President BuhariNigeria's President Muhammadu Buhari is being urged to rein in the military. [Picture: President Buhari at May Commonwealth Conference. Source: Flickr Commonwealth]

The Nigerian army massacred hundreds of supporters of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN) in Zaria last December, an inquiry has heard.

Newsweek reported that the commission, under Justice Mohammed Lawal Garba, was set up by the Kaduna state government to investigate allegations that men, women and children of the Shia group, which is led by Sheikh Ibrahim al-Zakzaky and has an estimated three million followers in Nigeria, had died by gun and grenade in a two-day killing spree that included injured civilians being summarily executed.

The army claimed the soldiers had been acting in self-defence and were responding to an attempt by IMN members to assassinate the chief of army staff, Lt Gen Tukur Yusuf Buratai.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) interviewed 16 witnesses and five other sources and declared a week later that the attacks were ‘wholly unjustified’. It said the army carried out attacks at the Hussainiya Baqiyatullah mosque and religious centre, at Zakzaky’s compound (about 10km away in Zaria’s Gyellesu district), and at the sect’s burial ground, Dar al-Rahma (12km from Zaria), over the course of two days.

According to testimony HRW had gathered, it appears likely that people had been fired on leaving the IMN mosque by soldiers who had taken up positions around the building more than an hour before the general’s convoy was passing through. An angry IMN crowd had then gathered outside after the shootings and built a barricade across the road. The soldiers retreated. When the convoy came through two hours later soldiers fired on the crowd and later that evening advanced towards Zakzaky’s compound, where a crowd, fearing another attack, had gathered, as well as to the burial ground, site of Shia shrines.

HRW said: ‘Witnesses said soldiers fired at random on the large crowd of men, women, and children … Although some people threw stones and had sticks, there has been no credible information that any soldiers were injured or killed.’ The non-governmental organisation’s Africa director, Daniel Bekele, said: ‘At best it was a brutal over-reaction and at worst it was a planned attack on the minority Shia group.’

Testimony to the inquiry revealed huge discrepancies in the estimated death toll: Balarabe Abbas Lawal, secretary to the Kaduna state government, told the commission that 347 corpses had been buried. The IMN claimed more than 800 of its followers had been killed. But the Nigerian army claimed there were only ‘a few’ bodies, YNaija reported, although it admitted there had also been casualties when it then raided Zakzaky’s compound.

Zakzaky and his wife, Zeenat, were arrested – and a son reportedly killed – during the clash. Four months later, This Day reported, he was still being detained at the headquarters of the secret police, the Department of State Security, in Abuja. Zakzaky had reportedly lost an eye, a hand was partially paralysed and he limped.

A Lagos-based lawyer and human rights activist, Femi Falana, said Zakzaky and his wife had been denied access to lawyers, doctors and family members while in detention, and had not been told what, if any, laws they had breached.

Zakzaky’s son, Muhammad Ibrahim, said three of his brothers, the youngest aged just 13, had been shot dead in front of their father during the raid on the compound, the Daily Trust reported. Three other sons had been shot dead, along with dozens of other IMN followers, by the army in 2014 when Zakzaky said the military had targeted the annual Quds Day procession in Zaria—the army also claimed then that it had only fired in self-defence.

The army’s director of public relations, Col Sani Usman, alleged that IMN members at the roadblock had pelted the convoy with ‘dangerous objects’ when the soldiers reacted, while the Guardian reported: ‘The army claimed the general’s vehicle had been attacked by a petrol bomb, and that the military convoy had come under fire.’

The Daily Post reported Maj Gen Adeniyi Oyebade claiming: ‘The army came under serious attack by the members of IMN and in line with the rules of engagements, we took self-defence measures and as a result, the resistance was such that we had to do everything to ensure that it does not spread to other parts of the town. There was casualties on both sides.’

Shia community leaders and the IMN denied Buratai was attacked. And HRW’s Bekele said: ‘The Nigerian military’s version of events does not stack up. It is almost impossible to see how a roadblock by angry young men could justify the killings of hundreds of people.’

Amnesty International cast further doubt over the army’s claims, saying: ‘Our research, based on witness testimonies and analysis of satellite images, has located one possible mass grave. It is time now for the military to come clean and admit where it secretly buried hundreds of bodies.’

The human rights organisation interviewed 92 people, including victims, witnesses and medical personnel. Amnesty’s Netsanet Belay said: ‘It is clear that the military not only used unlawful and excessive force against men, women and children, unlawfully killing hundreds, but then made considerable efforts to try to cover up these crimes.’

It alleged that after the incident the military sealed off the areas around Zakzaky’s compound, the movement’s headquarters, the Hussainiya, and other locations. ‘Bodies were taken away, sites were razed to the ground, the rubble removed, bloodstains washed off, and bullets and spent cartridges removed from the streets.’

Amnesty’s report, Unearthing the truth: Unlawful killings and mass cover-up in Zaria, gives eyewitness testimony of killings in gruesome detail, including how children were targeted. Zainab, a 16-year-old girl, said: ‘We were in our school uniforms. My friend Nusaiba Abdullahi was shot in her forehead. We took her to a house where they treated the injured but, before reaching the house, she already died.’

A 10-year-old boy who was shot in the leg told Amnesty how his older brother was shot in the head as they tried to leave Zakzaky’s compound, which had been turned into a makeshift treatment centre. ‘We went out to try to shelter in a nearby house but we got shot.’

A woman interviewed by HRW said: ‘I saw two children who looked like they could be aged 7 and 12 writhing in pain on the ground…When we came back to pick the second child, the soldiers had noticed him. We ran away as they shot him point blank in the head. He was only a child.’

Alyyu, a student who was shot in the chest, said soldiers outside the compound called on those inside to come out: ‘But people were too scared. We knew they would kill us. Soldiers threw grenades inside the compound. I saw one soldier on the wall of the courtyard shooting inside.’

‘They are shooting those injured one by one,’ one 19-year-old told his mother by phone. He was killed with three siblings.

Later, the soldiers set fire to the compound. Yusuf, who managed to escape despite serious wounds, said: ‘Those who were badly injured and could not escape were burned alive. I managed to get away from the fire by crawling on my knees until I reached a nearby house where I was able to hide until the following day. I don’t know how many of the wounded were burned to death. Tens and tens of them.’

Another witness described the scene outside the mortuary of Ahmadu Bello University Hospital in Zaria: ‘It was dark and from far I could only see a big mound but when I got closer I saw it was a huge pile of corpses on top of each other.’

Amnesty’s Nigeria director, MK Ibrahim, said: ‘Whilst the final death toll is unclear, there is no doubt that there has been a substantial loss of life at the hands of the military. Anyone responsible for unlawful killings should be brought to justice’.

Confronted with Amnesty’s detailed examination of the massacre allegations, the army did its best to rubbish the report—without appearing to have read it. Usman told This Day: ‘If there is any report from Amnesty International as you stated, we believe it is hasty, partial and lacks objectivity.’

But it is far from just Amnesty that is condemning the Nigerian security services. Senator Shehu Sani, who represents Kaduna Central, lamented that the Nigerian government had not learned from the ‘bitter and painful experience that led to the rise of violent groups like Boko Haram’, said.

Iran summoned Nigeria’s ambassador to the foreign ministry in Tehran to explain the incident, the Guardian reported. It said the Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, had called his Nigerian counterpart, Muhammadu Buhari, to demand compensation for bereaved families and injured victims.

Tehran’s involvement may not seem surprising, as the IMN clearly identifies as a Shia group (its website features a photograph of Iran’s revolutionary leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, more prominently than one of Zakzaky) and has been supported by Iran, both financially and diplomatically.

However, says that Zakzaky did not consider himself Shia in the 1980s: ‘Zakzaky told everyone he did not belong to the Shia [and] his group was not out to promote Shia Islam.’ His sectarian switch, made while in detention, was ‘more akin to religious branding—to gain Iranian funding and to differentiate themselves from other radical groups recruiting from the same alienated population—than religious conversion’, it said.

‘The IMN’s allure has not been a function of its association with Shi’ite doctrine. Its popularity emanates from al-Zakzaky’s capacity to present himself as a voice for Islam in Nigeria by articulating the concerns of northern Nigeria’s disenfranchised and unemployed youth,’ GlobalSecurity said.

It is possible that, under orders to clear the road and protect their general, the Nigerian soldiers and their officers simply panicked. On the other hand, it might well be that the high command saw in the Islamist  movement another potential insurgency (the Kaduna state governor, Malam Nasir El-Rufai, called the IMN a ‘state within a state’ ) and tried to deal it a fatal blow, much as it tried to do with Boko Haram’s founder, Mohammed Yusuf, who was shot dead in mysterious circumstances while in police custody during days of clashes that followed the storming of the late Islamist leader’s compound in 2009.

Whatever the truth, it is painfully clear that for Buhari to fulfil his pledge to respect human rights in the campaign against Islamist insurgents the former general must rein in his military and ensure that its ignoble tradition of serious human rights abuses is stopped.