Written by Isa Liman (Weekly Trust Newspaper, NewsPublished on Saturday, 02 August 2014)
As more facts regarding what led to penultimate Friday’s fracas between some soldiers and Shiites in Zaria continue to unfold, Weekly Trust uncovered some of the events that sparked the incident.
When Sheikh Ibraheem Zakzaky accused Lt Col. S. O Okuh of the 11 Field Engineer Regiment, Basawa, Zaria, as being the person behind the killing of 33 members of his Shiite sect, including three of his biological sons, many things came to mind.
Col. Okuh is a familiar name to most residents of Zaria. He is popular among some residents largely because of the way he goes about discharging his ‘duties.’ He is said to be in charge of all the military checkpoints in Zaria and its environs. As such, the colonel, according to some residents, most of the time delves into issues that are allegedly outside his jurisdiction.
When about 33 people were killed during the annual Quds day procession by the Shiites in Zaria, the impression that most residents had was that it was soldiers who opened fire when some of the Shiites in the procession resisted to give way for an army commandant of 11 Engineer Regiment.
However, recent events according to eye witness accounts suggest that Okuh was the one who was behind the killings.
According to Sheikh Zakzaky, information obtained from those who survived the onslaught had identified Okuh as the one who personally killed some of the victims.
Defence spokesman Major General Chris Olukolade however described the claims by the cleric and some Zaria residents concerning the officer as mere allegations, until proven otherwise.
“Thirty three people were killed but there was no statement from a single person from the above. Even killing one person, some presidents must speak. No minister of defence or any other person has said anything,” the cleric said.
“This man (Lt Colonel Okuh) told somebody that from Jaji upward, he was posted to contain the areas for 2015. He privately told somebody.
We have confirmed that one Lt Colonel Okuh personally killed some of the victims, including my sons. My sons and some of the victims were tortured to death. They were taken alive to their Basawa barracks and tortured to death because there were signs of electric shock on some of the corpses, according to doctors,” Sheikh Zakzaky added.
He said: “It would surprise you to know that there was even a roadside beggar among those that were killed. There was even one Mr. Nyanwu, about 68-year-old, who was also killed because he simply cautioned them on how they were killing innocent people. Because of that they shot him to death. So, it is not about Shiites-soldiers clash but killing of armless and defenseless people.”
Some residents told Weekly Trust of their encounter with Okuh to corroborate what Sheikh Zakzaky said.
“This man (Lt Col. Okuh) is well known to many people. For instance, there was a time he came to our filling station during the recent fuel scarcity to buy fuel. At that time, we didn’t have fuel in the station. The man insisted that we must get fuel for him. As a result of that he arrested our assistant manager and took him to the Basawa barracks. He ordered for his torture, and he was actually seriously tortured,” a resident, who asked not to be named for security reasons, said.
“In the process, he told our assistant manager that he can kill him and nothing would happen. In fact, he told him that he was posted to Zaria for an assignment to deal with some prominent personalities. He asked our assistant manager whether he was aware that a prominent cleric was killed recently in Zaria,” the resident added.
The colonel was also involved in another controversy recently in Zaria, Weekly Trust gathered. He stormed the Nigerian College of Aviation Technology (NCAT), Zaria with a military van full of armed soldiers to arrest four staff of the college and leveled them Boko Haram “simply because those staff were having some issues with the then rector of the college.”
One of the affected staff told Weekly Trust that when Okuh took some of them to the Basawa barracks, he intimidated and harassed them in his effort to frighten them to stop questioning some of the rector’s activities.
“In fact, this man went to the extent of telling us that if you didn’t change our steps, he would make our lives miserable over issues that we are not completely aware of. He told us that there was intelligence report against us. We wondered what link an army officer has with intelligence report on civilians. We felt there are appropriate security agencies to handle such issues. And there are laid down procedures of going about such issues. This is why we felt that the man was just invited by the then authorities of the college, because of kinship relationship, to act their script of intimidation,” the staff said, asking for anonymity.
Weekly Trust also gathered that there was a time Colonel Okuh’s action nearly resulted to violence at the Hanwa Juma’at mosque.
According to witnesses, he forced worshippers emerging from the Juma’at prayers to ‘frog jump.’ “This angered the worshippers and it nearly resulted to clash between them and soldiers. Intervention of some elders saved the situation,” one witness said.
However, in an interview with newsmen in Zaria, the first since the incident, spokesman Defence Headquarters (DHQ) Major Gen. Chris Olukolade, said all the issues being said about Okuh remain allegations. He said the army, as a disciplined institution, has a way of proving crisis like the one in Zaria without being prompted.
When asked why the DHQ was silent after about 33 people were alleged to have been killed by soldiers, Olukolade replied thus: “We are not completely silent. The army headquarters have made a statement, which is proper and appropriate. We don’t just want to speak until we understand all that is involved. The headquarters was concerned because of the fact that we always cherish good relationship with the Nigerian public, and particularly Zaria being a home for the military in forms of training and interaction. We didn’t expect this degree of problem. This calls for a reason why we must find out what actually happened.”
He added that: “We still want to reassure the Zaria people that the Nigerian military has no problem with them as a people. We cherish the good relationship we have with people and we would continue to uphold it. In this particular instance, the preliminary understanding we have is that that thing was engineered and unfortunately it resulted to what it did.”
Olukolade noted that: “The troops were not out to attack innocent citizens. We would establish why anybody would dare, if it is true, to be shooting at soldiers. It has implications and it is very unfortunate. Let nobody under any reason or guise try to get the security agencies into unnecessary problem with the populace. That is the suggestion we would make at the moment.”
The defence spokesman said statements credited to Sheikh Zakzaky made them to believe that soldiers were shot at from the procession saying: “If you have read what the respected cleric said in his statement, he indicated that there were people among them who, for whatever reason, were attacking soldiers. That confirms some preliminary understanding we have of the situation. Why would any procession for whatever reason attack soldiers? We don’t think that is normal.”
On the alleged involvement of Lt Colonel Okuh, Olukolade said: “I am not aware that one of our officers masterminded the killings. These are the allegations that we would prove. If anybody is having issues with any of our officers, it should be reported. Any report that is formally reported, it would not be left alone.”
He added that: “Ordinarily, when there is an incident of this nature, without being prompted, the army has its own way of approaching and finding out what happened not until we are being prompted.
“Because of the fact that we are disciplined, that is why we need to investigate, to find out if it truly happened the way it has been reported. You must know that people report things from various perspectives and interests. We must ascertain that this thing really happened the way it is being reported; that is our interest.”
Olukolade reassured residents of Zaria and other Nigerians about their safety, but warned that anyone who dares to attack military personnel would have himself to blame.
“If nobody attacks soldiers, he has no cause to fear. If nobody designs to go and attack soldiers, he has no reason to fear. The public should dissuade them from going to attack soldiers or disturb the peace of the nation. Anybody who was worried, that is what he should do to save the situation,” he said.
As Nigerians await the military’s investigative panel to unravel the truth about the Quds day incident, the Shiites are still mourning the demise of the three sons of their leader and 30 other members.
Until proved otherwise, Sheikh Zakzaky and his followers believe that all the 33 victims were murdered in cold blood, and steps should be taken by the authorities to bring the culprits to book.