An EXCLUSIVE interview by The Punch with the leader of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria, IMN, popularly known as Shiites, Sheikh Ibrahim El-Zakzaky.
What were the major issues during your detention?
Let me start by thanking journalists for being with us all through. They have undergone a lot of tribulations. And, in fact, one of them was killed in action in July 2019 in front of the federal secretariat. So, we thank them very much for standing by us. And when we came out I did not immediately give a chance to journalists to interact with us, because we were hoping that (after our release from detention) it would take only a little time for us to be allowed to go out (of the country) for medical attention. That was what we were hoping for, because we came out with health issues.
My wife and myself, we still have fragments of bullets in our body. My wife have a full bullet (lodged in her body) which they (doctors) have been unable to remove here (in Nigeria). They say they could not remove it; but experts from outside (the country) promise that they can do it. In addition to that, she has for the past five years, since July 2016, been chair-bounded; she can only walk using a wheelchair and she prays while sitting on a chair. And they know very well that she needs a knee replacement, which, of course, if done in this county it may take the patient about three months to be able to walk again. But elsewhere it may take less than a week.
Myself, I have fragments of a bullet scattered all over my body and these fragments are secreting poisonous substances – lead, cadmium and others. And with the recommendation of doctors here, including government doctors, I need what they call ‘Chelation theraphy,’ which will remove the poisons. The fragments also have to be removed, which they (doctors here) say they cannot remove because they are very tiny and are moving around my body.
So, we were hoping at that time (we were released) that it would be a matter of weeks before we would be given the chance to go out for medical attention; but up till now, they (government) have not allowed us to do that. I have to apologise to you (journalists) for not giving you this chance at the very beginning.
What were the circumstances that led to the killing of your people in Zaria in December 2015
This is an occasion when we remember the Zaria massacre, which happened six years ago. It happened on December 12, 13 and 14, 2015 – three consecutive days. Soldiers in the Nigerian Army had cordoned off Zaria town, all the roads leading to the town; and they carried out systematic killing of people they considered unwanted. Whatever name they gave us at that time, they were said to be clearing people they called “Shi’ites”. In fact, in Gyallesu (my residence in Zaria), when they found someone they wanted to shoot, they would ask if he was a Shiíte and once the crowd said yes, they would just fire the person! And if the crowd said, “No!” they would allow the person to go. So, clearly, they were saying that they were destroying Shia once and for all.
On the 14th of the same month, they reached me and opened fire on us – myself and my family, instantly killing three of my sons in front of me, and injuring both my wife and me and some others who were with us. Luckily enough, for the wisdom of God, we don’t know why, but He so designed that my wife and I would survive the shootings that nobody could have survived at all! God is able to do anything He wishes.
On December 15, they brought us to Abuja, first to the military hospital, and later at 12am midnight, they changed hospital from military hospital to DSS (Department of State Services) hospital. And then, they (DSS) kept us in their custody for some years, and then they took us back to Kaduna (still in their custody); and finally, they took us to prison. And as you all know, at the end of the day, the court found us innocent, discharged and acquitted us in the same way three other different courts have discharged and acquitted so many others who were arraigned on the same or similar charges (as ours).
But it was alleged that there was a clash between your followers and soldiers.
I find that up till today, they still say, “El-Zakzaky and his wife were arrested following a clash between his followers and the Nigerian Army when his people blocked the road on the day the Chief of Army Staff was passing.” This matter was taken to court, where they accused some people of blocking the road. They claimed we instigated the blockage. Based on the same allegation about 153 others were also arraigned before different courts. The charged included murder of a soldier.
But the first court, which gave its verdict sometime in July 2018, not only said that those arraigned before it (77 of them) did not commit the crime they were accused of. In fact, the court pronounced that no such crime was committed. This is very important. There was no blockage of road whatsoever and nobody killed anybody! The army cordoned off everywhere and killed everybody they could identify as Shia. Whatever you might be, because at a place we call Husseiniyyah (an Islamic centre) near Unity Bank, they thought that Shi’ites wear black clothes, and because the uniform of workers in that bank is black they shot all of them.
My house is situated about three kilometers away from the area where the said road was blocked. I don’t know whether my house also blocked the road against the Chief of Army Staff. They went and cordoned off the road and killed everybody they could find, including our neighbours. A lot of students in the Congo Campus of the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria were also killed. Some students of the Federal College of Education, which is in our neighborhood, were also killed; some of them are not even Muslims, so they killed everybody they could find.
And then, very importantly, the first court said the road was not blocked; nobody blocked any road. The second court gave similar verdict. And the third court, in fact, brought up part of my speech in its verdict. I had said, “If the soldiers come to attack us in our territory don’t block their way.” That was very clear and the judge even continued to mention this particularly. So, where was blockage of road here? Simple, they could not say why they attacked us; it was very clear that this was a premeditated attack in order to destroy all of us.
Tell us briefly about IMN.
Another thing that I have to make very clear is the idea of calling us IMN (Islamic Movement in Nigeria) and calling me the leader of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria. I know we use the word ‘Islamic movement’ but to our understanding, Islamic movement is not a name, it is an idea, similar to Islamic awareness, Islamic ideology, Islamic education, Islamic philosophy. It is a sort of concept we never use as a name! And there is nothing like ‘members of the Islamic movement,’ they don’t exist; there are only activists (not members). We don’t have membership card, you don’t register to become a part of us. Once you are active, that is all! The movement is open to all people, not only Muslims. You may not know that there is a Christian forum of the Islamic movement, among the fora that we have. We have many for a, such as Academic forum, Sisters forum, Media forum, and so many others. One of these fora is the Christian forum of the Islamic movement under the leadership of Pastor Yohanna Buru.
