LAGOS - A spokesman for a Nigerian Shi'ite group says it will not participate in a state inquiry into a deadly December clash unless their imprisoned leader is released.
Hundreds were killed in the northern city of Zaria last month after fighting broke out between the Islamic Movement in Nigeria group and the Nigerian military after IMN protesters blocked the convoy of army chief General Tukur Buratai.
The Nigerian military says the road block was an attempt to assassinate Buratai and the soldiers were only defending themselves. But the IMN claims group members were hunted down by troops long after the general left the area, leading to the destruction of their mosque and the wounding and arrest of their leader Sheikh Ibrahim Al Zakzaky.
Kaduna state governor Nasir el-Rufai has set up a commission of inquiry into the shootout. But IMN spokesman Ibrahim Musa says the group won’t take part until Zakzaky is set free.
“We want the immediate release of our leader simply because he is the one that is in the best position to explain and tender some other things that the commission might like to know about the whole crisis,” Musa said. He also objected to statements el-Rufai has made about the group, claiming they show bias against IMN and would affect the neutrality of the commission.
“We don’t expect fairness and justice from this judicial commission,” Musa said.
A spokesman for the Kaduna state government was not available to comment.
The state government says the IMN has long been a nuisance for residents. In a speech shortly after the incident, el-Rufai said the group had blocked roads in the past and built illegal structures around its headquarters in Zaria.
Many of the group’s buildings in Zaria were destroyed after the fighting, Musa said. While Zaria is IMN’s headquarters, the group’s membership extends across Nigeria’s north and west.
The military’s behavior also attracted condemnation from abroad. Human Rights Watch called the military’s use of force “unjustified,” and said it hadn’t found credible claims by the military that the group posed a threat.
Nigeria researcher for HRW Mausi Segun said the government was violating due process by keeping Zakzaky in prison.
Musa said he is being held after receiving medical treatment for about six gunshot wounds. He says the sheikh has not been charged with a crime.
“The continued detention of Sheikh Zakzaky without any charges being filed against him is unconstitutional,” Segun said. He added that any findings by the commission of inquiry will lack authority without IMN’s participation.
“The outcome of the investigation or the work of the commission will be jeopardized without the full involvement or cooperation of a major party to the clashes,” Segun said.
Nigeria is about evenly divided between Muslims and Christians. A small percentage of the population identifies as Shi'ite; according to the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life estimates 12 percent, though others place the number lower.