President Muhammadu Buhari's spokesperson, Femi Adesina, believes the recent clashes between the Nigeria Police Force (NPF) and members of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN), also called Shiites, were provoked by the sect.
A Deputy Commissioner of Police, Usman Umar, and a journalist, 23-year-old Precious Owolabi, were killed during a clash between Shiites and the Police in Abuja on Monday, July 22, 2019.
At least six Shiites were also killed in the clash which reportedly kicked off after armed officers cordoned off the road leading to the National Assembly and Three Arms Zone and opened fire on the protesters with live ammunition and tear gas canisters.
40 Shiites were arrested on July 9 during a protest to the National Assembly that turned bloody as two officers were shot, although the sect said the officers were shot by other officers who opened fire on the IMN protesters.
The Islamic sect has clashed with the Police and the Nigerian Army several times in its persistent protests against the detention of its spiritual leader, Ibrahim El-Zakzaky, who was arrested alongside his wife, Zinat, in 2015.
Security forces have been widely criticised by Nigerians and local and international human rights organisations for their handling of the group's protests.
However, while speaking during an interview on Channels TV on Tuesday, July 23, Adesina, Buhari's special adviser on media and publicity, said the group's violent activities led the Police to take more lethal measures.
The president's media aide said there were no problems when the group first started protesting, noting that they worked with the Police who handled their protests well.
He said authorities only responded to the protesters' violence when they started causing murder and mayhem in public.
"People didn't die in the first year of protests, but who escalated it to the point of murder and mayhem? It's the protesters. And the security forces can't just keep their eyes open and watch things deteriorate," he said.
Adesina noted that Monday's clash could have been worse if the Police responded to the situation with greater force, especially after DCP Umar was killed.
He said, "If the police had responded in similar fashion, you would have been talking of rivers of blood in Abuja now.
"I still believe there was some restraint yesterday despite what happened and, personally, I still commend the police for showing that restraint."
He also advised the sect to reconsider its approach towards the release of El-Zakzaky, noting that no religion preaches anarchy and death.
The Shiites have been vocal about their intention to keep protesting until El-Zakzaky is released from custody, especially due to his health problems.
However, Adesina said the sect should have withheld its protests until after the court ruled on El-Zakzaky's bail application next week.
The cleric's application filed before the Kaduna High Court last week to travel abroad for medical treatment was adjourned till July 29.
The IMN leader brought the application before the court seeking permission to travel to Medanta Hospital, New Delhi, India for medical attention following his failing health condition.
When asked why the government failed to heed a 2016 court order to release El-Zakzaky on bail, Adesina said the order was appealed by the office of the Attorney-General of the Federation.
Why Shiites are protesting
El-Zakzaky was arrested in Zaria, Kaduna in 2015 after soldiers killed over 300 members of the sect for 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.
Corporal Yakubu Dankaduna, a soldier, was allegedly killed by IMN members when he alighted from Buratai's convoy to disperse the group's procession during the confrontation.
Even though a Federal High Court ordered his release in December 2016, the Department of State Security (DSS) continued to detain El-Zakzaky.
In May 2018, he was eventually arraigned before a Kaduna High Court and charged with unlawful gathering, criminal conspiracy and culpable homicide. The court denied him bail.
El-Zakzaky's continued detention has led to allegations of persecution by members of his sect who have taken to the streets several times in protest, leading to clashes with authorities, most notably the Nigerian Army.
400 IMN members were arrested by the Police for disturbance of public peace and law and order in Abuja on 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 October 27, where the Army accused Shiite protesters of attacking a convoy carrying ammunition, resulted in the death of three people, with a couple of soldiers also wounded.
The protesters returned on 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.