THE FRONTLINES With Joseph Ushigiale
There is a huge storm currently trailing the recent shooting of unarmed #EndSARs protesters who converged on Lagos around the Lekki Tollgate to protest against police brutality and seek reforms for good governance. At issue is the alleged killing by armed military personnel of scores of protesters at the Lekki Tollgate. But the Lagos state governor, Babajide Sanwo-olu insists that only one person reportedly died. The protesters were a group of youths drawn from different fields of endeavors but who all came together in agreement to stop police brutality and right the wrongs in society.
The protesters were engaged in a peaceful non-violent demonstration to drive home their points of correcting the ills in society with government. Within a few days of their debut, their messages resonated across the country and effectively crippled both economic and political activities and signposted the strong potential of creating a new political narrative driven exclusively by youths.
Protests began October 8, across some strategic states namely Lagos, Abuja, Port Harcourt and later spreading across all Southern states against police brutality after a video emerged showing police officers thought to be from the notorious Special Anti-Robbery Squad, or (SARS allegedly shooting and killing a young man in Nigeria’s southern Delta State. Although the authorities denied the reports, protests erupted across the country calling to disband the unit and #endSARS.
Apparently taken unawares and given the well coordinated approach of the protesters, the government was unprepared for the volcano that was fast burning into the fabrics of the country and panicked. Rather than embracing conciliatory and long term diplomatic initiatives to deal with the protesters, after receiving the protesters’ 5-point reforms agenda which included: the release of all arrested protesters; Justice for all deceased victims of police brutality and appropriate compensations for their families; Setting up an independent body to oversee the investigation and prosecution of all reports of police misconduct (within 10 days);In line with the new police act, psychological evaluation and retraining (to be confirmed by an independent body) of all disbanded SARS officers before they can be redeployed; Increase police salary so that they are adequately compensated for protecting the lives and properties of citizens. After receiving the petition with a firm assurance to do the needful, the authorities had expected the protesters to quickly disperse and go home.
Unfortunately, that was not the case. As President Muhammadu Buhari captured it last night, he lamented that “Sadly, the promptness with which we have acted seemed to have been misconstrued as a sign of weakness and twisted by some for their selfish unpatriotic interests. The result of this is clear to all observers: human lives have been lost; acts of sexual violence have been reported; two major correctional facilities were attacked and convicts freed; public and private properties completely destroyed or vandalised; the sanctity of the Palace of a Peace Maker, the Oba of Lagos has been violated. So-called protesters have invaded an International Airport and in the process disrupted the travel plans of fellow Nigerians and our visitors.”
The protesters dug in, consolidated and from the protests, it became clear that the birth of a new political movement, driven exclusively by youths was about to birth. To allow that happen was tantamount to digging ones own grave and a permanent retirement from politics and power which the typical Nigerian politician so much cherishes and would guard with the last drop of his blood.
Why did the protesters consolidated their position of sitting tight even with the assurances that their grievances would be sorted out? Any discernible mind that has been following the track records of the Buhari administration would by now conclude that it is a fascist regime, insensitive to the yearnings of the people and always reactive instead of being proactive.
If Buhari were to be a leader with empathy and a listening ear, heavens would not fall if he symbolically flew into Lagos to identify with the protesters in solidarity. After all, he is not a President to himself but to the people and for failing to take that chance, he totally missed a God-given opportunity to douse the tension, nip the violence that eventually played out in the bud and emerge as a hero of the campaign.
The second point here is the issue of trust deficit. The youths and majority of Nigerians (forget the contrived northern support) have trust issues with Buhari and his administration and this is traceable to the promises he and his party, the All Progressives Cngress (APC) made to Nigerians to transform the country to Eldorado within six months if he was voted to power. Today, however, Nigerians know better because the reverse is the case and Nigeria has never had a worse leader parading such woeful performance records in the last 60 years like Buhari.
The believability level of the people in the Buhari’s government has been shattered largely because, here is a government that does not even respect the constitution he swore to uphold. His administration has contempt for rule of law and flouts court rulings at will. He has clearly jettisoned the federal character provisions in the constitution as regards appointments and he is openly divisive, impervious, clannish and has scant regards for other parts of the country that are not in the north.
Protests by citizens are recognised by the constitution as their democratic rights and in Buhari’s own admission, “The choice to demonstrate peacefully is a fundamental right of citizens as enshrined in Section 40 of our Constitution and other enactments; but this right to protest also imposes on the demonstrators the responsibility to respect the rights of other citizens, and the necessity to operate within the law.”
