By; Bello Moh’d Bashir, Kaduna.
Against the backdrop that the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) otherwise known as Shi’ite group withdraw from appearing before the Judicial Commission of Inquiry sitting in Kaduna because of denied access to its leader, Sheikh Ibrahim El-Zakzaky, Chairman of the Inquiry, Justice Mohammed Lawal Garba, Tuesday opened up on the real reasons why the sect group opted out.
Justice Garba while interacting with newsmen in Kaduna said the Shi’ites withdrawal from the probe panel was not on the ground of access to El-Zakzaky but a deliberate choice.
It would be recalled that the initial 6 weeks of the panel sitting was characterized by series of adjournment due to the inability of the IMN counsels to have access to its leader and take briefing from him.
Subsequently, one of the IMN counsels and El-Zakzaky’s daughter, Festus Okoye and Suhaila El-Zakzaky respectively addressed a world press conference in Kaduna announcing their withdrawal from the commission’s sitting on the ground that they were not allowed access to the revered leader of the movement.
However, Justice Garba told journalists that the lead counsel to IMN actually met El-Zakzaky in custody, debunking that their reason for withdrawal was not as a result of inability to see the Shi’ite leader.
According to him the main reason was because the leader told the lead counsel to withdraw from the sitting and go to conventional Court to defend his right.
“Like I mentioned before, this commission had, unusually got to wait to see that the IMN solve the initial problem they said they had, as to why they will not continue to appear before the commission. That is the access to the leader of the IMN who is in the official custody.
“Before the Commission facilitated that access, the IMN had no other way of having access to him, but in line with the principle of having all the parties given the opportunity of a fair hearing, the Commission spent the whole initial time allotted to it to facilitate and ensuring that they solve the problem. The only problem the lawyer told us was to get access to the IMN leader, and we facilitated the access eventually.
“The IMN lawyers, the lead counsel, through the effort of the Commission met the leader of the IMN, and the counsel to the Commission also met him. The effort initially had been counsel to the Commission, and the counsel to the IMN would go at the same time to see the leader of the IMN. At the appointed day, the counsel to the IMN did not show up for the appointment to see their leader, and they did not send any communication to excuse the absence to see the leader.
“It was at that point that our own counsel who was there on prior of consent was allowed to have access to the leader of the IMN who he saw, and who he had discussion with, and he reported during one of our proceedings, that the leader of IMN said he was not even aware of setting up of the Commission, in the first place, and that he was interested, of having the opportunity to come before the Commission to state his own side of the story of what happened in Zaria. And it was on that basis again that we now said lets provide another opportunity for the counsels to the IMN to go and see the leader so that he could tell them this, so that they will come, and know the next step to take in the proceedings.
“Later on, the counsels to the IMN accepted the effort of the Commission, met with the leader, and issues were there, and it was reported that the leader of the IMN had met with counsels, and he said that they should not appear before this Commission, that they should go to the regular court and enforce his fundamental rights.
“Now, the principle of fair hearing like I said, only requires that the Commission should give adequate opportunity to all the party that are going to appear.
“In this circumstance we did more than that, and it is a deliberate choice, it is a deliberate option, and decision by IMN through its leader to direct the counsel to appear or not to continue to appear. The issue of fair hearing will not even arise here because they have been given the opportunity, it is their own decision not to utilise it.
“The commission like I said before is only required to provide the opportunity to the parties to come and present their side of the story, and because the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) is a party that is directly involved, the commission under the law does not have the power to compel it to come and state its side of the story, so the principle of fair hearing is just to provide adequate opportunity for a party to come and present its own side of the story.
“We cannot compel, we cannot force a party even if you bring him before it to say his own side of the story if he doesn’t want to say so.
“So the idea of fair hearing is not that a party must come, you must wait for a party, that if it doesn’t come, you cannot go on and achieve justice because he decided not to utilise the opportunity granted to him or her for a fair hearing.
“On their own decision not to utilise it, in law, it will not frustrate or forstall the assignment of the Commission because we are looking for facts, it is not only the IMN that is part of what happened in Zaria on December12- 14, 2015.
“There are other stakeholders who knew what happened and from the facts, some of which are before the Commission, in fact some of the things that happened, in fact the Nigerian Army, and these are facts we are going to consider, including those who submitted memos to us. We will look at the entire facts, look at other items in terms of reference, and then make recommendation to the government as to what actually happened from the facts that are going to be presented before us and on ways to rather prevent or avoid similar Shi’ites incidences.”
“So the integrity of the assignment is not in the least affected by the absence of the IMN, doesn’t subtract the integrity of the facts that are going to be presented by people who know them on the incident that happened in Zaria.
“Of course it would have been better if the IMN had come to state their own side of the story, but the fact that they are absent, they decided not utilise the opportunity, it does not subtract from the integrity and the principle of fair hearing as far as the constitution of Nigeria is concerned. So that is as far as that is concerned.
“We will not foreclose any relevant fact that will be brought to us at any stage of our assignment. So, it is not only the IMN, anybody who has material facts that he feels this commission should have for this assignment we are ready to receive, by way of memo in addition to oral presentation anytime during the course of our sitting. Only yesterday, we received some memo as a result of that,” Justice Garba however stated.