So, (the Islamic movement) is a sort of an idea which everyone can belong to; the idea of movement towards a change. The reason we call it Islamic is because we agree to give our lives to do it because it is the teaching of Islam. According to the teaching of Islam, you are supposed to do everything for the sake of your creator, the Almighty. So, whoever identifies himself with the idea is part of the movement, not a member.
And similarly, the Islamic movement does not own a single property, movable or unmovable. There is no building belonging to the Islamic movement. It doesn’t exist! All the buildings are either private property or owned according to religious institution. In Shia, they believe that they have a leader every time, and that leader can own some properties. Only the Shia can know this. Every Shia man is duty-bound to give one-fifth of the booty he gets to the Imam of his time, and some people have been given the custody of the collection, to manage it. So, it is religious.
When they attacked us, they called us “Shi’ites” and they continue to give us different names. In the late 70s, they were calling us “students” because then we were students. And in 1980, they were calling us students. And in 1982 they changed our name and started calling us “Shi’ites” with different spellings and pronunciations. Sometimes they would say “sha-yits,’ whatever that is. I know the last time I was in court before this time (during Abacha regime), I was asked in court, “Are you not the leader of “Shi’ites?” And I asked, “What is “Shi’ites”? Is it tea or coffee?” And then some newspapers wrote: “El-Zakzaky denies Shi’ites, he says he is not a Shi’ite!” So, I don’t know what “Shiites’ are.
But they continue to call us “Shi’ites” up till the time they attacked us in 2015.
The government said IMN has been banned and proscribed…
I don’t know whether in the constitution of Nigeria, courts are supposed to make laws. What I know is that court is not a ‘law-making’ body; it rather interprets the law. We have three arms of government: the legislature, which makes the law; the judiciary, which interprets the law; and the executive, which implements the law. This government, instead of taking the matter to the National Assembly to debate whether they can ban a movement or not, they brought the law and gave it to the court to rubber stamp and they say they have proscribed the Islamic movement. We say that you have to understand that the Islamic movement cannot be proscribed, it cannot be banned; it is impossible! This is an idea. It is like saying that you won’t allow people to practise their religion; that you won’t even allow them to believe what they believe. But you can’t stop me from believing in what I believe. No way! Islamic movement does not own a property, we don’t have any property; all the properties they destroyed were either religious or personal properties, like my house which they burnt to ashes and even the house in which I buried my mother, they went and destroyed it. Even our horses, cows, camels and sheep, they killed them. They became meat for me. I don’t know whether they ate the horses, but they ate the camels and cows. These are not properties of any institution, they belong to me.
During your detention, the Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, said government spent N3.5 million on a monthly basis to feed you. What kind of meals were you fed in detention?
Actually, we were not given the opportunity to tell the real story while we were in detention, because the people who were detaining us made things difficult for us. The real truth is that all through our detention we fed ourselves. Since the time we reached Kaduna, after we were released, nobody gave us a single bottle of water! We were feeding ourselves. Even during our stay in Abuja, we were feeding ourselves. But this is something that cannot be disclosed, because it was illegal. Legally, they were supposed to feed us. But they did not want anybody to hear that we were feeding ourselves. For the entire five years, seven months that we were in detention, we fed ourselves; nobody gave us a bottle of water!
We were even paying electricity and water bills, while in detention. We were paying also for the fuel to power the generator. We bought our own generator in Abuja, even when we were in detention and we were buying fuel to run it.
So how did Lai Mohammed come about the N3.5 million monthly feeding figure?
He was actually not lying. The DSS told him so. But what I learnt was that about N4 million was taken out of the FIRS coffers for our feeding every month. But that money was going to their pocket; not a single kobo was given to or spent on us. It is true that they were taking the money out of the treasury but they did not spend it on our feeding. It is a lie that they were feeding us with this money!
He mentioned N3.5 million; that was what they quoted him to have said. But from my own source, I learnt that it was N4 million every month.
Some people have insinuated that you and the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), have personal scores to settle. It is true?
I don’t know whether there is any personal issue, maybe Buhari should be asked but I don’t know. All I know is that there is nothing like personal issue, maybe he was given that as a condition for being in office. But I know Buhari may not say because you will never see Buhari and talk to him because he doesn’t speak; he only reads.
With the way things are going, are you confident of getting justice from the court?
Whatever the outcome, our main aim is to let the general public know that we took our matter to court. The first time we took government to court, we were able to win. You know Justice Gabriel Kolawole ruled that our detention was illegal and that we should be released unconditionally and that compensation should be paid to us; that a house should be provided for us at a place of our choice. But all these years they haven’t obeyed that court order. This is a case in our favour and against them.
Similarly, the cases in which we were discharged and acquitted all go to prove that what they did to us was not right.
And so even if they do not release our passport to enable us to travel out for medical treatment, we will make our case known that we have asked for our rights and we were denied.
Have you taken this matter beyond the shores of Nigeria, maybe to the international community?
There have been pressures from different international groups like the ECOWAS, EU, and international human right organisations but all have been to no avail.
When you recall the circumstances in which your children and some of your followers were killed, what comes to your mind?
Myself and the people who are with me, we all take it as a sort of test and we are hoping that by the grace of God we will pass the test.