Once upon a time, Boko Haram was a very peaceful group. Boko Haram — the same “dreaded”, “insurgent”, terrorist group — once went about its business very peacefully even if its doctrines themselves were unpopular. This was so for the first seven years of its founding. In fact, when he sought to become Governor of Borno State, Ali Modu Sheriff courted the support of the group; he parleyed with its members. When he won, Boko Haram was allowed to nominate a commissioner. Who would have thought that the same group that has wreaked everlasting havoc on the northeast once had a relationship with the state government? The government knew them; they knew the government. Everything changed when the government began to deceive itself by thinking it could wipe out the sect with sheer force.
Isa Yuguda, then Governor of Bauchi State, is the first culprit. Taking advantage of his relationship with then President Umaru Yar’Adua, whose in-law he was, Yuguda received clearance to launch a military onslaught against Boko Haram in 2008. The Police and the Army arrested several members of the group; other members fought back, resulting in the death of an estimated 700 people.
For a moment, Yuguda thought he had won. He called his Borno counterpart and egged him on to act likewise. Sheriff sanctioned a similar crackdown in Borno, during which the Army arrested Yusuf Mohammed and handed him to the Police, who murdered him extra-judicially. Boko Haram’s reins fell to Abubakar Shekau. Someone who personally knew Shekau in Mohammed’s days once told me he was then a “nobody” — quiet, anonymous, harmless and “always going on his own”. Shekau became belligerent and blood-thirsty in a quest to avenge the death of Mohammed and co. The rest, as they say, is history. Since then, Boko Haram has killed an estimated 100,000 people. In the last five years alone, it has displaced a minimum of 2.3million people.
With this knowledge in mind, it is difficult to understand the Army’s obsession with Shi’ia blood. Over three consecutive days last week, the Army killed dozens of Shi’ites in its desperation to foil the 'Arbaeen Symbolic Trek' in Abuja, which was to hold along with the Free El-Zakzaky protests. The Army’s defence of the killings has been that its men were pelted with stones, which, according to US President Donald Trump, are “considered a firearm”. But that is secondary. The primary matter is that the Army should not have been there in the first place — they shouldn’t have been available for pelting.
The constitution is clear about the responsibilities of the military: defending Nigeria from external aggression; maintaining its territorial integrity and securing its borders from violation on land, sea, or air; suppressing insurrection and acting in aid of civil authorities to restore order when called upon to do so by the President but subject to such conditions as may be prescribed by an Act of the National Assembly; and performing such other functions as may be prescribed by an act of the National Assembly.
As the protesting Shi’ites were not external aggressors and their actions had no implications for the country’s territorial integrity, soldiers were not needed at all. Would they have been needed to assist the Police — who, by law, were the ones to restrain the Shi’ites — it would require an express demand by the President, effective only after it has been sanctioned by the National Assembly. Therefore, the argument that soldiers were pelted has been rendered superfluous by their presence at a location they shouldn’t have been.
Let’s assume, for a moment, that the soldiers were needed around the protesting Shi’ites for good reason. It would still have cost nothing to allow the Shi’ites entry into Abuja. At the end of the day, the right of every human to protest is fundamental. On Day 1 of the procession, there was trouble because the soldiers barred the Shi’ites from entering Abuja. On Day 2, the Shi’ites found alternative routes to arrive in town, still the soldiers went after them. How did the Army ever hope to prevent hundreds of thousands of people from protesting without recourse to bloodshed? The better security strategy would have been to allow the protest; and if that was done, the soldiers wouldn’t have been pelted.
To be honest, Shi’ites can be overbearing. Their processions are infamous for lengthy hours of impeding human and vehicular movement. I once witnessed a Shi’ia procession in Kaduna and it didn’t come without its trademark disruption to the schedules of non-Shi’ites. But what is three days of extreme traffic compared to the loss of lives accompanied by the potential for future loss of lives in multiple folds?
By referencing Trump’s video on its Twitter account, the Army suggests that a stone — the most dangerous object hurled at them by Shi’ites — should be considered a firearm.
This is incredulous. A firearm that cannot disseminate fire? Not one soldier was killed yet these soldiers fired live ammunition at unarmed protesters, killing many of them.
Just one reminder: this unprofessional use of military might is exactly how Boko Haram became violent and virulent. The Army hasn’t finished dealing with that insurgency; there’s no point kick-starting another.
Soyombo, former Editor of the TheCable and the International Centre for Investigative Reporting (ICIR), tweets @fisayosoyombo