Controversy has trailed the recent decision by the Federal Government to proscribe and designate the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) – also known as the Shiites- as a terrorist organisation. The Federal Government had filed an ex parte application before the court barely 72 hours after a protest by members of the group in Abuja led to a bloody clash between them and the police. In that clash, the Deputy Commissioner of Police in charge of Operations, Federal Capital Territory Command, Usman Umar, and a Channels Television journalist, Precious Owolabi, died, with many others injured and property destroyed.

In her ruling, Justice Nkeonye Maha granted the four prayers contained in the application by the Solicitor-General of the Federation and Permanent Secretary, Federal Ministry of Justice, Mr Dayo Apata and subsequently designated the activities of the Shiite organisation in any part of Nigeria “as acts of terrorism and illegality.” The court also restrained “any person or group of persons” from participating in any form of activities involving or concerning the IMN “under any name or platform” in Nigeria. The IMN was the sole respondent to the application but the group was not represented by a lawyer since it was an ex parte hearing.

Was the Federal government right to designate IMN as a terrorist organization? I think this depends largely on one’s definition of terrorism, given the lack of consensus by both academics and policymakers on what the term means.

For instance while the late American historian and terrorism expert Walter Laquer identified over 100 definitions of the concept, the American government alone employs over 22 definitions of the term. Quite often many of the definitions are stretched such that any act of violence or threat of violence could be designated as ‘terrorist’ by those in authority to do so. The relativity of definitions and its socially constructed character gave rise to the aphorism that “one’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter”.

Nelson Mandela, who became one of the world’s greatest moral authorities before his transition, was for instance once designated as a terrorist while he was widely regarded as a freedom fighter by Africans during the period of Apartheid rule in South Africa.

A common mistake by many commentators is to confuse insurgency with terrorism.

While an insurgency is a group that aggressively contests the legitimacy of the existing authority and, enjoys the support of a significant population of where it operates with the overall aim of gaining control of a defined area to rule it themselves, many experts on terrorism will argue that for any group to be regarded as a terrorist organization, it needs to fulfil most of these conditions: the group must have affiliations to a foreign terrorist group; it must operate either in cells or as individuals who mask their identities; its members must be driven primarily by the quest for vengeance, and such groups often measure the success of their activities by their media impact and the ability to generalize fear in the civilian population. Some insurgencies also use terrorist tactics – just as some terrorist groups could also become insurgencies. Following from this, IMN is neither an insurgency nor a terrorist group.

Given the relativity of definitions, a more relevant question is what the government hopes to gain by designating an organization as a terrorist group which the proscription of such a group alone (if it must), cannot achieve. In essence what is the implication of designating any group as terrorist – as the government recently did with IMN and earlier with IPOB?:

One, by designating a group as terrorist relying on the country’s Terrorism Prevention Act 2011 (as amended), the government probably wants to express its total abhorrence of the activities of the group, and that it has a declared an all-out war against it. It is essentially to stigmatize the group. A relevant question here is whether what the government hopes to gain from such an action outweighs what its stands to lose. I strongly feel that the government stands to lose more by that designation.

Two, one of the dangers of designating IMN as a terrorist group is that it will bring renewed pressure on the government to similarly designate the Fulani herdsmen and their IMN equivalent Miyetti Allah, which critics repeatedly allege are treated with kids’ gloves because they share the same ethnicity as the President. With the government likely to ignore any pressure to declare the herdsmen and Miyetti Allah as terrorists, we are likely to witness an accentuation of the current narrative about a Fulanization agenda.

Three, in the USA, if a group is designated as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO), there are several implications: it will for instance become unlawful for a person in the United States or subject to the jurisdiction of the United States to knowingly provide “material support or resources” to the group or its members and members of such a group are inadmissible to the USA and can be deported if they are already in the country. Justice Maha gave a little insight into what it would entail to designate an organisation as terrorist thus: “An order restraining any person or group of persons from participating in any manner whatsoever in any form of activities involving or concerning the prosecution of the collective intention or otherwise of the respondent (Islamic Movement in Nigeria) under any other name or platform howsoever called or described in any part of Nigeria”. How will the government effectuate this?

Four, apart from the danger of further radicalizing the group, which has been agitating for the release of its leader Sheikh Ibrahim El-Zakzaky and his wife Zinat, (who have been in detention since December 14, 2015), there is also the possibility of the country being turned into a turf for a proxy sectarian struggle between the largely Sunni Saudi Arabia and the largely Shiite Iran. The fear is that many more radical groups could be sponsored by these countries to add fuel in Northern Nigeria which is already smouldering with religious tension, banditry, cattle rustling and sheer criminality of various hues.

Five, it is true that the government has made a distinction between, on the one hand, proscribing IMN and designating it as a terrorist organization and on their other hand, other Shiites members, which it says are free to practice their religion. However since IMN appears to be the dominant organization for Shiites, such a distinction becomes more akin to the government saying that it has proscribed the Catholic Church but that its members are free to practice their faith.

Six, designating IMN as a terrorist group makes it difficult for the government to isolate and work with those it called “peaceful and reasonable members” of the group. All Shiites whether they belong to IMN or not will feel slighted and hounded because identities that are perceived to be under threat are always the ones most vociferously defended. In this sense, designating the group as a terrorist organisation will only be counter-productive.

Seven, beyond the issue of designating IMN as a terrorist organisation is also the need for an honest conversation about what the government really hopes to gain by the continued detention of El-Zakzaky and Dasuki Sambo – despite court orders granting them bails? With the spate of insecurity across the country, especially in the increasingly volatile North, what the country needs to avoid at all cost is to further radicalize the Shiites or trigger sectarian violence in the North.

The country ought to have learnt a lesson or two from the avoidable radicalization of Boko Haram following the extra judicial killing of its leader, Mohamed Yusuf in 2009.

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