In this report, Victor Ogunje gives an account of how a protest by students of the Federal University of Oye-Ekiti ended in tragedy
Peaceful protest, the world over, is considered a legitimate way by citizens or groups to express their grievances over issues of governance and how matters that border on the way their collective destinies are being steered. But as legitimate and constitutional as this might seem, the general norm has been that it must be done within the ambit of the law. This connotes that it must be devoid of violence, bloodshed and wanton destruction.
But the way the students of the Federal University, Oye Ekiti (FUOYE) expressed their feelings on Tuesday, September 10, 2019 during a protest against epileptic power supply on the campus has raised some issues.
A protest meant to make the Benin Electricity Distribution Company (BEDC) to be alive to its responsibility has brought sorrow, tears and blood to many families and the entire nation.
Aside from the fact that the wife of Ekiti State Governor, Erelu Bisi Fayemi narrowly escaped physical attack from protesting students, two students were shot dead, signposting the dangerous dimension a protest considered to have started peacefully assumed eventually.
The police, journalists, women and physically challenged people on the first lady’s entourage felt a dose of the protesters’ annoyance. Virtually all of them were either harassed or beaten. Many of them were hospitalised, because over 12 vehicles were pelted with stones with their windshields shattered by the irate students.
Some residents, who had their businesses around the Oye Ekiti Civic Centre, where Mrs. Fayemi held her programme lost valuable facilities. How could an entire town be held by the jugular just, because those considered as dependants were protesting, not even against the school, but against a private organisation (BEDC).
A vivid dissection of the situation showed that it had a far-reaching effect on the polity. One, two casualties were recorded. Again, the university had been shut indefinitely and Students’ Union Government already proscribed.
Also, Mrs. Fayemi had suspended the social security scheme and empowerment programme meant to give palliatives to the poor. Lastly, two students have been arrested and many are still on the wanted list.
It is unfortunate that an issue that could have been dealt with in a straightforward manner has become more convoluted on a daily basis. This is because it has been heavily politicised.
Each of the parties involved, the government, students and the police have been engaging in blame game and the people are patiently waiting for how the whole scenario will end to know who truly was culpable in the conundrum.
The brickbat could not have emanated at all and the arrowheads of the protest could have been held responsible, but for the impression created on the social media by the opposition figures that Mrs. Fayemi had allegedly ordered the shooting of the students. The opposition also accused the police of overzealousness.
Earlier that day, the peaceful demonstration by the students had made the Police Commissioner, Mr. Asuquo Amba to pass a commendation that the action was legitimate and he pleaded for patience for the government and BEDC to be able to do what was right and just on what actually provoked the protest.
Many wondered how a protest that started around 7:00am, dragged till 3:00pm, when Mrs. Fayemi visited Oye Ekiti on a local government tour. This particular situation has made many people to blame the protesters for probably giving the opportunity to hoodlums to hijack the whole process.
In actual fact, as at noon, the Police Commissioner, Amba, who reacted to the protest, said it ended peacefully and promised that all the demands made by the students would be communicated to the appropriate quarters.
The impression in town now was that the students later regrouped and mobilised themselves to the venue of Mrs. Fayemi’s empowerment programme upon realising that she was in town. There is another theory that the opposition might have tipped them off and encouraged them to tarry a little longer for her to arrive town.
Some were also blaming the police for daring to use live bullets on protesting youths. It was opined that they could have demonstrated more civility by using teargas cannisters.
But fact is that the police did not envisage that a crisis situation of such magnitude would originate at an empowerment programme and that the protest could have caught up with them unawares.
Rattled by the lies doing the rounds that she probably ordered the shooting, the first lady said she was scandalised to hear that she gave such a murderous order as a mother, even when she had been ferried out of the hotspot before the crisis escalated.
“Half-way through our event, there was a disturbance outside. The FUOYE students (and possibly infiltrated by local thugs) had re-grouped and were trying to get into the venue.
“The security officers prevented this from happening. We finished our programme, and by the time we got outside, we found that vehicles from my convoy and those of my guests that were parked outside the venue had been vandalised.
“However, the casualties that were recorded did not take place while I was there. There are eyewitnesses, photographs and video footage to confirm this. There are reports circulating that the crisis occurred because I refused to address the protesting students. This is totally false.
“I did not encounter any group of students, when I got to Oye town. They had dispersed before my arrival, and when they regrouped I was inside the venue. It is possible, as I stated earlier, that the group that came to the venue trying to gain access with sticks and stones in hand might have included local hoodlums, but there was no way of telling the difference.
