By Femi Aribisala
The decision of the Nigerian government to proscribe the Shiite Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) and to declare it officially as a terrorist organization is a catastrophic blunder. In the first instance, the decision is illegal and unconstitutional. It is a blatant infringement on the freedom of religion guaranteed under the Nigerian Constitution.
But even more than this, it is an open invitation to another chapter of terrorism in Nigeria. For a country already groaning under the travails of the murderous Boko Haram and the marauding Fulani herdsmen, this is certainly unacceptable and should be avoided at all costs.
In 2015, a Shiite procession impeded the convoy of General Tukur Buratai, the Nigerian Chief of Army Staff. The Nigerian military claimed the Shiites were trying to assassinate Buratai- a charge the Shiites deny.
In retaliation, hundreds of Shiites were slaughtered. Soldiers bulldozed Shiite centers, including mosques and schools in Zaria. Their leader, Ibraheem el-Zakzaky and his wife, Zeenatideen, were arrested, and they have remained under arrest till date without trial. In the meantime, one of Zakzaky’s followers, Abbas Isiyaku, has died in prison custody. Zakzaky himself and his wife are said to be seriously ill.
This is a blatant violation of the human rights of Shiites in Nigeria, but the government of Muhammadu Buhari does not give a damn. On different occasions, the courts have ordered that Zakzaky and his wife should be released, but the government, in its usual fashion, has refused to obey the verdict of the courts.
These acts of illegality by the Nigerian government has been a source of provocation to the Shiites. Every now and then, they have come out in protest, demanding the release of el-Zakzaky, but these demonstrations have only occasioned more extra-judicial killings by the Nigerian Army, on behalf of the Nigerian government.
The latest of these outbursts this year led to the killing of a journalist
The answer of the government has been to obtain an ex parte motion against the IMN from the courts, declaring it a terrorist organization. This move is very cynical, to say the least. The same government that has not found it necessary to declare marauding murderous Fulani herdsmen as terrorists, has now declared the Shiites, who are campaigning for religious freedom and for the protection of their fundamental human rights as terrorists.
This decision by the government is bound to push the IMN to terrorism. Going by their history, it is not going to deter them, for it is clear that they are not afraid to die for their cause. Moreover, there is more to the government’s counter-productive decision than meets the eye. The move by the government is designed to cement Nigeria’s alliance with a number of Islamic countries in the Middle East, and is already making Nigeria a front in an international conflict that is entirely no business of ours.
One of the legacies of President Buhari is the division of Nigeria along regional, ethnic and religious lines. Buhari is a Muslim, and he has tended to promote policies that tend towards the Islamisation of Nigeria. In his first coming as Nigeria’s Head of State in 1984, Buhari applied for Nigeria to join the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC), in clear violation of Nigeria’s secularity. Nigeria is not an Islamic country, therefore, it has no business being a member of an organization of Islamic countries.
The application finally came through in 1986, after Buhari had been overthrown in 1985 by Ibrahim Babangida. When it became public knowledge, it divided the country acrimoniously along Muslim/Christian lines. Indeed, it became one of the most contentious issues encountered by the Babangida administration.
Many of the soldiers that brought Babangida to power were Christians and they were stridently opposed to the move to join the OIC. These included Major-General Domkat Bali; Brigadier Peter Adomokhai; Brigadier Yohanna Kure; and Brigadier Joshua Dogonyaro. These men pointed out that the decision was not even discussed by the then highest organ of government, the Armed Forces Ruling Council (AFRC).
The upshot of this was Babangida’s decision to assuage ruffled national feathers by re-establishing diplomatic relations with Israel in 1992 as a counterweight to OIC membership.
Even out of power, Buhari continued to stoke religious divisions in Nigeria. In 2001, he declared his Islamic fundamentalism in Kaduna by saying: “I will continue to show openly and inside me the total commitment to the Sharia movement that is sweeping all over Nigeria. God willing, we will not stop the agitation for the total implementation of the Sharia in the country.”
This is in spite of the fact that declaring some states as sharia states is in clear violation of the secularity of Nigeria’s federalism, as contained in section 10 of the Constitution of Nigeria
At the National Koranic Recitation Competition in Gusau, Zamfara State in 2003, Buhari further stoked national division by calling on all Muslims in Nigeria to vote exclusively for the presidential candidate that would uphold and defend the tenets of Islam.
In March 2016, now as president of Nigeria, Buhari announced that Nigeria would be joining a 34-country-strong Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition sponsored by Saudi Arabia. Its stated objective is to defeat terrorism in Afghanistan, Egypt, Libya, Iraq and Syria.
You may well ask: “What is Nigeria’s business in this?” The coalition is Saudi Arabia’s way of challenging Iran’s growing influence in global Islamic affairs. By joining it, Buhari was creating religious division back home in Nigeria.
