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The Federal Question And The Army’s Massacre of Shiites in Zaria, By Adeolu Ademoyo

"In defining our values for us, the Nigerian army is becoming a threat to us. The Nigerian army has crossed the line in defining civilian values in a democracy. This has to stop. Mr. Sani Usman, the army spokesperson must be called to order to stop his partisan and unprofessional excesses in making statements that properly belong to constituted civilian authorities."

The Nigerian army claimed that the Shiites were trying to assassinate the Chief of Army Staff between December 12 and 14, 2015. The army did not give reason or evidence why they thought the Shiites were trying to kill the Chief of Army Staff. The Shiites denied this. Though both the Shiites and the army gave different accounts with respect to motives, both sides agreed on the cause. The cause was a local traffic problem, which was a result of the Shiites mass presence on the road. This prevented movement of vehicle and human traffic on the Zaria road.

Police deals with traffic issues, the army deals with war. Traffic issues are civil matters, they are not war matters. For Nigeria to be said to be at war, it must have been properly declared by the Commander-In-Chief of the country’s armed forces – President Buhari. There is no record that President Buhari declared war against the Shiites in Zaria, which would have involved a deployment of soldiers.

Nigeria is a vast, diverse multi-national, multi-cultural, multi-religious country of about 180 million people. But Nigeria is practically a unitary state (though in theory it is a federal state) with one police – the Nigerian Police.

An ex-president, Olusegun Obasanjo for other reasons, recently observed that Nigeria is under policed.

Compared to the United States of America with similar diversity challenges, Nigeria does not have a state police. Nigeria does not have a local government police. Nigeria does not have a city police. Nigeria does not have a university police. Nigeria does not have a police system for each of these complex tiers of governance, which require specific, peculiar, and detailed local knowledge for effective policing.

Theoretically, Nigeria is a federal state, and the Kaduna State governor, Mr. Nasir El Rufai is on paper the Chief Security Officer of Kaduna State. If the traffic problem caused by the Shiites constituted a security threat to Kaduna State or Nigeria, there is no official report that the army contacted Mr. El Rufai before it decided to perform local traffic duties which belong to the police.

There are reports of a three-day shooting action, December 12-14, by the army on the Shiites to clear the Zaria local traffic. There were casualties on the highway, and off the highway on private Shiites’ sites. This means the army not only performed local traffic duty on the highway, but also on the private sites of the Shiites.

There are reports of casualties. The Human Rights Watch claimed that the army massacred not less than 300 Nigerians. None of the dead is a soldier, despite the army’s claim that the Shiites were armed and wanted to assassinate their Chief of Army staff.

There are reports of movements of corpses in and out of Ahmadu Bello Teaching Hospital, Zaria by the army. There are also reports of secret private burial of the dead by the army. There is no law that has been cited to back up the self-help action of the army. The army, (not the Nigerian state, not President Buhari, not Kaduna state government) is also issuing reports on these incidents.

President Buhari articulated the massacre under his watch of not less than 300 Nigerians by the army as a military affair. If Nigeria was under a military dictatorship, President Buhari’s articulation of the tragedy as a “military affair” will be understandable.

In declaring the death of Nigerians as a “military affair”, does it mean that President Buhari is in support of the massacre of not less than 300 Nigerians by the army?

Besides, the army has taken over civilian duties. The army is defining certain basic values, such as peace and tranquility for Nigerians. While the soldiers are Nigerians, the Nigerian army cannot define certain moral and political values for Nigerians in a democracy. In the 2015 elections, Nigerians did not elect the military, Nigerians elected a civilian president.

Sani Usman and the army he speaks for crossed the line in defining values for us. In a liberal democratic federal Nigeria, this is not acceptable. Armies fight wars, they do not define values, and Nigerian values are not military values.

Nigerians must speak up for the following reasons:

1. Nigeria is a democracy and not under a military government;
2. President Buhari is the head of state and not General Buratai, the Chief of Army staff;
3. President Buhari cannot declare that the massacre of the Shiites is a military affair. Nigeria is under a civilian president and the rule of law, so the massacre of the Shiites cannot be a military affair;
4. The military cannot speak on civil matters. The job belongs to President Buhari;
5. Some have drawn similarity between Buhari/Maitatsine and Buhari/El-Zakzaky-Shiites. If strong-arm tactics is being celebrated by pointing to a questionable claim that Buhari “dealt” with Maitatsine when he was military head of state, and that he will now “deal” with the Shiites, why did we have a resurgence of Boko Haram and the loss of over 20,000 lives after Buhari “dealt” with Maitatsine? Doesn’t that (Boko Haram) point to the failure of a prior Buhari massacre (Maitatsine) without local cultural policing?;
6. More importantly, when will Nigeria join civilised societies where the state will never kill its own citizens with its own guns?;
7. If Nigeria is a federation, why was it difficult for Kaduna State government to deal with an alleged local affront (of a local group – the Shiites) against fellow local residents the State?;
8. Does the failure or inability of a state government to deal with local affront not point to the failure of Nigerian “federalism”?;
9. Given that the alleged Shiites affront is a local one, will Nigeria not be stronger if we run a federal system where economic and political powers are constitutionally devolved to the states so that they, the local government and city police systems would have developed local knowledge (security and cultural) to deal with the problem in a civil manner without sacrificing the lives of over 300 Nigerians to the guns of an army that may as well have its own agenda as it is being rightly or wrongly speculated?;
10. If it is true as it is being speculated that the massacre of the Shiites by the army has a Sunni/Shiites rivalry undertone, does this not speak to the nature of Nigeria as a multi-national and multi-cultural society such that we need to develop a federal constitution and deal with these local skirmishes openly in the public sphere once and for all rather than use underground stealth, furtiveness, murderous and genocidal tactics that will only radicalise the Shiites and drive them underground? Will empowered local policing not have done the job better if we were running a federal system?;
11. When will Nigeria join the contemporary trend in global policing where policing is (i) a state, local government, and city affair? (ii) And that is built around prevention rather than arrest after a crime is committed?;
12. Can a central police system in a complex and vast multi-national and multi-cultural society like Nigeria ever be able to police preventively or build its policing around preventive policing?

Finally, there is a big danger ahead of Nigeria when the army begins to define values such as peace, tranquility and others for us. Such definition is an affront against the sensibility of people in a democracy. Nigerians did not get out the military only to be lectured by the army about civil values.

The peace of a democracy is qualitatively different from the “peace” and “tranquility” of an army fighting and shooting its own citizens on local streets.

In defining our values for us, the Nigerian army is becoming a threat to us. The Nigerian army has crossed the line in defining civilian values in a democracy. This has to stop. Mr. Sani Usman, the army spokesperson must be called to order to stop his partisan and unprofessional excesses in making statements that properly belong to constituted civilian authorities.

And President Buhari’s silence in allowing the army to speak for him has become cold complicity. Such complicity with the army –by a sitting president is a threat to Nigerian democracy.

Nigerian unitary structure, which is being militarised, is already a threat to Nigerian democracy.


Adeolu Ademoyo,, is of the Africana Studies and Research Center, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY.