If it’s true, as President Goodluck Jonathan’s henchmen never tire of peddling, that Boko Haram is a weapon fashioned by the opposition to destabilize their principal and stop him from even contesting next year’s election, never mind winning it, then the coldblooded murder of nearly three dozen members of the Shi’a community in Zaria last week by soldiers is clear testimony that his army has not learnt, and is probably unwilling to learn, the lesson of the transmutation of Boko Haram from a mere irritant into the greatest threat to the country’s unity, peace and security in under five years.
By now we are all familiar with what happened last Friday in Zaria during the annual procession of the members of the sect in support of victims of the Israeli occupation of Palestine. This year’s procession coincided with the on-going massive invasion of Gaza by the Israeli ostensibly in retaliation for the kidnap and murder of three Israeli youths which the Israeli hawkish Prime Minister, Benyamin Netanyahu, conveniently but wrongly, as it has since turned out, blamed on Hamas, the authority in Gaza.
Several of those in the Zaria procession carried placards with unflattering inscriptions not only about the Israelis but also about our President, Dr Goodluck Jonathan, and his wife, Patience, accusing both of being the dark forces behind Boko Haram. Sources close to the Shi’a leadership believe this may have incensed the soldiers whose commander, like the president, is said to be Ijaw.
The soldiers have since claimed that they shot at the procession in self defence. The number of casualties – 35 dead, including three sons of the Shi’a leader, Sheikh Ibrahim El-Zakzaky, and many more injured – suggests otherwise, a scepticism apparently shared by the presidency which has ordered investigations.
The soldiers’ claim sounds familiar but rings hollow in the light of the similar killings on September 20 last year of eight, and the injuring of eleven more, tricycle riders living in an uncompleted building in the Apo Legislative Quarters, Abuja. Then as now, the army said it killed the tricyclists in self-defence. Senate investigations of the case came to the self-contradictory conclusion that the squatters were unarmed and harmless but cleared the security personnel, who said they had raided the building in search of a Boko Haram kingpin, of extra-judicial murder.
An apparently more thorough investigation by the National Human Rights Commission (NHCR) reached the unequivocal conclusion that the security forces killed the squatters in cold blood and ordered the Federal Government to pay relatives of the victims 135 million Naira in compensation.
What happened in Zaria last Friday shows that the lesson of NHRC’s embarrassing indictment of the security forces has not been learnt. But even more worrying is that the even more profound lesson of the genesis of Boko Haram as the greatest threat to the country’s unity, peace and security has also not been learnt, if not by the presidency itself at least by those in charge of its instruments of coercion.
Until 2009, when late President Umaru Musa Yar’adua sent in the troops to wipe out Boko Haram because of its repeated confrontations with security forces, it was essentially a mere irritant to the local authorities in Maiduguri, the Borno State capital. The soldiers seemed to have succeeded at first. Its headquarters was razed to the ground and hundreds of its members killed and its leader, Muhammadu Yusuf, captured alive and well and handed over to the police.
Instead of trying him, he was murdered in cold blood in police custody. Following public outrage, President Yar’adua set up a panel to investigate the case. This was in August 2009. Nearly five years on nothing has been heard of the investigation.
In between, even more cold-blooded murder of members of the sect was carried out by the security forces. In one particularly gruesome footage of the killings that was aired by Aljazeera months after the murder of Yusuf, one apparently bloodthirsty policeman was heard telling a colleague not to shoot one victim in the chest because he wanted the victim’s heart!
Again public outrage at the Aljazeera footage forced government to set up another inquiry and promise swift prosecution of those implicated in the killings. Again, as with the killing of Yusuf, nothing more was heard of the case. There was an attempt to prosecute a few suspects but it all seemed so half-hearted.
If the authorities calculated that with time everything will fizzle out as usual, they apparently calculated wrongly; a little over a year after these incidents Boko Haram returned with a vengeance. Since then it has transmogrified into a hideous monster that government seems incapable of eliminating.
It should worry the authorities that, unlike Boko Haram, the Shi’a in Nigeria, or Muslim Brothers as they choose to call themselves, are huge in number and are much more organized and disciplined. It is therefore important that the Federal Government conducts a thorough and satisfactory investigation of what happened in Zaria last Friday.
Failure to do so will only further confirm many Nigerians in their suspicion that the authorities have found Boko Haram a convenient cover to destabilize the North as the greatest opposition to President Goodluck’s apparent determination to remain on his seat in next year’s election come what may.
It is gladdening that he has ordered an investigation of the incident but the way some of his henchmen have carried on about the June 23 twin suicide bomb, but happily unsuccessful, attacks on former head of state and leading opposition leader, Major-General Muhammadu Buhari and the Tijjaniya leader, Sheikh Dahiru Bauchi, one could be forgiven the conclusion that the president is only too glad to see the North stew in its own Boko Haram predicament.
One such henchman, Alhaji Mujahid Asari-Dokubo, seemed to have surpassed even himself as the president’s self-chosen viral attack dog when he said the other day that General Buhari staged the suicide bomb on his own convoy to draw public sympathy. Another, Mr. Olisa Metuh, the ruling Peoples Democratic Party spokesman, was not as disingenuous as the ex-militant when he said the bombing was the act of the general’s rivals within the opposition. Still his theory was disingenuous enough to have prompted a rebuke from both the party and the presidency.
From past events it would be surprising if the authorities distanced themselves from any of the two.
However, whether they distance themselves or not, it is, I must say again, important that what happened in Zaria last Friday does not go unpunished. We have enough problems dealing with Boko Haram we do not want to create another, and probably worse, monster. Unless, of course, the authorities, as many Nigerians believe, do not give a damn about the many innocent blood that have been shed as a result of Boko Haram insurrection because it is “they” and not “us”.