator. With hindsight, it now appears that he spoke up for the politics of it.When the moment of truth finally came, he nailed his colours to the mast and showed everyone where his loyalty stood. His government completed a 360 degree departure from the earlier promise to “punish culprits” so that now, the Kaduna State Ministry of Justice is only fixated on pursuing justice for one death – that of the soldier – and burying the atrocities associated with the brutal killing of over 348 people by the Army under the rug.
This parochial pursuit of justice over the death of one soldier and the deliberate indifference towards supplying justice and accountability for the killing of more than 348 “civilians” plumbs the depths of absurdity, bigotry and impunity. The bare-faced affront to the basic idea of justice would give apartheid policies and regimes a modicum of respectability in comparison. While racial segregation is obviously odious, segregation on the basis of where each citizen stands on the rankings of power for purposes of justice is arguably worse. The impunity behind this discrimination is revulsive and illustrates how low a so-called democratic government is willing to go in politicising institutions and resources of governance to serve its own jaundice, prejudice and bigotry.How can the loss of one life be deserving of justice, and the loss of over 348 others undeserving of it under the same Constitution?
It is a reviling,anti-democratic thing to rank one life intrinsically superior to another, or, for that matter, to an aggregate of others as in this case!No government is permitted, under a democratic Constitution, to devalue human life in this manner or to cherry pick the lives, the rights or the religious or social identity of the people it would defend, and those it would consider expendable. This is what the Kaduna State government is doing.
It is deeply unfortunate and troubling that the Kaduna government has now elevated to an instrument of state policy, the use of apartheid-like distinctions in its politics and governance. By turning victims of a vicious, brutal and genocidal aggression into its perpetrators, and treating the aggressors as victims, and thereafter using the resources of the State and tax payer money to pursue these one-sided prosecutions, the government threatens the fundamental values of human society and constitutional democracy. The Kaduna government lacks the moral, and, if we may say so, the legal right to practice this vile form of discrimination inherent in arraigning Sheik El Zakzaky and others for homicide trial when it is not ready to prosecute and bring to justice, also, soldiers who summarily, wilfully and atrociously killed hundreds of “Shiite”Nigerians only because they could.
Unfortunately, all this is taking place under the watch of a President who had sold himself to Nigerians and the international community alike as a reformed democrat and a believer in the rule of law. We can recall his speech at the United Kingdom’s Chatham House on Feb. 26 2015, where he assured his audience that “… before you is a former military ruler and a converted democrat who is ready to operate under democratic norms…” His administration has not lived up the stature of that reformation. Operating under democratic norms must mean respect for the rule of law and the authority of the courts. It must mean that government will protect its citizens from violence – whether this comes from other citizens or from the agencies of the State. What we see rather, is the steady emboldening of a climate of impunity in governance.
Impunity breeds and feeds resentment, division and conflict and, as our recent history teaches us, it also offers the building blocks for radicalization and the construction of anti-state ideologies and the fact that we are dealing with a religious group makes it all the more worrisome. We urge the Buhari administration to walk back this culture of impunity and lawlessness we see around us, and, going forward,rebuild governance on the cornerstone of the rule of law and that it ensures equality, fairness and justice in addressing Nigeria’s many challenges, not least, the delicate situation of the Shiite group and their leadership.
Joseph Otteh is with Access to Justice, a non-profit justice advocacy group defending rights of equal and non-discriminatory access to institutions of justice.
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