Shi’ites, Biafra and multiple narratives of human rights, by Uche Igwe

 Chief of Army Staff Lt-General Tukur Buratai.
Chief of Army Staff Lt-General Tukur Buratai.

I decided to maintain a studied silence after the controversy that trailed the Shi’ites-Nigerian Army encounter on December 12 hit the public domain. The avoidable deaths that resulted from the incident caused me pain and I extend my condolences to all those who lost their loved ones during the clash. I have learnt from experience not to make any hasty commentary on sensitive religious issues, until I listen attentively to important historical and background matters from both sides to enable me read in between the lines. It was however fascinating to read how several people gave different accounts of the same incident. Some said it was an ambush while others preferred to call it a massacre and crackdown.

For instance, the Nigerian Army reported it as an ambush and attempted assassination on the Chief of Army Staff, Lt. Gen. Tukur Burutai, although many Nigerians, as usual, do not believe their account. Others including the Islamic Movement of Nigeria, another name for the Shi’ites sect, reported it as an attack on their members and a deliberate massacre of “harmless” protesters who were on a peaceful demonstration. Gradually, the conversation took a national and later an international dimension with a heavy slant towards the protection or lack of it of the human rights of the protesters. Even Amnesty International, the global human rights watchdog, at some point, issued a statement condemning the violation of the human rights of the protesters. The National Human Rights Commission has already set up a panel to probe the clash. In the cacophony of dissenting voices often with strong emotions, it is important to objectively determine who is telling the truth and what lessons can be learnt to prevent the matters from escalating further.

From the videos available online, it is clear that the soldiers spent some time trying to persuade the protesters to clear the expressway for their boss to pass. Eyewitness accounts confirmed that the protesters were armed with weapons during their occupation further necessitating a response from the soldiers in self-defence. I found the accounts of the Governor of Kaduna State, Mallam Nasir el-Rufai, and the Emir of Kano, Muhammadu Sanusi II, most informative. From their accounts (corroborated by many others) the Shi’ite sect seems to have a history of committing various illegalities including blocking of major roads and forceful acquisition of properties belonging to others. The Emir even bemoaned their utter disregard to constituted authority which was often extended to both religious and political leaders.

My take is that making this whole conversation predominantly a human rights issue risks oversimplifying what is a complex and contentious issue. I am aware that citizens have a right to lawful assembly. The prohibition of extrajudicial killings is central to human rights law while arbitrary detentions and torture under any guise must be condemned. Based on the above, it is useful to argue that the rights of members of the Shi’ite sect should be protected. However, they must also be reminded of the rights of non-members and the general public as well as the need to be sensitive to those rights in the pursuit of their own. Trampling on peoples’ rights in the course of enforcing your own is unacceptable and hypocritical. That is why I think that the current direction of conversation around the human rights of Shi’ite protesters must be placed in the right context- just as that of other agitators.


There is yet another aspect of our selective perception of human rights that I have yet to comprehend. A few weeks ago, some protesters in the name of Indigenous People of Biafra were marching peacefully in Onitsha in the South-East. Mind you, I do not support their cause whatever it may be. However, I am aware that they were confronted by security agents and some of them were extrajudicially murdered. Those agitating for Biafra were not armed but Shi’ites protesters were. No one raised the issue of human rights around the Biafra matter. Those protesting in the name of Biafra were simply shot and forgotten. The whole controversy around the death of another set of armed protesters from another part of the country, doing partly the same thing, raises the curious question as to whether some lives are more important than others. Several committees have already been set up to look at the Shi’ite clashes both at the national and state levels but no one has spoken about the pro-Biafran protesters. What a double standard!

Human rights are universal in nature. Their interpretation can be ambiguous, potentially misleading and even dangerous if we continue to tell only one side of the story. Doesn’t a soldier have rights? Are they not citizens? Some years ago, more than 100 security agents were summarily executed in Nasarawa State. How come no one shouted about their right to life? What about other road users? Security forces in the country must be urged to exercise some restraint but not in the face of palpable danger. However, the issues here are more of law and order and the conduct of religion in a multi-religious society rather than the over-dramatisation of the issue of human rights. Those who engage in demonstrations in Nigeria must understand the limits of their own freedom whether they be pro-Biafran agitators on Onitsha highway, Niger Delta ex-militants on the East-West Road or Shi’ites on the Kaduna-Zaria Expressway.


Beyond the brute force of security agencies, there is a place for the use of the moral authority of persuasion. We need to use it more. This responsibility falls on the shoulders of the elite in the affected regions. They must break this unwritten code of silence. Prominent Islamic leaders – in case of the North and political leaders must join in condemning the actions of these radical movements. This is where El-Rufai and the Emir of Kano have distinguished themselves as statesmen. Although some commentators insist that opposition to the El-Zakyzaky style is coming from the Sunni Muslims who are in a majority but that man must be restrained. The controversy and conversation around the Shi’ite confrontation with the military carry with it very clear risks to national stability. We all can remember how the so called Boko Haram insurgency started and how many people got fixated with the poverty and human rights narratives. Whatever they have become today is a product of our collective hypocrisy. We all saw the gradual expansion of the devotees of the El-Zakyzaky’s brand of Islam with all its extremist tendencies and kept quiet. No one should be surprised that he got bolder up to the point of confronting the military, the same way Boko Haram did. When the late Mohamed Yusuf started his movement partly this same way, many people dismissed him as a rag-tag effort. To some, Maiduguri was too far for them to bother. It was the case of not-in-my-backyard syndrome. Others hid under the debate around his extrajudicial murder to give that lethal movement the credibility it never deserved. Today, we have a hydra-headed monster on our hands. We must learn to call a spade by its name if we want to make progress in this country.

It must be stated that where the freedom of worship ends is where other peoples’ freedom from worship begins. It was the Afrobeat legend, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, who said, human rights na my property. (Punch)

Leave a comment