“Please, in the name of God don’t fight or fire…” – DCP Usman Umar
The above were the last words of Deputy Commissioner of Police (DCP) Usman Umar, who was shot while attempting to rescue one of his officers, Assistant Superintendent of Police (ASP) Sani Shehu, during a violent protest by members of the Islamic Movement In Nigeria (IMN), a Shi’ite group, in Abuja. Umar was later certified dead at the hospital.
As a Muslim and a Northerner, I am deeply concerned and worried about the activities of Boko Haram terrorists in the North-East, armed banditry in the North-West and the seeming uncontained Shi’ite protest in Abuja, North-Central Nigeria. The root causes of most crises in Nigeria are the disappearance of means of livelihoods, the lack of jobs and human insecurity, alongside the deepening incidence of poverty and misery. Also, ignorance, impunity, acts of lawlessness, the expressions of fanatical ideologies and sectional sentiments that are being exploited and manipulated by political elites.
On Wednesday, July 17, 2019, the Nigerian Police announced restriction on all forms of protests in Abuja to the Unity Fountain area, to contain what had become the daily processions and protests of Shi’ite members. The Force spokesman, DCP Frank Mba said that by that directive, intending protesters were expected to steer clear of all critical national infrastructure, especially in the “Three Arms Zone.”
A few days later, precisely on July 19, the Presidency issued a statement seemingly indicating the likelihood that the Buhari administration would obey a decision of the courts to release the leader of the Shi’ites in Nigeria, Sheikh Ibrahim Elzakzaky.
A presidential spokesperson, Mallam Garba Shehu, in the statement, said: “Rallies and street dances (by Shi’ites) ostensibly to openly insult the president and other leaders, threatening bloodshed, will lead nowhere… The Buhari administration has absolutely no hand in the on-going court case and the courts are free to determine the bail request and the outcome.”
In its reaction, the Shi’ites wondered how the Presidency would make such a claim when the government has contemptuously refused to obey court orders in this regard. In its statement dated July 21, the Shiite spokesperson, Ibrahim Musa, wrote that: “In December 2016, Justice Gabriel Kolawole of the Federal High Court freed Sheikh Zakzaky from the illegal detention ordered that he, along with his wife, be compensated to the tune of N50m, a house be provided for him in any part of the country he desires and security be provided for his protection. The Buhari government deliberately acted in contempt of court and refused to respect the judiciary. So which court is the presidency talking about that will decide the fate of our leader?”
The following day, July 22, Shi’ite members stormed Abuja with a procession that commenced from Wuse and moved towards the Three Arms Zone, which accommodates the Presidential Villa, National Assembly, and the Supreme Court.
When the procession was becoming rowdy and confrontational, DCP Umar, who had peacefully contained more than two-dozen Shi’ite protests in the last few months, thought he could re-enact his magic wand in pacifying and engaging the protesters to be peaceful.
As the Officer in Charge of Operations at the Abuja Police Command, Umar had saved many lives by defusing highly violent protests in the Federal Capital Territory in the past. A very religious, detribalised and patriotic Nigerian, DCP Umar had a golden rule, which he proudly announced to his team whenever they were on sensitive assignments. He often told members of his squad that: “Policing is not kill-and-go but a humane profession of saving humanity.”
In several instances whenever his team was provoked, he would always insist that live ammunition should not be fired. That was the same directive he had earlier issued on the day he was killed while on duty.
A few days after the death of the police officer, precisely on July 26, the judiciary designated the Shi’ite movement in Nigeria a terrorist group, after the Federal Government sought a court order to proscribe the group. Justice Nkeonye Maha who issued the order also restrained “any person or group of persons” from participating in any form of activity involving or concerning the IMN “under any name or platform” in Nigeria.
With this development, the Presidency should work with credible intelligence to ensure that the Shi’ite issue does not snowball into a major crisis that could worsen the current insecurity in the country, because radical ideologies are usually – rather, unfortunately – given further life through the use of coercive force on its subscribers or membership.
It is necessary to point out that Shi’ite members seem to be more sophisticated in their ideologies than similar groups, as they are scattered across diverse fields such as the academia, business, media, judiciary, military, security, civil service, and politics. Members of the movement don’t necessarily proclaim their affiliation but generally identify with the broader category of being Muslims and perform pilgrimage in Mecca without being stopped by their regional arch-rival, the Saudi-Arabia. Their foreign supporters, especially the Islamic Republic of Iran, have, to some extent, exercised restraint in the last four years of the Shi’ite issue in Nigeria, which simply indicates behind-the-scene workings of intelligence services and diplomatic efforts in keeping the matter from frothing to the surface.
Even the powerful Trump administration is struggling to counter Iran’s network of proxies across the globe, notably in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen. During the American war in Iraq, Iranian-linked Shi’ite militia hit foreign forces with lethal roadside bombs that penetrated even armoured vehicles. The Pentagon has officially disclosed that: “those attacks killed hundreds of U.S. troops between 2003-2010.” Several years after, the militia groups still wield significant influence in the country and elsewhere. Iran certainly knows how to exploit the chaos in some countries to promote its ideologies and interests in keeping its rivals off-balance.
In its efforts to address the challenges confronting our nation, the Presidency needs to deploy more sophisticated responses by thoughtfully engaging in diplomacy and negotiations for amicable solutions, rather than the utilisation of military or police force. When some Shi’ite members were killed in a similar altercation with the military in Zaria in 2014, not only did the Defence Headquarters tender an apology and set up a panel to look into the incident, President Goodluck Jonathan also personally reached out to and empathized with Sheikh El-Zakzaky for peace to reign. This is one approach that could be extended or built on.
Shuaib is the Author of “An Encounter with the Spymaster”