In the wake of the massacre of hundreds of Nigerians in Zaria by the Nigerian Army, Kaduna state governor, Nasir El-Rufai, empanelled a judicial commission of inquiry and mandated it to investigate the tragedy. That commission has concluded its assignment and submitted its report. Mr. El-Rufai now faces a binary choice: To use the report as an instrument for the pursuit of justice or to consign it to the dump.
Too often in Nigeria, a commission of inquiry is a hollow response to an embarrassing man-made disaster. It is a near-reflex play staged for tokenism. A courteous first aid orchestrated for momentary optics, a fulfill-all-righteousness gesture that serves as a substitute for real therapeutic reckoning.
A commission of inquiry –in principle, an inquest that revisits a distasteful incident and facilitates a constructive catharsis and a teachable moment for the commune –is something else in this space. Here, it is a contraption of expediency. The handy apparatus the politician uses to de-escalate a crisis in his constituency, extinguish outrage and award himself pretext for inaction.
Even in situations where all the vital facts are common knowledge –as in Zaria where Nigerian soldiers waged an indefensible war on Nigerian civilians –the government prefers to feign ignorance and to insist that it needs a drawn-out farce to acquaint it with the open secrets.
The carnage of Zaria was executed in broad daylight. It did not require the verification or illumination of a 'commission of inquiry'. No dark mysteries shrouded the callous killing. Nigerian soldiers spread their killing spree over two days and two nights and they killed like audacious poachers in a game reserve!
Members of a minority muslim sect had mounted a blockade on the high way. They did so to avert the complication of managing the massive procession and normal vehicular traffic. They compelled other road users to make a detour.
The convoy of the Chief of Army Staff, Lt. General Tukur Yusuf Burutai, heading to a yonder address, bumped into the road block. There were pleas for right of way. The vanguard of the faithful, intoxicated by their own zeal and by the excitement of the carnival spirit, demurred. The soldiers warmed into a killing mood, engaged their guns and procured a bloody breakthrough.
But the soldiers were not content with the roadside shootings. They didn't count the number of the dead sufficient vengeance for the ‘insult’ on their General. They deployed to the shrine of the sect and multiplied the death toll. They shot innocents who could never have been involved in the blockade. They wasted women, children, the suckling.
They invaded the home of the leader of the sect, Ibrahim El-Zakzaky. They killed three of his sons and shot his wife 7 times. They shot El-Zakzaky four times on his legs, dragged him out of his house, stripped him of his clothes, and transported him on a wheel barrow.
Moments later, the soldiers realized they had killed too many human beings for the world not to notice. They started a desperate mop up of the corpses to erase the trace of crime against humanity. They broke into hospitals and morgues in the environs and evacuated the dying and the dead. They drove the bloodied bodies to a remote location, dug mass graves and did a cover up.
The killings on the road and the extra killing at the shrine and the mass burial were not secrets. Who did what is widely known. There are no known unknowns, no unknown unknowns. There was a massacre and there are identifiable culprits still circulating freely.
But officialdom flinched from calling the massacre by the proper name. They elected to style it Shiite-military 'clash'. The slaughterfest was euphemistically minimized because the consumed were 'Shiites'. They didn't belong to the Sunni mainstream. They were subhumans whose massive dispatch didn't qualify to be honoured as a massacre!
There was abundance of evidence to prompt swift prosecution. But El-Rufai chose to buy time through the rigmarole of a 'commission of inquiry'. He took the option on the calculation that the process of receiving thousands of memorandums and reading them, collecting exhibits and examining them, hearing eyewitness testimonies and determining the common fragments of resemblance among the honest-to-God narratives would take plenty of time. He was certain that early into the insufferably slow proceedings, a society with a very short attention span would mentally and emotionally abandon the boring academic reconstruction of the painful memory.
El-Rufai's initial response to the massacre was nearly as horrifying as the massacre itself. Hardly had the blood of the murdered congealed before he sided with the mass murderers and rationalized the killing. He went on TV and revictimized the victims, pronouncing them guilty of a failed attempt to assassinate Burutai.
El-Rufai would later double down and authorize the prosecution of 50 'Shiites' and instruct the state prosecutor to pray the court to hand down a guilty verdict and death penalty!
His establishment of the ‘commission of inquiry’ is a brazen act of hypocrisy. He had demonstrated all too clearly that he was pleased by the massacre and that he would have been happier if a total purge of the Shiites was achieved. He regards Shiites as non-humans. People whose lives were dispensable because they practice the ‘wrong’ version of Islam.
