The travails of Nigeria’s Shiites

IF the Kaduna State government imagines that its proscription of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) otherwise known as the Shiite movement will abrogate the testy relationship between it and the sect, it had better change that perspective. Not only has the sect defied the proscription in its entirety, it has also issued  a statement denouncing it as a violation of its fundamental rights of association and worship as entrenched in the Nigerian constitution.

Since the proscription, the government has been belligerent in using strong arm tactics to subdue the sect. The military surrounded a hall where members of the sect were holding a meeting recently in Zaria and killed 12 of them in cold blood. Some members of the sect have also been reportedly persecuted since the encounter with the military, as some  citizens took it upon themselves to enforce the state government’s decision. Such illegalities are not likely to escape the scrutiny of  Amnesty International and other bodies scoring the country’s human rights records.

The Shiites have an estimated two million followers in the country. They are backed by Iran, a powerful Islamic country which has consistently expressed outrage over the criminalization of Shiites in Nigeria. As a matter of historical fact, proscribing a religion or faith-based activity is often an exercise in futility. In the case of the Shiites, care has to be taken not to allow the mutual resentment between them and the Kaduna State government to deteriorate any further.

In our view, the tactics of the Kaduna State government  could only end up driving the sect underground, only for it to form another resistance army of discontents like Boko Haram. This is a revolting possibility whose contemplation should even make the government to shudder.  The Shiites may truly have caused offence with their  unruly conduct and brazen processions. But the prohibition and unduly long incarceration of their leader without trial detract hugely from the credentials of a democratic government. Since the unfortunate encounter of 2015 when it defied the Army during one of its infamous processions, leading to hundreds of deaths, the sect has arguably maintained a peaceable, if not contrite, profile.

When the sect was further decimated by the killing of 12 members recently, not a single arrest was made by the Nigerian state of the suspected perpetrators of the mindless killings. The spokesman for the Kaduna State governor, Samuel Aruwon, merely said that the government had issued an order declaring the IMN an unlawful society in the exercise of its constitutional duty to preserve peace and security in the state.  Incidentally, the IMN is also claiming the same constitutional right to congregate and worship to legitimise its existence. We are of the opinion that members of the sect can coexist with non-members without any rancour if the government can shift a little bit in order to avert an unnecessary conflagration.

The allegation that the sect has a paramilitary arm through which it perpetrates violence can be thoroughly investigated and, if confirmed, the members of this paramilitary arm can be apprehended and made to face the full wrath of the law. The government can curtail the influence of groups propagating unorthodox tendencies by whittling down the resentments against them in the society through liberal policies and proactive interventions. It can also tackle any crimes committed by them through extant laws. However, the current situation leaves much to be desired. In the government’s bid to “preserve peace and security for the larger society,” how can it explain the avoidable deaths of innocent citizens who have not been condemned by any court of competent jurisdiction?

There are so many violent cultural practices that the Nigerian state has not been able to abolish even if those practices are inimical to human life and health. Somehow, the government has trodden the wise path of tolerance and public education to dissuade citizens from such practices instead of clamping  those involved in jail. We are persuaded that such a path should be adopted in resolving the imbroglio between the IMN and the Kaduna State government. The crisis is being unduly exacerbated by ego and mutual intolerance. The kind of bloodletting witnessed in Rwanda and Liberia only a few years ago should not  be replicated in Nigeria out of mere obduracy.

As the old comedian, Charlie Chaplin once quipped, “You need power only when you want to do something harmful, otherwise, love is enough to get everything done.” The proscription of the IMN was an affront on the Nigerian constitution, and should be reversed immediately, while the Kaduna State government embarks on more pragmatic steps to resolve the conflict. On the other hand, members of the sect must conduct their activities strictly within the ambit of the law. In carrying out their processions, they must not constitute themselves into a nuisance by inhibiting the free movement of other citizens. They must also dialogue with the government to iron out grey areas, demonstrate a commitment to peace, and educate their members accordingly. That is the path to tread to overcome their current travails.