The Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, has claimed that the Federal Government spends N3.5 million monthly to feed Shia Muslim cleric, Ibrahim El-Zakzaky, whos been in custody for three years.
The spiritual leader of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN), also called Shiites, is on trial for unlawful gathering, criminal conspiracy and culpable homicide.
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.
While addressing the media after the Federal Executive Council (FEC) meeting on Wednesday, November 7, 2018, Mohammed 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.
"We don't want to inflame passion. The issue is a very sensitive matter. But that is the situation. The Islamic Movement of Nigeria are a different kettle of fish," he said.
The minister told Premium Times that he made the comments off the record but it 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, 2018, 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.
His detention has led to allegations of persecution by members of the sect who have also taken to the streets several times to protest El-Zakzaky's detention, leading to clashes with authorities, most notably the Army.
Dozens of Shiites killed in clashes with Army
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.
Oak TV sanctions staff for leaking video
The management of Oak TV, from whom the video of Mohammed making the N3.5 million claim 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.