Many Nigerians and the international community were appalled at the killing of Shiites in Abuja. They are saying the situation puts the human rights record of the military into question. What do you have to say to this?
It is because the people do not know what happened. I have been seeing accounts saying that the military was sent to stop the Shiites’ protest or procession. That is a confusing narrative. The military has never been sent to stop the Shiites from doing anything. Never in the history of Nigeria has the military been sent to stop the Shiites during their protests or whatever. It is not true. And that is where we are getting it wrong.
The military men were carrying out their duties and the Shiites took them on. You must understand that. We have had three clashes now and the three clashes happened because the Shiites attacked the military personnel in the course of their duties. Now the question is: why should the Shiites take on the military?
When you hear that a particular group takes on the military and security agencies of the state, you begin to wonder why. The reason why they are doing that is because they don’t believe in the authority of the state.
Many people will disagree with that as there is no proof that they took on the military.
How did they take on the military? Of course, you know the beginning of this issue. It started in December 2015 when the Chief of Army Staff (Lt. -Gen. Tukur Buratai) was passing through Zaria, Kaduna State. The Chief of Army Staff was with his entourage. He was in a convoy and he was going for an important national assignment. His entourage met the Shiites on the road during their procession and they refused to let his vehicles pass. And there were thousands of them.
In the military, we also go for road walks and exercises but we allow other road users to use the other lane. We don’t block both lanes. But there, the Shiites blocked the road and asked the army chief to turn back. This is not a joke. That was what happened.
When we made enquiries, we found out that they had turned back several top government functionaries before. That was the beginning of the trouble. I am surprised that nobody is bringing this up in the reports.
Protests and civil unrest happen across the world but such protests are not supposed to be responded to with live bullets. People say the actions of the military have been crude and wicked. How would you respond to that?
Recently, the Army Headquarters Garrison sent a truck of ammunition and missiles to Kaduna State. They met the Shiites in Suleja and they refused to allow the truck pass. No military commander had an inkling that the ammunition the soldiers were sent to deliver somewhere would be obstructed by some people. The Shiites wanted to take the ammunition. The soldiers ran into them and there was no way out. You can be on one side and do your procession on Suleja Road while other people will use the other side. We have pictures of our trucks that were destroyed and windscreens that were smashed by the Shiites. So what would those soldiers have done? How would you have felt if the soldiers had run back and said ‘as we were going, we met some Shiites and they took control of the ammunition and missiles we were taking to Kaduna’.
So the soldiers fought to extricate themselves from the situation. You would notice that in the video, those guys (soldiers) were firing into the air and the people (protesters) were shouting, “It is a lie; nothing is there. Nothing is there?” So why should anyone come to find out from me why people were killed? In that clash, three people were killed and several others were injured, including military men.
When you send soldiers to deliver ammunition and missiles used in the North-East somewhere, do you give them rubber bullets to protect such ammunition?
The soldiers were in the line of duty. There was no other option. If soldiers had been sent to take care of the Shiites protesters and they had fired live bullets at them, it would have been a different situation. But in this case, the soldiers were on duty and people who don’t believe in the authority of the state were attacking the soldiers to kill them. The first thing that those soldiers had to do was to protect themselves and protect the ammunition they were ordered to take somewhere.
The soldiers were never sent to stop the Shiites from protesting. That has never happened. This is the point that everyone needs to understand.
In other societies, the military defends the country against enemies but in this case, soldiers shot at Nigerian citizens. Do you think this is fair?
Also recently at Kugbo checkpoint in Karu, those people (Shiites) were coming in from the Mararaba area and…. Who in Abuja is not aware that there is a military checkpoint in Kugbo? There is nobody. So should the military men on duty in Kugbo run away from the checkpoint as soon as they see the Shiites coming?
Look, we have a group that is taking on the state and we must warn that we will not allow that to happen. And that is what the media should also do. Is there anywhere in the world that a group will take on the state and be spared? Yes, they are Nigerians but what should happen to a Nigerian that took on the state? I have seen several posts (on social media) blaming the military and I think the media is not doing enough investigative journalism in this matter. Go and find out; how did the Shiites start and what have they been doing? Go to Zaria, Kaduna State, where they were before now and see what they caused in that place. Are you not aware that Shiites are being sponsored by Iran and they don’t believe in the national security institutions?
