The Federal Government, last week, went a step in perfecting its dramatic move against the Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN) by publishing in its official gazette the ex-parte order it had obtained from the Federal High Court declaring the Shi’ites a terrorist organisation. What is left now is to publish it in two national dailies for a full compliance with the court’s orders.
The irony is not lost on many Nigerians that whereas the government is quite diligent in carrying out the ex-parte orders of Justice Nkeonye Maha, it did not show a similar enthusiasm in the rigorously reasoned judgment of Justice Gabriel Kolawole also of the Federal High Court delivered three years ago which would have saved the government and the country the embarrassment that is inevitable in this tortuous and unfortunate case.
Not only was Justice Kolawole determined to do justice, he also provided the government with escape hatches, and went the extra-mile to offer wise suggestions for an amicable settlement of the matter. But the government was not minded about justice or amicable settlement; it was determined to demonstrate power. And in proscribing the sect, it reached for the ultimate and, perhaps, the most problematic.
Between 2016 when the court decided and the last protest, it is easy to tick off a dozen “FreeZakzaky” protests which start off peacefully until the Army or Police decide to disperse the group. Last week the eerie video footage of the Shi’ites laying out their dead, 20 they said, for burial was heart-breaking because it could have been avoided.
IMN leader El-Zakzaky’s incarceration was always problematic. For years the government said he was being held in ‘preventive detention’ to save his life. It is for his own good, argued the government. Then the judge asked: to hold or detain El Zakzaky and his wife in a protective custody for their own safety was a power exercised based on what provisions of the Constitution? For the avoidance of doubt Justice Kolawole noted that the concept of “protective custody” for an adult citizen is unknown to any law in Nigeria.
Before he adjourned for the final ruling, the judge maintained that the case has remained an embarrassment to the country since it is said to be a democracy. He observed that the case is a political one and protests about the matter have become regular occurrences and wondered why the matter cannot be settled out of court.
Now the government has a Sisyphean task on IMN’s proscription because it is unethical to levy the accusation of terrorism without mentioning one instance in which the movement committed an act of terrorism. Cardinal John Onayeikan, the Catholic Archbishop of Abuja, noted that “the protests were always peaceful, we never saw them armed.” Section 10 of the 1999 Constitution (as amended) declares Nigeria to be a secular state. This section removes any doubt that the government must not place its thumb on the religion scale.
Secondly, Section 38 of the Constitution guarantees Nigerians the “freedom of thought, conscience and religion, including freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom (either alone or in community with others, and in public or in private) to manifest and propagate his religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice and observance.” Sections 40 and 41 of the same constitution secure the freedom of all Nigerians to associate with each other or assemble wherever they choose and move about freely throughout the country without let or hindrance.
Nigerians did not appreciate IMN’s proscription and many have spoken. The Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) observed that the ex-parte order betrayed the insincerity of the government. Such a grave decision should go through a rigorous court process to confirm that they truly possess the characteristics of a terror group. Bishop Onayeikan observed that “the impression the Shi’ite proscription gives about Nigeria around the world is terrible.
It portrays us as a country where government can wake up one day, get a court order from nowhere and a particular religious group is proscribed.” By the end of last week there were signs of an attempt at a settlement, an excellent opportunity which the government should seize with both hands. It can also take a second look at Justice Kolawole’s 2016 judgment and suggestions which remain valid even today.