Zaria Massacre: President Buhari’s Unsettling, Disquieting Silence

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One week after the deadly carnage in Zaria, Kaduna State, involving the Nigerian Army and members of the Shi’ite Community, President Muhammadu Buhari remains silent. For a President whose preferred method of public communication has been widely described as “body language”, the message telegraphed by his silence is less than eloquent, unsettling and disquieting.

The exact sequence of events leading to the encounter between the Shi’ites and the Army will, hopefully, be unraveled by the judicial commission of inquiry to be established by the government of Kaduna State. Some things are already quite clear however.

Many people were killed in the encounter. Some have described it as a “massacre”. The victims included young children and women. The leader of the Shi’ites, Sheikh El-Zakzaky, has not been seen since then. The army initially said it took him into “protective custody”. At best, this is not a lawful procedure under Nigerian law. Subsequently, the army claimed it handed him over to civil authorities for prosecution for as yet undisclosed crimes. The army is not a prosecutorial authority for civilians. So on what basis are they deciding that he should be prosecuted?

Rather unfortunately, and quite oddly, in a presumed secular state, the Shiite movement, like many islamic and christian religious organisations, appears to have its own long-term history of breaking the law, and of impunity, that had not been called to order by previous administrations, especially by holding processions or taking over and blocking major roads with utmost disregard for other road users.

Yet the reaction of many, including Nigeria’s bilateral and multi-lateral partners has coalesced around the view that the conduct of the military in response was both brutal and disproportionate. From within Nigeria, many people and institutions, including the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs (NSCIA), as well as the Christian Association of Nigeria have called for an independent investigation.

Even more, Hakeem Baba-Ahmed, a former Permanent Secretary for the Interior and Joint Intelligence in Nigeria’s federal government, himself from Zaria, has regretted the fact that the “military does not appreciate the fact that it handed over to the Shi’ites a victory it will exploit to the detriment of national security”.

Amidst this rising crescendo of condemnation and concern, and whilst considering the fact that President Buhari must be awaiting a report of what transpired leading to the massacre, his studied silence appears quite disturbing. He ordinarily ought not to foreclose the need for showing concern by talking to Nigerians about the ill-fated incident.

And, in line with democratic governance, it behoves the President to constantly engage with the public on matters of national interest. Yet, since the incident, the only response from the Presidency has come from a text message reportedly sent by an official spokesperson of the President, Femi Adesina, to a newspaper in which he described what happened as a “military affair”, whatever that means.

The president’s silence is disconcerting for many reasons. First, the Zaria Massacre is the latest in a long and gruesome list of military operations since 1961 that have ended in civilian bloodbath. It occurred in the same weekend that the President went to Kaduna State, first, for a music festival and, then, to accept an honorary doctorate degree from the Kaduna State University, a curiously dubious conferment from a university that does not itself run any doctorate programme. That the lethal sequence that followed is associated with the presence of the President in the state should surely be of concern to him.

Second, President Buhari is not just anybody. He is a two-time Commander-In-Chief, a retired army General and one of the most respected and decorated officers in the history of the Nigerian Army. As a General, what happened in Zaria must be of interest to him. As Commander-In-Chief, he has command responsibility for what the military did. This is not a mere military affair. It is his affair. By keeping quiet, he reinforces the impression that he explicitly instructed the military operation in Zaria or implicitly condoned its manner and outcomes. If this is not the case, then he should say so.

Third, there is disturbing evidence in his silence that far from learning from the mistakes of his predecessor, President Buhari appears willing to repeat the errors that turned Nigerians against the administration of President Goodluck Jonathan. It bears recalling that President Buhari rode to the Presidency on the crest of public revolt against the way his predecessor showed scant regard for the lives and sufferings of Nigerians in the hands of Boko Haram extremists. To this attitude, President Buhari promised change. He did not promise being mute. Rather than offer change on this occasion, he has chosen to go mute.

Fourth, President Buhari’s answer to allegations of Shi’ite lawlessness cannot be an outlaw army. His silence could encourage open-ended military operations against unarmed civilians. The state can contain citizen lawlessness, but state lawlessness invites anarchy.

Above all, as the only officer under our constitution elected – no less – by Nigerians from every state and the Federal Capital Territory, President Buhari swore to protect Nigeria’s constitution and the values that underpin it, including the obligation to run a humane government, respect human life and guarantee due process. When citizens are killed in encounters with the armed forces, the responsibility of government is engaged. The people who died are Nigerians. A humane government must show that it cares. By remaining silent, the President appears inhumane and encourages the impression that he neither cares about human life nor about his oath of office.

It is already late but there is still time for the President to correct the course of happenings. The President who promised change cannot keep quiet when soldiers under his command leave scores, perhaps indeed, hundreds of killed civilian citizens in their wake. He needs to speak to Nigerians and the world urgently and reassure everyone about his commitment to the values of constitutional government.

The whereabouts of the leader of the Shi’ite community, Ibrahim El-Zakzaky, must be disclosed. He should be released from custody forthwith or charged before a court for crimes known to the law. Contrary to their claim, the Nigerian constitution has no place for the military to hold a citizen in “protective custody.” Any persons, civilian or military, implicated in the incident in Zaria, should be held to account resolutely.

While PREMIUM TIMES acknowledges the right, as indeed salutes, the Kaduna State government on its initiative to set up a judicial commission of inquiry into the incident which occurred within its state borders, as announced by Governor Nasir El-Rufai, still we need to be aware that the scale of the problem is national, and the army, as one of the parties involved, is a national institution.

Hence President Buhari, as Commander-In-Chief of the Armed Forces needs to get proactive in the national engagement with what transpired and in achieving justice for those unjustly violated and murdered. If he fails to do this urgently and resolutely, his promise of change could begin to ring hollow.

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