It is worthy to note, though, that while his ‘commission of inquiry’ was trying to strike pay dirt, Amnesty International, the leading human rights NGO in the world, published a rich description of the massacre. AI asserted that the Nigerian Army unprofessionally resorted to launching a full scale ‘military operation’ in a situation that would have been saved with prudence and law-and-order management.
AI noted that the Nigerian Army embarked on a campaign of arson, immolated people and shoved the victims into mass graves.
It also dismissed as nonsense the putative rationale for the massacre. It said the Nigerian Army failed to substantiate the claim that there was an attempt on or threat to the life of the Chief of Army Staff. It further emphasized that the Nigerian Army took deliberate steps to destroy evidence of their crime: “Bodies were taken away, sites were razed to the ground, the rubble removed, bloodstains washed off, and bullets and spent cartridges removed from the streets.”
While receiving the report of his ‘commission of inquiry’, El-Rufai said that the Kaduna State government would study it before reaching a decision to publish or not.
Columnist Jibrin Ibrahim, a prominent member of the commission, suggested that the report was marked TOP SECRET for the sake of peace; implying that members of the public –the decimated Nigerian Shiite community and the bereaved families inclusive –ought to be protected from the post mortem at all cost.
The classification was thought to be necessary. The report ostensibly contains the identity of the perpetrators of the massacre, the scope of their terrorist destruction and the complicity of some government institutions. Its release to the public would inevitably generate very strong reactions: It's better hidden like light under a bushel.
A Premium Times leak says the report blamed the Nigerian police for being remiss in their duty and indicted the General Officer Commanding the Nigerian Army 1st Division in Kaduna, Major General Adeniyi Oyebade, and Colonel A.K. Ibraheem, who led the 'operation'.
No word was invested on Burutai. No word on the General who smugly watched as soldiers in his convoy gunned down civilians so he can walk on a red carpet of fresh blood to an inconsequential passing out parade no one remembers now!
To be sure, the Islamic Movement of Nigeria did not participate fully in the proceedings of the commission. The organization didn’t have the instruction of El-Zakzaky to present its version of the massacre to the commission. The Department of State Security denied the organization’s lawyers meaningful engagement with him. The DSS says the man, now blind in one eye and paralyzed, was being held in ‘’protective custody’’ for his own good.
Nevertheless, the report, for what it is worth, should be made public. The 'commission of inquiry' was inaugurated to interrogate the massacre and to reflect all the dimensions of its actuality. No aspect of the truth of that massacre should be revised or abridged or withheld in the name of ‘security reasons’. Nobody who is culpable should enjoy disguised immunity.
Instead of subjecting the report to editorial sanitation, there should be full disclosure. The report should be released in its pristine form. Kaduna people and all Nigerians should know why Nigerian soldiers who are paid and equipped by Nigerian taxpayers wasted 347 Nigerian civilians …like a trigger-happy death cult!
Nigerian Shiites are held in contempt by their Sunni brethren. Even President Muhammadu Buhari, the leader who made that I Belong To Everybody and I Belong To Nobody speech, could not restrain himself from betraying his disdain for the Shiites. Against all sense, he said on national TV that the Shiites deserved the massacre. They irritated uniformed men invested with the power of life and death. They were ''virtually hitting the chest of Generals''.
The 'Shiite' label seems to bespeak a grade of inferiority. It need not be. Religious persuasion does not diminish the personhood of a human being.
Those people who were shot dead and burnt alive were human beings. They had a right to life. Their group murder should be legally punished as such.
El-Rufai prosecuted 50 Shiites for allegedly killing a soldier in ‘the clash’. He should be fair enough to prosecute the soldiers who wasted 347 Shiites. A soldier's life is not more equal than a 'Shiite' life.
No sane society excuses or abides the devaluation of the lives of its citizens. Nigeria should not be a prehistoric cannibal jungle that does.
Extrajudicial killings impoverish the community in human beings and in human feeling. No case of extrajudicial killing should be ignored or explained away. Every extrajudicial killing should be redressed. A nation that permits the gratuitous killing of its own people has made a self-fulfilling prophecy of its own extinction.
El-Rufai must rise above his Sunni chauvinism. He should publish the report of the Zaria massacre and cause his Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice to prosecute the indictees. Anything less would be killing the massacre!