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Understanding the military engagement of Shi’ite’ protesters 




By Sam Akpe

Saturday November 27, 2018. Abuja was boiling at the outskirts. No one felt safe. Deadly flames from burnt tyres cast shadows of danger on street sides. Thick, dark smoke oozing from ashes of burn-fires blackened the skies.

At Zuba, a developing community within the Federal Capital Territory, a host of protesters filled the highway that stretches from Abuja to Kaduna. Comprising agile and battle ready young men and women, they were armed with stones, knives, poisonous arrows, and other such crude but dangerous weapons. Dressed in unusual attires—with most of them smoking furiously—their eyes were as stones soaked in blood.

With war songs on their lips and roadblocks on every path, they brought the entire area under the captivity of fear. Shops were shut and deserted. Most homes had doors and windows closed and bolted. Abandoned vehicles littered the highways and streets as owners and drivers fled to safety.

Whoever dared the protesters got thoroughly beaten up while their cars were either set ablaze or smashed. The protesters belonged to the Islamic Movement of Nigeria, a violent-prone religious sect protesting the endless detention of their leader, Ibrahim El-Zakzaky. Their protest was principally directed at government and its agent; but innocent people were not spared.

At about 3.00 pm, several hours after the violent procession on the highway and the hedges commenced, with the outskirts of Abuja almost locked down, a military truck on routine duty, loaded with troops escorting ammunitions and missiles, started making its way from Abuja towards Kaduna.

The ammunitions and missiles were meant for the Army Central Ammunition Depot in Kaduna State. As the heavily guarded truck reached Zuba area, the war song-chanting crowd refused to leave the expressway. They simply stood in the way of the moving vehicle as though daring to be knocked down.

Reports have it that the leader of the military team, whose rank could not be immediately ascertained, stepped down from the truck with a few of his colleagues and attempted to appeal to the rampaging protesters to take to one side of the road. He could as well have been preaching to a deaf and dumb congregation. Of course, he should have known that the protesters were not in the mood to be talked to neither were they ready to take orders from anybody.

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Instead of listening to him, stones started flying in his direction. Suddenly, from the crowd of protesters came several smoking bottles, called petrol bombs, which on hitting the ground just few metres away from the truck loaded with missiles and ammunitions, exploded into flames. While every onlooker took to their heels, the soldiers, trained to contain such violent situations despite the danger, stood their grounds. Before their leader could make another statement asking the protesters to leave the road, another round of bottle bombs exploded not quite far from truck.

The tempo of danger increased further as the soldiers were stoned and physically wounded. But the greatest concern of the men in uniform at that point was not just their personal safety but that of the ammunition and missiles loaded in the truck. Onlookers could not understand why the military personnel did not respond immediately. It was later discovered that they did not want to unguardedly apply maximum military force to disperse the protesters as it was their right within the laws of the country to conduct peaceful protest. However, here was one protest that was everything but peaceful.

Emboldened by the assumption that they had successfully intimidated the soldiers to submission, the sect members headed in the direction of the truck in readiness to possibly off load the contents. It was at this point that the soldiers could no longer maintain their cool. With some of their colleagues already wounded, cars burning by the roadsides and civilians being thoroughly put on the run, they immediately called for reinforcement from the nearby Guards Battalion within whose territory the bloody drama was staged. What happened next was as dramatic as anyone could guess. Gunshots were heard; followed by screams of agony.

A few hours later, a statement by Major General James Myam, Commander of the Army Headquarters Garrison and disseminated in social explained the events in few words. Here is a part of what he said, “The sect (members), who were supposedly in a procession, established an illegal road block denying motorists free passage. When the troops’ convoy attempted to clear the road block, they met stiff opposition from the sect. Members of the sect used various objects the rod and also pelted the troops with stones and other dangerous items. They smashed both military and civilian vehicles windscreens and windows.

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“They also attempted to overrun the escorts to cart away the ammunition and missiles the troops were escorting. This led to the troops opening fire to extricate themselves. Consequently, troops of 102 Guards Battalion in whose Area of Responsibility the incident occurred rushed to the convoy’s rescue. Unfortunately, during the encounter, three members of the sect were killed while two soldiers sustained various degrees of injury and are being treated at a military medical facility.”

Several other demonstrations by the group took place in Abuja within the period. And unfortunately, people died. Public demonstrations by the sect, commonly known as the Shi’tes, have always drawn blood and loss of lives both on the sides of the demonstrators and law enforcement agents. While the Shi’tes draw their rights for public demonstration from the relevant sections of the 1999 Constitution, the law enforcement agents also justify their actions on the belief that it is their sworn rights and primary assignment which are equally covered by the 1999 Constitution, to protect the lives of Nigerians.

The question then is: if the Shi’ites have the right within the law for public demonstration, how come they always face opposition from the law enforcement institutions?Without trying to sound too legalistic, it is common knowledge that where the rights of a group or an individual is overstretched, thus violating the rights of other people in the society, or is inimical to national security, then something must be done to discipline those exercising such rights.

And it is the duty of the security agencies to enforce that discipline. This does not justify the death and bloodshed by security agents; neither does the constitutional right for demonstration by groups justify blocking of public highways, intimidation of members of the public, destruction of cars and attacking our men in uniform.

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Amnesty International in its report painted gruesome pictures of those shot by law enforcement agents. It stated that, “Those injured were shot in different parts of the body – head, neck, back, chest, shoulder, legs, arms – and some of them had multiple gunshot wounds. This pattern clearly shows that soldiers and police approached IMN processions not to restore public order, but to kill.” I beg to disagree with the inciting conclusion displayed in the last sentence.

The respected international body stated further, “This violent crackdown on IMN protesters is unjustified and unacceptable. They were perfectly within their rights to hold a religious procession and protest and there was no evidence they posed an imminent threat to life.”

While I completely agree with the fact that it is within the rights of people to hold religious processions, I do not believe it is within their rights to block public highways, intimidate fellow citizens, burn people’s cars and violently attack law enforcement agents while exercising their rights of public procession. Is Amnesty International truthfully saying that the Shi’ites protest did not pose any threat to human life?

As observed by a national newspaper in its editorial, “a group may have the constitutional right to occupy public space in its religious procession or even a protest march. But it has every moral and legal obligation to, in the process, conduct itself so as not to jeopardise in any way public order and safety. If need be, a group should seek the assistance of the police to this end. The record of the Shi’ites activities in this regard leaves much to be desired.”

There is no doubt, as further observed by the newspaper,  that government, through the law enforcement apparatus, is morally and legally obligated to protect the rights and lives of citizens; including Shi’ites members.

In another editorial, the  Vanguard  noted that “the Shi’ites are often accused of refusing to abide by the laws of Nigeria and thus making life difficult for others, especially when they embark on their Arbaeen treks.” Obviously, there is no justification for loss of lives; neither is there any justification for firing weapons, throwing petrol bombs and stones, causing bodily harm to troops and civilians, breaking windscreens of vehicles and burning others in the name of public protest.

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While we condemn the killing, and also mourn with the bereaved, let us imagine for once that the violent protesters had overwhelmed the soldiers and seized or took control of the truck loaded with ammunitions and missiles. It is unimaginable what would have happened to Abuja and the environs. It is time for us appreciate our men and women in uniforms. They stand in harm’s for our safety. They get stoned and wounded so that we are not bruised. We must accept their bravery as our victory and their human weakness as our collective failure.

Akpe is a public policy analyst based in Abuja.

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