All parties in the conflict should be given fair hearing
Early last week, there was a mild drama at the resumed sitting of the Judicial Commission of Inquiry set up to probe the clash between the Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN), also known as the Shiite sect, and the Nigerian Army last year in Zaria, Kaduna State. Members of the Islamic Movement insisted they would not submit any memorandum to the commission unless the Department of State Security (DSS) granted them access to their detained leader, Shiekh El-Zakzaky, who has been held incommunicado since December last year.
This was against the backdrop that the legal counsel to the group had repeatedly complained of how several efforts by him and others to meet with El-Zakzaky were frustrated by the DSS on the grounds of national security. There is merit in the argument of the Shiites.
In January, the Governor of Kaduna State, Mallam Nasir el-Rufai announced the composition of the commission of inquiry into the incident which claimed no fewer than 100 lives, according to most accounts. While the commission, made up of respectable people in the society, has started work, there has been a heated argument over the successful completion of its assignment in the absence of the central figure in the crisis. El-Zakzaky remains in the protective custody of DSS without the benefit of interaction with some of his followers who are being invited to give testimony.
National security, which the DSS gave as its reason for not allowing members of the group have access to El-Zakzaky, is a weak excuse for denying the Shiite leader his fundamental rights to fair treatment. That excuse becomes even more untenable in the light of a haunting photograph recently published in an online media outlet indicating that the Shiite cleric was not in the best of health.
Despite the scrawny excuse the DSS recently gave, we share the misgivings of the Shiites. Moreover, given the international interest in the matter, we do not believe that the Nigerian authorities have handled the issue very well. For fairness and equity, members of the group and their lawyers should be allowed to consult with their leader before presenting their position to the panel. After all, the mission of the panel is to find a lasting solution to the recurring clashes between the members of the sect and the larger society.
We think El-Zakzaky has a key role to play in this regard.
The deep suspicion of the Shiites that the government (both in Kaduna and at the federal level) would not allow for a transparent investigation of the tragedy should be proved wrong. While many fine points of the bloody incident are still vague, it is necessary that all sides, especially the government and the DSS, refrain from actions that can only compound the situation. Already, there is huge apprehension that given the pronouncements of key actors in government, including President Muhammadu Buhari, the panel would not be fair to the Shiite members. Such apprehension must be quickly allayed.
To ensure justice, all parties to the conflict must be given fair hearing, without any threat of coercion and intimidation. At the end of the day, anyone or group found liable for the violence must be brought to justice. But that cannot be done in an atmosphere where one party already feels it has been found guilty even before the commencement of the investigation. We believe that the demand of the Shiites that they be allowed to see their leader, wherever he is, is not unreasonable in the circumstance.