Again, globally, peaceful protests are recognised as a necessary democratic tool to air your grievances. We have seen the Arab Spring protests in the Middle East that led to the fall of Egyptian Hosni Mubarak, Muamar Ghadaffi of Libya, and Ben Ali of Tunisia etc. We also saw several occupy movements across the world pushing for peaceful change in their respective countries. In all these protests and occupy movements, most of them ended peacefully and very few broke into violence but they were adequately protected by security operatives in their respective locations.
Beyond this proviso, there is also the role of government in a protest. The role of government in a protest is to adequately provide security cover for the protesters. Whether an administration chooses to deploy the army or police, the security operatives are required to uphold their role of engagement (RoE) in a protest. This means that under no circumstance would an operative open fire on a peaceful protest or protesters, doing so would tantamount to going beyond your brief and breaching the RoE.
It was this proviso that Buhari rode on as a former military dictator to lead a protest against Jonathan challenging his inability to rein in insecurity and calling on him to resign. Jonathan did not roll out the tanks after him and some pro-democracy and civil liberty organisations that were in cohort with Buhari to unseat Jonathan from power.
The point needs to be made clearly that, the Buhari administration must take full responsibility for abdicating its constitutional duties of safeguarding lives and properties of Nigeria. For failing to provide security cover for the protesters, the administration was deliberately courting chaos and it knowingly exposed a peaceful non-violence protests by the youths to hoodlum, area boys and miscreants to infiltrate and hijack the peaceful protests to discredit the youths and justify the invitation of the military to use maximum force that has led to the killing of unconfirmed number of youths across protest grounds in Southern Nigeria.
Was the invitation of armed soldiers to confront the peaceful protesters, the same armed soldiers whom government ab initio, could not deploy to protect the protesters necessary? Who ordered the soldiers out of the barracks to attack the non-violent peaceful protesters?
Lagos State governor, Babajide Sanwa-olu who declared a curfew from 4pm that day, claimed that the soldiers were asked to stand down till 10pm and the deployment was done without his consent. But why did government not act proactively by deploying either the police or army to protect and screen off the protesters from the hoodlums?
Sanwaolu-Olu, who visited the wounded at various hospitals in the state disputed the number of deaths which the social media speculate to be over 50 stating that to his knowledge, only one person reportedly lost his life during the shooting.
Now that nobody knows or has claimed responsibility for the soldiers’ deployment after the army authorities distanced themselves from the shooting, is it now another case of ‘Unknown Soldiers? Initially, fingers were being pointed in the direction of a certain Brigadier General Francis of Lagos Garrison, as the one who purportedly gave the directive to fire. However, it was later gathered that the commander of the team that shot the peaceful protesters that night was Lt. Col., S. O. Bello of 65 Battalion, Bonny Camp, Victoria Island.
As if waiting for a prompt, immediately the shooting took place, unknown persons took laws into their hands and decided to cause mayhem blocking all major and strategic roads in Lagos. They then proceed to start destroying properties, breaking and releasing prisoners from jail, torching police stations and carting away firearms and ammunition and burning buildings belonging to government and prominent persons including Asiwaju Bola Tinubu and Oba Rilwanu Akiolu whose palace was completely sacked.
In the end, properties worth several billions of naira were destroyed, lives lost and huge revenue losses were recorded from the downtime in economic and political activities that crawled to a halt in some states. All these violence and losses recorded were altogether avoidable if government had been responsive and took the proactive steps to own up the protests rather than treating them with laxity that led to the break down of law and order.
Interestingly, while the South was on fire, the North was in relative peace and tranquility. Just like what happened in 1966-70; people in the north were sold a narrative that the protest was an attempt to oust the Buhari government from power through the back door. Even a planned protest by a northern group to protest the state of insecurity in the north was converted to a solidarity march in support of Buhari.
While ‘Unknown Soldiers’ shot and killed some protesters at the Lekki Tollgate in Lagos, the protesters in Abuja were challenged by truckloads of miscreant procured by presidential apparatchiks and their cohorts who were seen in their vehicles arming and deploying them around strategic areas in the Federal Capital Territory to go against the protesters. In the end, it became a north versus south confrontation with innocent people getting killed and the destruction of properties including car sale stands valued at billions of naira and belonging to innocent Igbo traders who were not part of the protests completely burnt down by hired miscreants believed to be Fulanis.
The opportunity of the protest once again exposed the divisions and apparent ethnic and religious fault lines that are preponderant in the body politics of the country. It also showed that despite co-existing for about 60 years since independence, Nigeria is still very much diverse and indeed has yet to achieve any of the much vaunted unity in diversity.
During the protest in the South, some northerners vented their anger threatening the South with war if the protests were to oust Buhari. Another called for outright secession so that each bloc and people can go their separate ways while yet one wonders why the South has no respect for the north simply because of the presence of hydrocarbons in its localities.