Saudi Arabia is a country of Sunni Muslims, while Iran is the citadel of Shia Muslims worldwide. The two persuasions remain at loggerheads in the Middle East. However, Nigeria is not a Middle Eastern, but an African country. Besides, it is a country of Sunni Muslims and Shia Muslims. Joining Saudi Arabia in an anti-Shia Muslim coalition is therefore counter-productive for Nigeria.
Buhari’s move had several negative implications. It divided Nigeria’s Sunni Muslims against its Shia Muslims officially, in contravention of the country’s constitutional secularity. It affirmed yet again, Buhari’s determination to make Nigeria a de facto Islamic country. In addition, it effectively imported a Middle Eastern conflict bang into the Nigerian heartland.
It was in this context that the Nigerian military attacked the procession of Shiites in Northern Nigeria, killing hundreds of them and arresting their leader, el-Zakzaky. It was a move designed to cement our Islamic alliance with the Saudis, from whom the government was looking for financial assistance.
The move by Buhari incensed the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN). In a statement by its General Secretary, Musa Asaka, it declared that: “This singular gesture of the Buhari government betrays so much, and tends to confirm our fears that underneath everything this government is doing, there is an agenda with strong Islamic undertones, aimed at undermining Nigeria’s pluralistic character and neutrality regarding government’s affiliation to any one religion,”
Buhari maintained that: “If there is an Islamic coalition to fight terrorism, Nigeria will be part of it because we are casualties of Islamic terrorism.” However, calling the Saudi-led coalition a coalition against terrorism is disingenuous. Saudi Arabia is the largest promoter of terrorism in the world. It is the major financier of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS); to which Boko Haram has pledged allegiance.
The Saudi coalition is not even an Islamic coalition in the general sense. It is essentially a Sunni Muslim coalition against Shia Muslims. It is a Sunni Muslim equivalent of NATO designed by the Saudis to provide a counterweight against the regional ascendancy of Iran.
In effect, President Buhari aligned Nigeria’s national interest with the national interests of Saudi Arabia, even though the national interests of Saudi Arabia are inimical to the national interests of Nigeria.
The Saudis’ principal regional adversary is the Iranians. For the time being, their battle-grounds are Syria and Iraq. But with Buhari dragging Nigeria kicking and screaming into the fray, that battleground could easily extend to Nigeria. It was not a coincidence that as the Nigerian military was busy slaughtering Shiites in Northern Nigeria, the Saudis were announcing the execution of 47 Shiites in Riyadh on dubious terrorism charges, including Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr.
In short, while still grappling with Boko Haram to no conclusive avail, Buhari is busy laying the foundation for another yet another insurgency in Northern Nigeria by importing the incendiary of Middle Eastern Sunni/Shiite conflagration into Nigeria; all in the interest of being in the good books of the Saudis and their Western allies.
Before he became president, General Buhari said: “Boko Haram is a typical example of small fires causing large fires. An eccentric and unorthodox preacher with a tiny following was given posthumous fame and following by his extra judicial murder at the hands of the police.” He was referring here to Mohammed Yusuf, the leader of Boko Haram, who was killed by the Nigerian military in 2009, providing the catalyst for its virulent insurgency.
But as president, the wisdom he expressed then seems to have eluded Buhari. At the rate the president is going, should el-Zakzaky die in prison, Nigeria will have another Mohammed Yusuf of the Shiites to deal with, with unrelenting terrorist attacks on innocent citizens, simply because of the incompetence of the Nigerian leadership.
I have said in the past that if Nigeria had been under a civilian regime in 1967, the civil war could have been averted. Civilian politicians are more reasonable than the military. They always tend to find a way to pull Nigeria back from the brink. But the military is by nature fool-hardy. They believe in force and are often convinced they can ram things through irrespective of the wishes of Nigerians.
Although Nigeria has been under a civilian dispensation since 1999, we have made the mistake of still handing the presidency to military men who simply take off their uniform and claim to be civilians. But in everything, they remain fundamentally militaristic and undemocratic.
This is the situation with President Buhari. He is still a military man but just in civilian clothes. He prefers militaristic solutions to democratic ones. Therefore, having failed to quell the protests of Nigeria’s Shiites by force of arms, he somehow believes they can be quelled by declaring them to be terrorists.
History shows this is delusional. All Buhari has achieved is to worsen an already bad situation by turning Nigeria into a potential battle-ground for Western and Saudi proxy wars in Africa.
The solution to this problem is far simpler. Release el-Zakzaky and his wife from detention. Obey the Nigerian Constitution and restore the fundamental human rights of the Shiites. Desist from every appearance of Sunni Islamisation in Nigeria.