Zaria massacre: Will the Nigerian military account for over 700 missing members of the Shiite?

A clash between the Nigerian military and members of the Shiite group on the 12th and 13th of December 2015 in Zaria left about 300 dead, several injured and many more missing. The leader of the group, Sheikh Ibrahim Zakzaky, was injured, detained and people were given no news of his whereabouts until recently. On Monday, the Shiite group published, on its Facebook page, a provisional list of 705 names and photographs; members of the Islamic Movement Nigeria who have been missing since the Shiite-military clash last month. However, with emerging reports overtime, the ‘Shiite-military clash’ appear to be no clash at all, but a deliberate and planned attack on the group.

The background

What started as a minor conflict between the military and the Shiite group because of a road block, expanded into a full blown attack by the military.

In the army’s account of the incident, the group had barricaded the road with burning tyres as the army chief approached with his convoy. Then, they threw stones and fired gunshots at the convoy from behind tall trees. The army saw this as an attack, or rather “an attempt to assassinate the Chief of Army Staff, Tukur Buratai,” and reacted by firing sporadically, killing several members of the group.

But they didn’t stop there, they proceeded to launch an attack on the Hussainniya Baqiyyatullah mosque and the residence of Sheikh Ibrahim Zakzaky over the course of two days. This resulted in quite a number of casualties, including the arrest of Sheikh Zakzaky.

Daniel Bekele, Africa director at the Human Rights Watch said the military’s account of the event does not stack up and called it a “brutal overreaction” that was planned. “It is almost impossible to see how a roadblock by angry young men could justify the killings of hundreds of people,” he said.

Though witnesses at the scene of the attack gave different accounts of the raid to the Human Rights Watch, every version of the story seems to indicate that the Nigerian military brutally attacked men, women and children that were unarmed before proceeding to bury the corpses in mass graves.

In a video later released by the IMN, soldiers can be seen dragging the bodies of those shot into a truck which they took away.

Photos of 705 missing members of the IMN Credit - Islamic Movement of Nigeria Facebook
Photos of 705 missing members of the IMN
Credit – Islamic Movement of Nigeria Facebook

A history of human rights violation

The IMN has said that the December attack was only a repetition of a similar occurrence in 2014, where a traffic argument between soldiers and members of Shiite left 34 of their members dead, including the sons of Sheikh Zakzaky, all killed by the military.

But it’s not just that, the attacks seem to corroborate past allegations of human rights violations by the Nigerian military. In June last year, Amnesty International (AI) released a report on the Nigerian military titled Stars on Their Shoulders: Blood on Their Hands: War Crimes Committed by the Nigerian Military. The report detailed atrocities committed by soldiers in their fight against Boko Haram, including “mass arrests, prolonged detention without trial, torture of detainees and extra judicial killings.” AI accused the military of perpetrating war crimes, alleging that the military abused civilians as part of their fight against Boko Haram.

Prior to that report, in the first quarter of 2014, Navi Pillay, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, accused the Nigerian army of violating human rights, “many people I have met with during this visit openly acknowledge human rights violations have been committed by the security forces,” she said.

Two months ago, in its Preliminary Examination Report on Nigeria, the International Criminal Court (ICC) cited the Nigerian Army for two possible war crimes in their fight against Boko Haram. In the report, the office of the prosecutor detailed cases of crimes that were within its jurisdiction against the Nigerian security forces, including crimes against humanity and war crimes.

Will the military be held accountable?

Since the December attack, there have been both internal and external pressure on President Buhari to deal with the matter. Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, called on President Buhari to set up an investigation into the violence, as the rest of Iran protests the killings of their Muslim brothers in Nigeria. The Shiites have embarked on several protest marches demanding justice and the release of their leader, Sheikh Zakzaky.

The Human Rights Watch has called for “independent and impartial probes” on the matter, describing it as “wholly unjustified.” Femi Falana, a human rights lawyer, also called for the prosecution of the Chief of Army, Tukur Buratai and the soldiers involved in the attack.

During his media chat last month, Buhari said that his hands were tied until official reports are turned in by the Kaduna state government and the military. “We have a system of investigation … And I, as the head of the federal government have to wait for official reports before I can come out and make a statement … So I am allowing the Army and the Kaduna state government to submit their reports of inquiry.”

So far, nothing has been heard regarding the submission of a documented report by the military, or the Kaduna state government, however, the investigative panel set up by the National Human Rights Commission on the Shiite-military clash commenced sitting in the nation’s capital last Tuesday to “unravel the truth.” But with their focus being on the “immediate and remote causes of the violations” and “searching for those responsible for the clash” as stated by the leader of the panel, the NHRC appears to be asking the wrong questions.

At the sitting, Lieutenant General Buratai maintained that the army acted within the Rules Of Engagement guiding their conduct, he also warned that the activities of the Shiites could be worse than Boko Haram, if left unchecked. Perhaps the military’s defence hinges on the provisions of the international human rights law governing the use of force in law enforcement operations. The law states that the use of force by security officials could result in a deprivation of life without violating the right to life under three circumstances: “(a) in defence of any person from unlawful violence; (b) in order to effect a lawful arrest or to prevent the escape of a person lawfully detained; (c) in action lawfully taken for the purpose of quelling a riot or insurrection.” But the law also gives a clause of “absolute necessity.” Hence, was the action of the military absolutely necessary? And do or will these provisions justify the killings of hundreds of people?

Watch video below for highlights of the NHRC sitting:

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