BY VICTORIA N. IKEANO
It is now going to five years since Sheik Ibraheem El-Zakzaky leader of the Shia community in Nigeria and his wife, Zeenah were arrested and put under detention by the Nigerian authorities following a rather bloody confrontation between his members a.k.a. the now proscribed Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) with the military during which many people were killed and several others injured. Although the Shia community with headquarters in Kaduna state had previously had a brush with law enforcement agencies, notably in 2014, the December 2015 clash appears to be the one that broke the camel’s back so to speak, for things have never been the same for the couple and the Shia community ever since. Their properties were razed and they were effectively ‘silenced’ as a group/organization. The exact number of causalities is not certain, for while the Shiites say some 1000 of their people were missing, the kaduna state government officially, buried 347 bodies in mass graves. Their continued protestations for release of their leader and his wife particularly in Abuja, seat of the federal government which though often starts peacefully and later degenerates to conflicts with the police, led to proscription of the IMN early last year following death of a police officer, journalist who was hit by a stray bullet and burning of a police armoured vehicle.
Though they are banned as an organization, their freedom of worship, freedom to practice their faith was not curtailed. Nevertheless, the Shiites are now saying that they never really officially referred to themselves as IMN, that that name is a creation of the government. The 2015 fracas was reportedly triggered by the Shiites’ closure of a road, owned by the government, for their event, thereby denying motorists and the Chief of Army Staff (COAS) who happened to be passing, access to the road. An attempt by the COAS to enquire why the road was blocked and to urge them to reopen it led to altercation, including shoving, so the report went. True, it is considered an affront for a civilian to point fingers at an officer, much more shove a General especially when he is attired in uniform. It is considered an insult. But did the military overreact going by the consequent number of deaths from that clash? Is its reaction to the reported provocation akin to killing an ant with a sledge hammer? Yes, we are told that the army is trained to shoot and a cat wagging the tail of a lion should expect dire consequences. The army also reportedly lost some soldiers in that feud while the Shiites may have exaggerated the number of its killed and missing members. Still the question remains, could the Army have tempered its ‘fury’ on that fateful day? It is noteworthy that the Shiites assert that that were never armed in all of their confrontations with security agencies, maintaining that none of their members have been charged or found guilty of arms possession in a law court. According to them security agents that died during such clashes, were killed by their fellow security personnel. Many would find this hard to believe though.
Quite apart from having lost his properties, Sheikh El-Zakzaky and his wife in confinement for years are said to be having health challenges arising from injuries they suffered allegedly from gunshots on that fateful December clash. The Sheikh is said to have been blinded in one eye while the other is said to be now almost useless to all intents and purpose. Zeenat El-Zakzaky reportedly suffers severe abdominal pains from time to time in addition to arthritis. Indeed, she is said to be unable to stand as such, sitting in a wheelchair. Some other underlying illnesses may not also be ruled out given their ages. In this period of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) when practically everything is on hold, I can imagine that their health could further deteriorate, just as the court case against them which had been dragging is similarly suspended because of it. The couple were once granted court permission for medicals in India under the watchful eyes of a Nigerian state official. But they came back home soon after without undergoing the necessary surgery. It was gathered that the Sheikh was ‘uncooperative’ because he suspected that he was going to be poisoned because his personal physician who travelled with them was allegedly not present at every step of the medical process especially with regard to prescription of drugs. Given his rather long period in confinement, brushes with security agencies and their attendant pains, it is not impossible that El-Zakzaky would be mistrustful of government.
There is no doubt that four and half years in confinement would have inflicted on the couple as with anyone else, emotional and psychological pains, especially when they have health challenges. More so when they have lost some family members, friends and associates during those years. For example, it is learnt that only three of the couple’s biological children are alive today. Though government cannot be wholly blamed for all of these deaths, yet the death of a loved one brings with it, deep emotional loss. Government has stated that it can refuse any court-granted bail for overriding security reasons. However, government should on compassionate grounds, mellow down by allowing the couple go home on bail albeit with conditions. The bottom line is that they be allowed to stay in a comfortable place, receive visitors and be allowed freedom of speech, although they may have to abide by an undertaking not to say anything that could undermine national security and unity. The Shiites themselves may have to suspend for the time being (to cool tension) their yearly Quds Day march/ protests particularly as it can be hijacked by hoodlums with ulterior motives, causing friction between them and the police. They should not by act of omission or commission infringe on other people’s right of movement during any of their commemorative activities. On the other hand, minority rights like those of Shiites in Nigeria should be guaranteed by government. Once again, government should extend a compassionate heart to the El-Zakzakys given their health conditions. I think they have suffered enough.