Despite the video footage that apparently shows members of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN) hectoring Nigeria’s chief of army staff, Lt. Gen. Tukur Buratai, and his entourage, there was yet a hint of the untoward on the latter’s part. In releasing the footage, the army sought to create the impression that its officers were victims of the Shiites’ irascibility and merely acted to stave off an attack and apparent assassination of the army chief. Its officers acted with utmost restraint and that is the reason the casualty figure was just seven, the army claimed.
To a large extent that was the predominant narrative. But the recent revelation that at least 347 members of the IMN were buried in a mass grave after their clash with soldiers on December 12, last year, has cast an ugly shadow on the army’s claim.
The Secretary to the Kaduna State Government, Balarabe Abbas Lawal, disclosed this when he appeared before a Judicial Commission of Inquiry set up by the state government to probe the clash between members of the sect and soldiers.
So the army’s release of that footage seems like a desperate ploy to cover up its misdeed particularly given how it downplayed the casualty figure and the additional disclosure by the Director-General of Kaduna State Interfaith Agency, Muhammad Namadi Musa, hinting at an attempt to suppress the truth.
“I moved in company of the Commissioner of Police to Ahmadu Bello University Teaching Hospital, Zaria, to ascertain the number of bodies of which I saw and counted 156,” he told the public hearing. “At the Nigerian Army Depot, the SSG directed me to meet with Major Ogundare regarding the bodies there.
After introducing myself, he refused to let me know the number. But later on, the SSG called me and told me the number. “We left the Nigerian Army Depot with three heavy duty trucks and 60 young officers who escorted them to assist in offloading the bodies.
From ABUTH, Zaria, five small trucks carried the 196 corpses. Most corpses were covered with black materials and they included women and children.” There have been unflattering reports by Amnesty International alleging that the Nigerian soldiers indulge in extra-judicial killings in the North-East and across other regions.
The Nigeria Army have consistently denied such claims. And many Nigerians indignant at how Amnesty International often tends to dwell more on activities of Nigerian soldiers but ignores the atrocities of Boko Haram, had voiced support for the army.
But those “repulsive” claims by the human rights group have been lent some credence by witnesses’ damning tales at the judicial inquiry which point at the disturbing verdict – an orchestrated massacre. For all we know, the casualty figure might be higher especially given that the sect’s spokesman, Ibrahim Musa, claim that more than 700 members of the movement were still missing after the clashes.
Whereas Amnesty’s earlier pronouncement was mostly considered irksome, its position on the army’s action in Zaria has struck a positive chord. Like Amnesty International we call for the prosecution of the soldiers responsible for those deaths.
It cannot be acceptable for the army to continually treat attempts to hold it to account as insolent demands which could be easily discountenanced without qualms. Such mindset is the reason there was no sanction against soldiers who carried out the evidently punitive expeditions in Odi and Zaki Biam. It may, as a matter of fact, be argued that the absence of sanction suggests those unfortunate incidents had the tacit approval of the high command.
The army’s reaction on this occasion would either reinforce or dispel the notion that its soldiers’ action in Zaria had an official imprint. A repudiation – even if that comes as an afterthought – will be an important first step towards putting some conviction in the army’s often repeated line that its officers are subject to the rule of law.
However, it is just as important that the outrage which the soldiers’ dastardly action has generated does not completely overshadow the obvious extremism of the Shi’ites sect and how the public had always borne the brunt of their indiscretion. There have been numerous tales of the sect members’ open disregard for the country’s laws and bullying of government agents.
This happened due to the fact that the sect – perhaps on account of the immense influence of their leader and the possible electoral value that his huge following promises – has been receiving an indulgent treatment from governments over the years.
Their extremism should have long been curtailed. But it should never be via the bullet except where they take up arms against the state and become a real threat to national security. At present, there does appear to have been any idiosyncrasies that could not have been dealt with by civil prosecution. Nurturing martial pride is an essential point critical to every armies’ psycho-social relation to their constitutional mandate. But it should never be upheld at the expense of human lives.