Proscribing the Islamic Movement in Nigeria: A Plea for Second Thoughts, By Jibrin Ibrahim

The most important issue, however, is that banning the organisation would be understood by its members as banning their constitutional right to practice their religion. This is the basis of my plea that rather than proscribing the organisation, we should follow the rule of law and hold its members accountable for infractions against the law that they commit.

On Friday, the Kaduna State Government issued a legal notice in relation to the Commission of Inquiry Report on the “Clash Between the Nigerian Army and the Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN)”. The order recognises that “Sections 38 and 40 of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria have guaranteed the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion and also the right to the freedom of association and peaceful assembly to all citizens respectively.”

Nonetheless, the Order, which came into operation on October 7, 2016 declares that: “the Society that bears the name, style, guise or nomenclature of the “Islamic Movement in Nigeria”, is hereby declared an Unlawful Society in Kaduna State.” The justifications for the order, according to the Government, are the imperative for the promotion and protection of public safety, public order, public morality or public health; and/or the rights and freedom of all persons in Kaduna State.

The Order is anchored on the findings of Judicial Commission of Inquiry into the clashes between the group with the appellation “Islamic Movement in Nigeria” (IMN) and the Nigerian Army in Zaria between Saturday 12th and Monday 14th December 2015. The findings, says the Government, draw attention to acts which, if allowed to go unchecked, will constitute danger to the peace, tranquillity, harmonious coexistence and good governance of Kaduna State. The Kaduna State Government had in a bold move published and distributed the Report of the Commission a couple of months ago, so there can be no arguments on the findings of the Commission and I urge Nigerians to read them. I had the privilege of serving on the Commission and my personal belief is that proscribing the IMN might not be the best path to the greatest good for the country.

One of the challenges that confronted the Commission was that one of the direct parties to the confrontation, the IMN, neither sent a memorandum nor appeared before it. Their counsel had written the Commission stating they had no access to the client and IMN leader, Ibraheem El-Zakzaky, and therefore could not receive instructions to present their memorandum. The Commission delayed its public hearing for six weeks to help facilitate access to the IMN leader but at the end, after securing access, the IMN leader took the decision not to appear or send a memorandum. Nonetheless, the Commission received a total of 3,577 memoranda. It admitted a total of 39 exhibits and a total number of 87 testimonies from witnesses.

…the Nigerian Army had not followed its own Rules of Engagement and its actions were contrary to international standards. The Commission therefore recommended that steps should immediately be taken to identify members of the Nigerian Army who acted contrary to their Rules of Engagement and professional ethics and participated in the killings of the IMN members and other citizens within that period, with a view to bringing them to justice through prosecution.

The Commission found that the immediate cause of the clashes of December 12 to 14, 2015 between the Nigerian Army and the IMN was the act of the road barricade mounted by the IMN on a very busy highway leading to PZ junction in Zaria, which was also the route to the Nigerian Army Depot. The occasion was the “hoisting of the flag ceremony” organised at the national headquarters of the IMN at a time when the Chief of Army Staff (COAS) was en route to the Depot for a passing out parade of soldiers. The Commission presented two main sets of findings on the main parties, the IMN and the Nigerian Army.

On the Islamic Movement in Nigeria and its leadership, the Commission found that over the years, they have committed acts in breach of the law, peace and against good neighbourliness. These acts include IMN members committing unprovoked attacks on other citizens, illegally occupying mosques and public and private buildings. IMN members have also shown total disregard for constituted authority and contempt towards the rule of law and security forces. Evidence was also adduced to show that they have engaged in provocative preaching which have seriously provoked other religious movements as well as government and its various arms. The Commission was clear in its findings that the IMN should be held responsible for the road blockage that led to the clash of December 12, 2015. The question that is posed today however is whether the best approach is the proscription of the movement.

On the Nigerian Army, the Commission was of the view that they had no justification for the killings of December 12 to 14, 2015 in Zaria. The Nigerian Army was wrong in “shooting its way” through the blockade set by the IMN that led to the initial killing of seven members of the IMN. While there was justification for conducting the cordon and search on the house of the IMN leader, given the claim by the Army of a large stockpile of dangerous weapons, the Commission found out that only one firearm (a locally made pistol) was recovered from the house of the leader of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria, and not a large stockpile of dangerous weapons. The other weapons recovered were catapults, knives, swords and bows and arrows. These could hardly justify the force and intensity of the two days army show of superior firepower. The Commission therefore concluded that the use of such lethal force was inappropriate. In addition, the Nigerian Army had not followed its own Rules of Engagement and its actions were contrary to international standards. The Commission therefore recommended that steps should immediately be taken to identify members of the Nigerian Army who acted contrary to their Rules of Engagement and professional ethics and participated in the killings of the IMN members and other citizens within that period, with a view to bringing them to justice through prosecution.

One of the most important findings of the Commission concerns the Nigerian Police Force. Over the years, they have failed to hold members of the IMN to account, particularly its leader, for brazen acts of disrespect of laws and non-recognition of constituted authority. The army has been intervening precisely because of police failure to do its own work. Logic requires that moving forward, the police should start doing its work. Nothing would be resolved by a blanket ban of the movement.

There are thousand of religious and other associations operating in the country without registration. Members of the IMN should be free to associate as long as they respect the laws of the country and do not infringe on the rights of others.

It is important to know that the Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN), is not just an organisation, it is a Shiite Islamic religious movement. The Commission was unable to establish its membership strength but believed it could be as low as 60,000 and as high as three and half million. It was established that the IMN has branches in all 36 States in the country and banning them in one State simply evacuates the main issue. The most important issue, however, is that banning the organisation would be understood by its members as banning their constitutional right to practice their religion. This is the basis of my plea that rather than proscribing the organisation, we should follow the rule of law and hold its members accountable for infractions against the law that they commit. Nigeria’s Constitution guarantees religious freedom and belief, which must be respected.

The most important person in the emergence and subsequent evolution of the IMN has been Sheikh Ibraheem El-Zakzaky. He has been in detention with his wife since December last year with no charges filed. His followers have been demanding for his release and the DSS has responded that they are holding him for his safety. The problem is that his followers believe they are trying to kill him. So far, the army has killed six out of his seven sons and now his organisation has been proscribed in Kaduna State. The leader of the IMN should either be charged to court or released. The IMN has been bred in a culture of victimhood and martyrdom and state actions are deepening this belief. We already have too many conflicts in Nigeria and aggravating yet another conflict is not, in my view, the best way forward. When religious organisations abuse our laws by engaging in criminal and illegal acts, the responsibility of the state is simple – investigate and prosecute those who infringe the law.

Finally, it is true that the IMN is not registered. The Nigerian Constitution however allows citizens the freedom of association and movement. There are thousand of religious and other associations operating in the country without registration. Members of the IMN should be free to associate as long as they respect the laws of the country and do not infringe on the rights of others. I appeal to Governor Nasir El-Rufai and his Cabinet to reconsider the decision they have taken.

A professor of Political Science and development consultant/expert, Jibrin Ibrahim is a Senior Fellow of the Centre for Democracy and Development, and Chair of the Editorial Board of Premium Times.