By Samuel Ogundipe
The Nigerian Army on Monday night admitted its personnel fired live ammunition at Shiite protesters on the outskirts of Abuja on Monday afternoon, killing at least three protesters who allegedly tried to breach a security checkpoint.
The violence that broke out in Karu, a densely populated suburb of the nation’s capital, gripped Abuja and its environs on Monday afternoon, with vehicular and human movements in and out of the axis virtually grounded for the rest of the day.
Two witnesses who live in the area and spoke with PREMIUM TIMES under strict anonymity for fear of security agencies’ backlash estimated between 16 and 22 people were killed. Most of those killed were Shiite protesters, while the rest were passersby or elderly caught in the mayhem while out on their individual businesses.
It was the second time Nigerian soldiers encountered Shiite protesters in two days. Nigerian soldiers opened fire during a Shiite procession in Zuba, another suburb of Abuja, on Saturday afternoon. The military denied being the aggressor in the violence, which witnesses said left many protesters dead. In that incident, the army also admitted three Shiites were killed.
The army said its personnel conveying military equipment were waylaid by the Shiites in the Saturday encounter, during which some soldiers were brutalised with stones and sharp objects. No soldier was killed during the encounter.
In a Facebook post at about 10:40 p.m. on Monday, the army explained similar circumstances played out in the violent encounter with Shiites earlier in the day. The statement said soldiers unleashed their firearms on the protesters after they became violent and started shooting stones with catapult, wounding four soldiers in the process.
The army said the protesters repeatedly lobbed Molotov cocktails at troops and police officers manning the security checkpoint near the overhead bridge in Karu, and uploaded pictures of wounded soldiers, catapults, stones and Dane guns allegedly recovered from the protesters.
“The sect in massive numbers forced their way into the troops checkpoint after overrunning the Police Force. The Police withdrew back to own troops position to join efforts to repel them.
“They fired weapons at own troops, throwing bottle canisters with fuel, large stones, catapults with dangerous objects and other dangerous items at troops causing bodily harm and stopping motorist movement, breaking their windscreen and causing heavy traffic,” the army said of the incident, which it estimated broke out at 3:00 p.m.
“However, Troops repelled the attack in conjunction with the Nigerian Police Force to stop the situation from further deteriorating.
“Unfortunately, during the encounter 3 members of the sect were killed while 4 soldiers sustained various degrees of injuries and are being treated at a military medical facility,” the army said.
The statement said calm has returned to the area and vehicular and human traffic no more hectic as of the time of its statement late Monday.
The military’s account appeared to significantly downplay the intensity of devastation witnessed near the scene on Monday. At least two witnesses told PREMIUM TIMES the soldiers opened fire not only on protesters but also passersby.
The indiscriminate use of lethal force prompted thousands to scamper for safety in the neighbourhood, during which some fleeing persons were knocked down by moving vehicles.
At least three of those killed were denied burial at a local burial ground in Karu because they were accused of being Shiites and not Muslims, a witness said.
Videos showing bodies of some of the protesters allegedly shot by soldiers have been circulated on the internet, although PREMIUM TIMES has not independently verified their authenticity.
Members of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria have held regular protests to demand for the release of their leader since December 2015. Ibrahim el-Zakzaky was taken into custody with his wife after soldiers massacred hundred of his members in Zaria, Kaduna State, between December 12 and 15. Mr el-Zakzaky’s children were said to be amongst those killed.
A judicial panel set up by the Kaduna State Governor Nasir el-Rufai found the military culpable in the massacre, recommending a major-general for trial. The Nigerian Army denied culpability in the massacre, which President Muhammadu Buhari defended during a media chat on December 30, 2015.
Mr Buhari said it was wrong for the protesters to have blocked a road the Chief of Army Staff Tukur Buratai was travelling on, and has also defended security agencies’ refusal to obey court orders for Mr el-Zakzaky’s unconditional release from custody.
The International Criminal Court is currently investigating the December 2015 massacre — which has official estimate of 347 deaths while Shiite leaders insist over 1,000 were killed by Nigerian soldiers. Other rights groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are looking into deaths resulting from frequent Shiite protests across Nigeria.