The authorities may do well by releasing the Shiites’ leader

That the December 14, 2015 clash between the Nigerian Army and members of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) led to the death of some 347 people is no longer news. What is disturbing is that one year after, the Shiites’ leader, Ibraheem El-Zakzaky, who was arrested during the bloody incident, is still in protective custody along with his wife, without being charged to court. Last week, an Abuja Federal High Court, presided over by Justice Gabriel Kolawole, ordered the release of El-Zakzaky within 45 days. The judge took his decision perhaps partly on the need to bring down tension and the grave prospect of El-Zakzaky dying in confinement like the former leader of Boko Haram, Mohammed Yusuf. “If the applicant dies in custody which I do not pray for, it could result in many needless deaths”, he said.

However, the security agencies do not appear to be in a hurry to obey such a weighty declaration from the bench. For one, the Department of State Services (DSS) has, under the current dispensation, been acting as though above the law having serially disobeyed court pronouncements. Just as bad, the Minister of Justice and Attorney-General of the Federation, Mr Abubakar Malami, SAN, has also conveniently ignored the earlier advice of the trial judge to find ways of resolving the matter by doing nothing. Moreover, the Kaduna State Government which has outlawed the religious organisation, recently released a white paper which further accused the IMN of more transgressions.

Governor Nasir el-Rufai had expressed worry that if the El-Zakzaky-led group was allowed to exist, it was capable of threatening the corporate existence of Nigeria. “The IMN does not recognise the constitution of Nigeria; they do not recognise Buhari as President of Nigeria. They do not recognise me as Governor of Kaduna State,” he said. In fact, the white paper released by the Kaduna State Government last week accepted the report of the judicial commission of inquiry which tagged the Shiites as an “insurgent group.” The white paper lay the blame for the unfortunate clash in Zaria squarely at the feet of El-Zakzaky, maintaining that he refused to call his members to order when required to do so.

We do not believe that the authorities are handling the matter properly. Even when it is important for members of the IMN to obey the laws of the land and respect constituted authority, they are also entitled to freedom of thought, conscience, religion and association. In a previous editorial, we had warned that the authorities should not create more problems in the handling of IMN issue by using force instead of reason to diffuse tension, and to prevent the opening of more dangerous flanks. The lessons of the brutal insurgent group, Boko Haram, which Justice Kolawole referred to in his well-reasoned judgment, are too familiar to ignore.

We believe that the Shiites deserve fairness and justice, both of which have been denied them since the beginning of the crisis. Yet as we have warned repeatedly, it is always better to deal with the “enemies” you can see and monitor than those forced underground as the authorities are inadvertently doing with the IMN. It is even all the more unfortunate that their members and leaders are being denied all their rights under the law while hoodlums, taking advantage of the position of some powerful people in government, practically now target their members for vicious treatment. This, we dare warn, is not in the interest of our country and could engender severe consequences.

We therefore urge the authorities to calm down tempers by simply obeying the recent court order to release the Shiites’ leader and his wife from detention. To do otherwise is to continue to reinforce the impression that Nigeria is a jungle where the rights of citizens can be trampled upon with impunity.