Let us take each perspective on its merit. The leader of Arewa Youth Consultative Forum, Shettima Yerima was quoted to have warned that the north would go to war if the intention of the EndSARS protest was to oust Buhari from power. Although he has since denied that, it is also to his credit that in 2017, he ordered all Igbos to leave the north within three months or be forced out. Now given his antecedent, he is capable of saying anything only to recant later.
Yerima’s penchant for making outlandish statements clearly stands him out as a very bad student of history. Assuming he actually said the South cheated the north when Umaru Yar’Adua died by taking over its presidency, it’s a great wonder if the south had a choice. So long as the 1999 Constitution as amended states that a Vice President takes over when an incumbent dies, the south simply interpreted and implemented the constitution to the letter.
Now from independence in 1960 till date, which bloc has ruled Nigeria the most? Apart from Chief Olusegun Obasanjo who did an eight year reign of two terms from 1999 to 2007, former President Goodluck Jonathan took over in 2010, after Yar’Adua’s demise and left in 2015 after a term and losing to Buhari in the presidential election of that year.
But from 1960, we had Tafawa Balewa (north) as prime minister, in 1966, Aguiyi Ironsi (south) Yakubu Gowon (north) in 1967, Murtala Mohammed (north) in 1975, Obasanjo (south) in 1976, Shehu Shagari (north) in 1979 and Buhari in 1983. Ibrahim Babangida (north) 1985, Ernest Shonekan (south) 1993, Sani Abacha (north) 1993, Abdulsalami Abubakar (north) 1998.
Therefore, a summary of the years each bloc has ruled the country including under military regimes shows that the south has led the country for just a little over 16 years, while the north had superintended over power and resources of this country for 44 years. The question then is: what do they have to show for it? If the south has led this country for this length of time, would Nigeria be where it is today? No.
In the heat of the protests, a Senator from Bauchi state was asked by reporters his views about the protests. He claimed that the protests were about the control of hydrocarbons in the South. He went on to boost that Bauchi state also possesses hydrocarbons, solid minerals, sunlight and land mass at its comparative advantage and wondered why the south was bluffing the north with its hydrocarbons.
The senator is a typical example of an ignorant individual whose behaviour can be liken to that of the ostrich. Statistically, how much is Bauchi state contribution to the consolidated fund? Pray what does Bauchi generate as internally generated revenue annually and given its comparative advantages in sunshine and land mass how much have these factors of production been put to use and how much has so far been contributed to the consolidated fund from where every state goes cap in hand monthly for allocation of funds?
For the northern elder who called for separation, he argued that Nigeria’s independence came too early when the north was not ready. He argued that it is the south that has benefited more from the independence since 1960 because the north remains backwards.
This is the worst argument I have ever heard yet. Now it took Nigeria 46 years from 1914 when the amalgamation took place to 1960 when the British granted the country independence. The two blocs were developing at their respective paces and 46 years were more than enough to prepare for independence.
The reality however, is that, the north and south are not compatible culturally and in several ways.
While the north propagates aristocracy and feudalism, the south on the other hand is a bastion of republicanism driven by individualism, enterprise and industry. Even if Nigeria was to remain under colonial rule for another century, there is no way the north would have caught up with the south.
Even now that the north has led this country for over 40 years, all it has to show for its possession of power is poverty, want, underdevelopment underscored by a large number of almajiri out of school children and drug addiction.
There is nothing that threatens the entire north now more than the high rate of insecurity occassioned by kidnapping, cattle rustling, banditry, terrorism and all sorts of criminality including the Boko Haram insurgency. So how has the control of the country for over four decades benefitted the north itself and its people?
Even as the north lives in self denial at the moment, is it truly better off under the Buhari administration? It is most unlikely and to be fair, the rot in the north did not just start under Buhari, indeed he inherited the myriads of problems bedeviling the north today for which he has systematically deployed resources to change the narrative.
Now that there appears to be some sanity in the system, government should admit that what happened was avoidable and should not allow to happen again in future. While the protesters kept their own side of the bargain by conducting themselves peacefully without taking laws into their hands, the government on the other hand failed to live up to its billing. It failed to build a security corridor to insulate the protesters from being infiltrated by hoodlums.
As it is, would the youths back down? It is quite unlikely. Rather than backing down, the youths have been embolden by the huge success the EndSARS protests recorded. In the days ahead, government should either change its crooked ways for the better or risk more youth wrath. It is very clear now that the Nigerian youth is not lazy, the EndSARS protest has shown them to be resourceful, enduring, methodical and ready to take back the country from the current gerontocratic leadership.