Yesterday we had official confirmation of what several commentators, including Human Rights Watch and Naijiant.com have reported on the massacre of Shia Muslims by the Nigerian army in Zaria between December 12 and 14 last year.
The Secretary to the Kaduna State government disclosed to an official inquiry that 347 people were killed in the clash between the Shia and the army. Their corpses were buried in mass graves on December 14 and 15 by state government officials and the army. There was no criminal investigation.
The official described the mass burial of human beings slaughtered by the army like it was a bureaucratic exercise. In what was reminiscent of Nazi Germany, the bodies were conveyed in heavy goods vehicles and dumped in the graves. Human Rights Watch had claimed last year: “Soldiers quickly buried the bodies in mass graves without family members’ permission, making it difficult to determine an accurate death toll.” We now have the official confirmation that Nigeria is operating as a rogue state with severe human rights abuses of the citizens the army are supposed to protect. The reaction of constituted authority in this mass murder was shocking and clear evidence of their culpability.
The clash started with Shia Muslims blocking a road when the motorcade of the Chief of Army Staff Tukur Buratai was passing through. Buratai later claimed that they tried to assassinate him. Human Rights Watch claimed that “the Nigerian military’s version of events does not stack up.”
The massacre was the army’s retaliation to the roadblock. As Human Rights Watch put it: “It is almost impossible to see how a roadblock by angry young men could justify the killings of hundreds of people. At best it was a brutal overreaction and at worst it was a planned attack on the minority Shia group.”
At a press conference on 14 December, an army division commander in the area, Major-General Adeniyi Oyebade said: “On December 12, 2015, myself and the Commissioner of Police were with President Muhammadu Buhari who was in the state for an assignment when I received a distress call that the life of the Chief of Army Staff, COAS, Lt. Gen. Tukur Buratai was threatened by some hoodlums who blocked his way on Sokoto road in Zaria city.
“After much persuasions from senior officers on the entourage, the hoodlums who were later identified as Shi’ites members remain adamant and in line with our rules of engagement, we have no option but to clear the road for the COAS and in the course of doing that, the hoodlums started throwing missiles on us; and our men responded which resulted to minimum casualties.
“From there we received information that they have started mobilizing in one of their temples at Husainiyya, the residence of the leader at Gyellesu and on Dambo road. That was on Saturday night, this lead to a long night of battle.
“We have nothing against the Shi’ites because they’re all Nigerians and our duty is also to protect them. But we cannot tolerate them forming a government within a government. I call on all Shi’ites members to be law abiding and go about their religious activities without tampering with the freedom of others.”
Nasir el-Rufai, the governor of Kaduna State, on 17 December announced that a judicial commission was going to look into the incident, but also listed grievances against the Shia, that included incessant roadblocks during their processions, acting like a state within a state, disregard for authority and terrorising their neighbours. He appeared to be justifying the mass murder of Shias by soldiers.
The president first dismissed the issue as a “military affair”. He would later go on national television and claim that the police could not investigate the army and seemed to be justifying the army’s response to the roadblock by claiming that Buratai was like a “sitting duck”.
Buhari and Buratai are criminally liable for the 347 confirmed deaths under the principle of “command responsibility” as we have argued here.
The Nigerian army has history of carrying on like an occupation force in Nigeria, committing serious human rights abuses against Nigerians. Their impunity seems to have been given further impetus by the rise to power of Buhari, a former military dictator, who clearly doesn’t have much time for the rule of law or much respect for the lives of ordinary Nigerians.
Members of the Shia sect claim that the death toll from the massacre ran in the thousands. This may ring true as official records of deaths from such tragedies in Nigeria tend to downplay the numbers. But now we have official confirmation that 347 lost their lives, the case for prosecuting Buhari and his army chief Buratai at the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity just got stronger.