Also in other climes, the military only bothers itself with securing the country and not dealing with civil unrest which is the job of the police, why is the military at the forefront of this?
On Tuesday, Shiites were protesting inside Abuja; did you see the military there? No, it is the responsibility of the police to be around protesters. If you are going to protest, you write to the police, not necessarily to obtain permission but for the police to know so that they will be there and ensure that the protest is peaceful. The police were with them. What did the police seize from the Shiites? There were 31 petrol bombs. Were those innocent Nigerians who were protesting peacefully? The police seized Dane guns and concrete nails from them. The Shiites also threw stones at security operatives.
If you are a Christian, I ask you; what was the thing that David used to kill Goliath in a war? So why do people make it look as if some weapons don’t really matter and as if it doesn’t matter if soldiers or security personnel were killed. If a military man dies while defending the territorial integrity of the country, it is acceptable. We have that happening in the fight against the Boko Haram and against banditry.
Why do people think it doesn’t matter if soldiers in the line of duty are taken on by a group of people?
But was there a directive to engage the Shiites, where did the directive come from?
We don’t have any issue with the Shiites. In Zuba, as soon as the military men were able to protect their ammunition from the protesters, they continued with their journey. Also at Kugbo checkpoint, as soon as we were able to treat the injured soldiers, we returned to the checkpoint.
We don’t have any Shiites that we arrested. There was no commander that said, ‘Look, Shiites are coming, go and stop them.’ No, these soldiers were just carrying out their duties. Do you know the number of these Shiites when they move? They move in large numbers. They are in their thousands. If the military wanted to stop the Shiites, we would mobilise soldiers from the barracks and not only the people at the checkpoint. If the soldiers wanted to stop the Shiites on Suleja Road, they would not be in two vehicles. How many soldiers are in an escort vehicle? So we need to find out the truth in this situation. No military commander will send eight to 10 soldiers to a road where he knows that Shiites will be in their thousands.
Nigerians are afraid that with the way the military has been handling this issue, it could lead to something more serious as this is how the Boko Haram issue also started before it snowballed into something bigger?
Nigeria has never handled the Shiites badly. If Shiites were a religious organisation, we should have members of the group in the military. So why should the military disturb a religious organisation?
The military is there to protect Nigerians. The checkpoint in Kugbo, Karu was not there before. It was established after an attack by Boko Haram and it was to ensure that criminally minded people cannot just go to the city centre and do whatever they like.
So the question is: with the way Shiites are taking on the military, what should the military do?
Your men were only being stoned from the viral video clip; do you think it was fair to reply with live bullets?
After the clashes, if it was found out that the military was the aggressor, the military would have been sanctioned. But everybody is going about with the wrong narrative. This is even after the police seized dangerous weapons from this group. Amnesty International usually supports groups that want to attack the military and hinder them from carrying out their duties. Is that how it is done in other parts of the world? And why is the AI report important? They know that the military doesn’t manufacture weapons in Nigeria and they want to continue doing negative reports about the military so that Nigeria won’t be able to freely acquire weapons to end insurgency. Who is the AI working for? What would the military have done? You drive into a protest or a procession and you cannot pass. If the military men had another route to take but still disturbed the Shiites, then you could have blamed us.
It was not only the military that were at the receiving end of the blockade. There were Nigerians whose vehicles were also destroyed and whose movements were restricted by the road blockades. But who will listen to them? Is it not the same media?
How many people have been killed so far in the struggle on both sides?
There were six people in our records and we gave out the figure in our press releases. When you say about 20 or 30 or 40 persons were killed, where were they killed? We had an issue with AI; we know the people that died in the incident. I watched on the television how the Shiites burnt a police vehicle recently. I don’t know what happened after that.
The figure of the deceased that the military gave was for the incident at the checkpoint in Kugbo and in the Zuba/Suleja axis. So I don’t know about any other thing that happened in another place.
The Shiites have vowed to continue their agitations until their leader is released and they have said that they are not afraid of military or police intimidations. What do you say to that?
We don’t have any problem with Shiites if their people don’t obstruct us on the road. If they don’t that, there is no problem. Nobody has given us any directive or authority to confront the Shiites. So whatever they are saying, they are directing to the Nigerian state. If they say they don’t respect any constituted authorities; that is for the people to condemn.
The military has never stopped and will never stop any Shiites’ procession if we don’t walk into them or if they don’t obstruct our movements in the course of carrying out our duties.