The Shiite Frankenstein

In horticulture, a bud is removed or trimmed from a plant to prevent a fruit or flower from forming. The term, “to nip in the bud” derives from this practice. Using the idiomatic sense of that phrase, one can say that Nigeria has failed to nip many security threats in the bud in the last decade. In many cases, governmental negligence and mismanagement of threats in the early stages have been prominent on the list of contributory factors. The negligence and mismanagement has aided the birth of many “Frankensteins”. Now, with the current menace of the Shiites, perhaps, another one may be in the making.

After repeated clashes with security operatives, Ibrahim El-Zakzaky’s Shiite sect, on Tuesday, July 9, stormed the National Assembly complex and attempted a forced entry. In the melee that followed, a number of policemen were injured, including two who were left in critical condition. Some reports claim that at least two of the sect members also lost their lives in the incident. It was not the first burst-up between the Shiites and government agents, and, from the looks of it, it may not be the last.

The dance (python or crocodile) of the Shiites with government agents began in 2015 when the sect interrupted the convoy of Lt. Gen. Tukur Buratai, the army chief, whilst allegedly blocking a public highway illegally during a procession. The showdown that ensued later led to the alleged deaths of hundreds of the sect members in an army offensive against them. Although that army operation was widely criticised as high-handed and vindictive, it is the continued detention of El-Zakzaky, the leader of the sect, who has been held by the federal government since that operation that is the chief source of rancour between the government and the sect members.

Protests, peaceful and otherwise, have been held in different Nigerian cities since 2015. Sect members and state agents have lost their lives in some of these protests. Although the casualty list is greatly heaped on the side of the Shiites, the sometimes violent protests have not been without loss on all sides, and that includes on the side of ordinary neutral Nigerians going about their daily lives. It is thought by many, that a quick solution would be the release of El-Zakzaky. The sect leader has had multiple court orders issued for his release from state detention, but none have been honoured by the government.

The argument of the government in favour of El-Zakzaky’s continued detention is based on grounds of national security. That position is reaffirmed by statements credited to President Muhammadu Buhari, where he suggested that issues of national security take precedence over public perception of the rule of law. The president has been criticised for those comments and the government has been criticised for its refusal to obey the court orders, but the antics of the Shiites in some of these protests is edging close to radicalism. In the end, the government may either be justified in its seeming defiance of the rule of law in this case or it may, again, be responsible for the full radicalisation of a group already teetering towards radicalism.

This situation calls for caution and deep thought by the government, the sect members and members of the public. We now live in a world where the path to radicalism, whilst still shocking in its incidence, has become much easier to follow from a neutral viewpoint. There are fewer questions about how an otherwise peaceful grocer in East London would pack up his business to join Islamic State in Syria. The systemic villainisation of a group through mismanagement of conflict between the state and that group can have multiple unwanted outcomes, as has been seen and demonstrated in many parts of the world.

In the case of the Shiites, their history of hostility towards non-sect members, even other Muslims with different ideologies, coupled with their disregard of constituted authority, especially secular authority, had already tagged them as “trouble-makers” in societal context. That may be explained as mere religious over-zealousness, but, conversely, that is also the starting point of religious radicalism. Although, while there are many religious zealots of all faiths in Nigeria, not many have had hundreds of their members killed by agents of the state, in any circumstance. Not many, also, have had their spiritual leaders held behind bars by the state for years.

It is at this point that the divergence of opinion on this matter lies. Are the Shiites fighting a just cause for the upholding of the rule of law and the deaths of their family and friends or are they trouble-makers, with no respect for constituted authority and other members of our society? If none of their protests have been violent or hostile, and their history devoid of hostility in any form, this would have been an easy question. Perhaps, also, if the army had not killed members of the sect, there would be no question at all. What is certain is that, with the current sequence of events, the government may be creating another Frankenstein monster.

Recall that the widespread violence and complete radicalisation of Boko Haram began after the government went after the leader of the sect, publicly humiliated him and carried out his extra-judicial execution. While we thought those days of gung-ho governance was over, the same playbook has been deployed against the Shiites, who are clearly well funded, with the way they organise supporters and reportedly give out stipends during their protests. If the insinuations that their benefactor is a foreign government with an interest in the propagation of Shiite ideology in the country, then the situation can turn very ugly, very quickly, irrespective of El-Zakzaky’s freedom status.

In the meantime, the government has people to protect and the peace of the country to maintain. How the question of national security and rule of law plays out may become irrelevant if the face-off with the group is allowed to drag-on, therefore attracting the wrong kind of interest from internal and external players with ulterior motives. It may also become irrelevant if the health-challenged El-Zakzaky were to lose his life while still in detention. That may be why, according to government sources, millions are expended on the upkeep of the Shiite leader in custody.

Whichever way the government spins it, all measures it is currently taking on the Shiites’ matter are unsustainable, and with each passing day, the possibility of full blown violence by the Shiite sect is greater. Once the wrong people are allowed influence over that group, the creation of the Frankenstein would be complete and there will be no going back. The government must think El-Zakzaky’s influence on his Shiite sect is toxic enough to threaten national security, understandably so, but his absence creates a vacuum that can be filled by a much worse character. That has always been the trajectory of radical groups.

For the government, it must explore avenues of defusing the tension between the sect and agents of the state by finding leaders from within their ranks it can negotiate with and hold responsible if need be. The group, as of this time, cannot be thought of as terrorists or, strictly speaking, extremists, and the government must relate with them as such. Doing this will involve answering questions about El-Zakzaky, which should not be a problem if there is evidence to back any suspicions. Otherwise, the rule of law has to be allowed to prevail in his matter.

For the sect members, they must remember that the world will only judge them for their actions now, no matter what wrong may have been done them in the past. It is a slippery slope from mindless followership into violent radicalism once the ingredient of a hostile relationship with the state is established. The government has some nipping in the bud to do, but the Shiites too may have to summon the courage to nip their own radicalisation in the bud. If all parties fail, it will be one Frankenstein too many and the society will be worse for it.  (The Nation)

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