The Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, has slammed the conduct of members of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN), also called Shiites, who have been involved in deadly clashes with the Nigerian Army over the past few weeks.
Shiites have been involved in several clashes with security agencies, most notably the Army, over demands for the release of its spiritual leader, Ibrahim El-Zakzaky, who's been in custody for nearly three years.
400 IMN members were arrested by officers of the Nigeria Police Force for disturbance of public peace and law and order in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) on Tuesday, October 30, 2018. They were alleged to have set a Police vehicle on fire, and arrested with 31 bottles of petrol bombs and other dangerous weapons.
A previous clash on Saturday, October 27, where the Army accused Shiite protesters of attacking a convoy carrying ammunitions, resulted in the death of three people, with a couple of soldiers also wounded.
The protesters returned on Monday, October 29 and got involved in another clash with the Army and the Police. While the Army reported that another three Shiites were killed, the Shia sect claimed around 50 were killed by troops.
While addressing the media after the Federal Executive Council (FEC) meeting on Wednesday, November 7, 2018, Mohammed said the conduct of the Shia sect has gotten more violent over time and left authorities with no choice but to defend the nation's sovereignty.
The minister said the sect's recent clashes with the Army would not be tolerated by any government across the world. Explaining the events that led to the killings of Shiites, he said the Army was forced to defend itself against theft of ammunitions against the sect who he reiterated attacked troops.
He said, "It's important to know that the IMN generally don't recognise any government at all and what transpired on the 24th and the 27th and 29th (of October) is a situation whereby no government in the world would tolerate this.
"When you look at the history of the IMN, they have been demonstrating and protesting the last two years in Abuja here. Anytime they're protesting or demonstrating, the Police would provide a cordon and protect them but they're getting more and more violent.
"What happened on the 24th of October was a very very serious matter. A convoy of the military was escorting a convoy of missiles and ammunitions from the headquarters to the Kaduna central depot and they sought to take it over.
"Of course, no responsible Army or country would allow that. In the process, few people were killed because they had to protect the sovereignty of Nigeria.
"On the 27th, they went and actually took over a checkpoint pelting motorists, breaking their windscreens in Zuba. the Police had to withdraw and the military had to come in."
Shiites won't become another Boko Haram - Lai Mohammed
While responding to concerns about if the handling of El-Zakzaky might lead his sect to take up arms and become another terrrorist group like Sunni Muslim sect, Boko Haram, Mohammed dismissed the fears.
Boko Haram's insurgency had been kickstarted in 2009 by a military crackdown on the sect that led to the extra-judicial killing of its leader, Mohammed Yusuf, by the Police.
The minister said the current administration has handled the Shia sect more sensitively and with more responsibility.
He said, "It's not the same thing as the Yusuf issue. He (Yusuf) was taken into custody and extra-judicially executed and then the problems. When you look at IMN and you look at BH, they're two different organisations.
"What the Nigerian government has done in treating and handling this matter is in a very cautious and and responsible way which is very very sensitive."
It costs FG N3.5m to feed El-Zakzaky monthly - Lai Mohammed
The minister also revealed that the Federal Government spends N3.5 million monthly to feed El-Zakzaky while he remains in custody. He said the cleric is being housed at a residence where it takes millions of naira to feed him monthly.
"The issue of whether, where he (Mr El-Zakzaky) is, at least let's keep it off record, that he is in a residence and you know eating at the… It costs the government about N3.5 million every month to feed him," he said.
The minister told Premium Times that he made Wednesday's comments about IMN and El-Zakzaky off the record but a video of his comments surfaced on social media early on Thursday, November 8, drawing outrage from Nigerians.
While many protested that the figure is false, many others questioned why the government would not consider releasing him instead especially since Justice Gabriel Kolawole of an Abuja Division of the Federal High Court had previously ordered El-Zakzaky's release from custody in a December 2016 ruling. The order was ignored by the government.
El-Zakzaky denied bail by Kaduna court
During the hearing of the sect leader's bail application on Wednesday, November 7, presiding Judge, Justice Gideon Kurada, rejected the application.
In his ruling, he noted that El-Zakzaky failed to show any substantial medical evidence to back his claims for bail on health grounds. The case was then adjourned to January 22, 2019 for commencement of trial.
El-Zakzaky was arrested in Zaria, Kaduna in 2015 after soldiers killed over 300 members of the sect after allegedly throwing stones at the convoy of the Chief of Army Staff, Lieutenant-General Tukur Buratai, an act declared by the Army to be an assassination attempt.
During an invasion of his home, he was arrested and imprisoned with his wife, Zeenah, without any official court charges until he was charged to court in May 2018.
Oak TV sanctions staff for leaking video
The management of Oak TV, from whom the video of Mohammed's comments originated, has sanctioned its staff over the leaking of the video. This was because the minister had believed he was making the claim off the record.
"On Wednesday, November 7, 2018, Oak TV made some error in its reporting regarding a conversation with the Minister of Information.
"This is an error which we regret. All team members involved have been sanctioned, and we would do more to tighten our gatekeeping responsibilities," an official statement read.
The organisation further apologised to the minister for any embarrassment the release of the video may have caused him.