“I am scandalised and shocked beyond words to hear that I instructed security officers to shoot at students. I am deeply saddened that at least one fatality has been recorded. As a mother, my heart bleeds. All these students are my children, and no mother prays to weep over her offspring,” he explained.
Commissioner for Public Utilities, Bamidele Faparusi, said the government did not get any information concerning the students’ plights before the protest. He said the government had bailed out many towns from total darkness within the last twelve months that Fayemi came on board.
Faparusi explained that inquiries from the office of BEDC also indicated that no formal complaint was made prior to the bloody protest, which he described as not only vitiating the position of the irate students that the government has been insensitive to their sufferings.
As it is, not only was the government devastated by the killing, the police Commissioner, Mr. Amba expressed grief over the incident.
Amba, however, exonerated his men of any complicity. He was of the opinion that his men were on the ground and did all that were possible to prevent the crisis and even when it eventually broke, the police were civil in their approach to calm frayed nerves.
“The police were professional in their manners and conduct. When they saw the protesting students as some of them carried dangerous weapons, they approached them on the need for them to be peaceful. They resisted this position.
“They were bent on disrupting the programme being conducted by the First lady and my men had to prevent such. They only tear-gassed them to restore normalcy. My men didn’t use live bullets on students.
“They even wounded two of my men, who are now in a critical situation. Though we have arrested two of them and they have confessed that they partook in the violent act, because we can’t fold our arms and be watching when people are engaging in criminal act,” he stated.
Countering the position canvassed by the police commissioner that his men were only on ground to maintain orderliness, the FUOYE Students’ Union Government led by its President, Oluwaseun Awodola, said the fracas, which he said was avoidable, happened due to alleged overzealousness of the police officers.
“Hours later, after the peaceful demonstration, the students’ union president, who was resting at his friend’s apartment after the day’s stress was called by his executives at Ikole campus at exactly some minutes after 4pm that some of the students were being arrested and they are on their way to Oye Ekiti.
“The Student Union President was standing with the Army Official, the Chief Security Officer to the Governor and some police personnel, when a CTU security Official came from an unknown destination and slapped the President right in front of CSO to the Governor, the Army Official and other policemen.
“Immediately the Security officials made it known to the CTU Security personnel that it was the union President he slapped, and they started appealing and pleading to the Student Union President.
“Students at the scene were raged but the President together with the CSO to the Governor and Army Official calmed the situation, immediately the Union leaders left the vicinity after he told the Army Officer that he would love to take his leave to rest as he was having series of muscle pulls, which was as a result of the stress and morning trek.”
Immediately he left the scene, Awodola said sounds of gun shots were being heard, the CSO to the governor was spotted holding the officer, who shot to cease shooting, but he could not control it as other police officials started shooting guns at students and indigenes. Hence, the police officers started a combat/riot with the students.
The SUG leaders also appealed to the government to order a quick suspension of police officers shooting live bullets at students, thereby disrupting the peace and also leading to death of two students.
The authorities of the university was also shocked by the gory nature of the protest. It immediately took a hard stand by shutting down the school indefinitely.
In a statement signed by the Vice Chancellor of the university, Prof. Kayode Soremekun, the management also proscribed the students’ union government in the institution henceforth.
“We hereby announce the immediate and indefinite closure of the university to forestall further breakdown of law and order. In the same vein, the students’ union of the institution is disbanded indefinitely. Following this closure, the students’ population is hereby ordered to vacate the university premises no later than 10am tomorrow 11th September 2019. Further developments will be communicated in due course”.
The university also set up a 12-man investigative panel to probe to unearth more facts about what caused the escalation of a protest that first ended peacefully and adjudged orderly. The panel is to be chaired by Deputy Vice Chancellor, Prof Abayomi Fashina and was given two weeks to turn in its report.
Miffed by the fact that the lives of some journalists were endangered during the fracas, Chairman of the Nigeria Union of Journalists, Ekiti chapter, Rotimi Ojomoyela, condemned the calculated attacks on his members. He urged the security agencies to fish out the perpetrators of the nefarious act.
The issue has also created internal crisis in the NANS family. The national body of the Union had declared Ekiti first lady persona non-grata in all campuses across the nation. The NANS within the Southwest zone has a contrary opinion as it suggests that the matter should be resolved amicably rather than exacerbating it.
As the crisis rages, more victims might emerge as the police might still arrest more students. The outcome of the university’s investigation would also bring out more casualties. However, people are patiently waiting to see how the whole episode would end.