Part 2 – What breaks the peace
“Protesting is never a disturbance of the peace. Corruption, injustice, war and intimidation are disturbances of the peace.” ― Bryant McGill
The exact number of lives lost to the reportedly heavy-handed intervention of the Nigerian security forces on Tuesday, 20 October during the youth’s #EndSARS protests in Lekki Lagos and other parts of the country may take a while to be fully ascertained, if ever. Figures being quoted vary from 4 to 40, depending on who you listen to. Some commentators swear the casualties are more, others say the social media orchestration of a ‘massacre’ was a politically motivated exaggeration of what actually happened in Lekki. Without being an eye witness or having independent facts, it pays to be suspicious of everything you gather on social media in these days of creative and manipulative graphics.
What is fairly certain at this juncture, however, is that the reported carnage of Tuesday ignited a conflagration that enveloped the entire city in the subsequent three days. When the dust of the mindless mayhem settled, the damage was incalculable. The financial losses incurred by the state and private citizens, in Lagos especially, was far higher than initially estimated. It could be well over three billion dollars, an unacceptably high figure for a nation in recession and currently reeling in trillions of dollars of external debt. Public assets were not the only targets of the rampaging hoodlums who took advantage of the mayhem that ensued after the organised and peaceful protests had been violently dispersed. Private businesses located in malls and business districts were not spared; a truly sorry situation from which many of the victims may never recover without government assistance.
Role of the President
Considering the overwhelming local and international outcry against the reported carnage of #BlackTuesday, especially the Lekki demonstrators, who were not only peaceful throughout their 12-day protests but were indeed recorded to be waving the Nigerian flag and singing the national anthem, even as the menacing soldiers advanced on them. There was a general expectation that President Buhari’s much awaited address would unavoidably take its cue from that incident. Not a few were disappointed when the president’s eventual speech made no direct reference to it.
In his national broadcast of 22 October, the President admitted this much:
“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. As a democratic government, we listened to, and carefully evaluated the five-point demands of the protesters. And, having accepted them, we immediately scrapped SARS, and put measures in place to address the other demands of our youth”.
Referring to the extensive carnage witnessed all over the country in the last few days, President Buhari could not see how all these could have been executed in the name of the #EndSARS protests; “I am indeed deeply pained that innocent lives have been lost. These tragedies are uncalled for and unnecessary. Certainly, there is no way whatsoever to connect these bad acts to legitimate expression of grievance of the youth of our country”. The President concludes further that “the spreading of deliberate falsehood and misinformation through the social media in particular, that this government is oblivious to the pains and plight of its citizens, is a ploy to mislead the unwary within and outside Nigeria into unfair judgement and disruptive behaviour”.
In fairness, the government did scrap the SARS – the police unit accused of assault, illegal detentions and extra-judicial killings, on 11 October, 2020, about the fourth day into the protests. This was a commendably prompt response that the President now claims may have been misconstrued by his detractors as weakness. But the demonstrators had called for more extensive police reforms and in other areas of governance.
Two distinct youth movements behind the protests
To put it in context, it is evident that two sets of youths were involved in what can clearly be separated into different incidents over the last 2 weeks or so in Nigeria. Those behind the #EndSARS protests, which by the way was a spontaneous reaction at the start of the protest, were mostly educated youths, including renowned artists who organised themselves in the most peaceful manner possible. They raised funds among themselves and extensively from those who were sympathetic to their cause at home and abroad. They ate, danced and slept at the Lekki Toll Gate and other designated gathering points across the country. For the most part, they resisted any attempts of miscreants to infiltrate them, and thugs caught in their midst were handed over to the police. Given their nobility and their calm conduct, this was the last set of people that you would imagine the authorities would want to disperse violently.
The second set of youths were the miscreants and hoodlums, who were initially either watching from the sidelines or had to alter their participation to the peaceful manner dictated by their more refined protests leaders. All this changed dramatically and predictably after the Tuesday incident. The marauding group took over and these are the criminals, who had grudges with the police and the state for obvious reasons, attacking and burning police stations, prisons to free inmates, and engaging in an audacious looting spree.
I drove around some parts of Lagos on Thursday 22 October, the second day of the curfew. What I witnessed was scary. No policemen to be found anywhere, only weed-smoking hooligans manning illegal check points mounted on the highways and extracting money from the few motorists who dared to be on the road. Considering the sheer numbers of these disgruntled hooligans, and they can be found in almost every community within the state, the weaponised poverty I witnessed gave me an impression of a city playing with fire while sitting on a keg of highly flammable substance. Monuments and state assets which took several years and colossal amounts of money to build can be brought to ashes simultaneously at various locations by a few unchecked mobsters in no time at all.
The Governor’s reaction
One can sympathise with the Governor of the state, Babajide Sanwo Olu who dissociated himself from protesters at the point where the demonstrations turned disastrous. In his televised address on Friday 23 October, after inspecting the horrendous carnage in parts of the state, the Governor appeared visibly overwhelmed. His frustration was mirrored in a leaked interview he had with a foreign envoy, now in the public domain, in which his undeniable voice was heard lamenting whatever caused the misdirected operatives to shoot at the peaceful protesters. Some excerpts are reproduced below:
Governor: Straight to the point, you knew there was a curfew declared at about 10.30 in the morning, that there was meant to be total lockdown and people are to vacate the streets and be in their homes from 4pm. That was the instruction that was passed out. So at 6 o’clock or thereabouts, when we realised that the protesters at the toll plaza were still there, there were several appeals from civil societies and some of the parents that we should extend the curfew time. We graciously communicated thereafter that the curfew would be extended till 9pm (take off time) before we get the security operatives out.
So those were the communications that were out to a whole lot of security operatives, but I think at about 7 o’clock or thereabouts, there was a small unit of the military that now were not there, and we heard that gunshots were fired. Initially, we couldn’t even believe it, because, security operatives were not meant to be there ‘til around 10 o’clock or 11, so why would anybody be there?
Envoy: But the Army said they were not there. Was the army there or not?
Governor: I think the footage showed that they were the military. I wasn’t there on the ground myself but some of the things captured on camera showed that it was the army.
Envoy: Why is the army denying it then?
Governor: They don’t report to me, you know, I wouldn’t know why. The instructions were that they shouldn’t be there until around 10pm. I think there must have been some miscommunication somewhere in their own formation. What we heard is that the unit that went there, their location is less than 10 minutes from where the incident occurred. You know, its straight down the same road, 5 minutes from their barracks they actually could get there. I don’t know who gave those instructions. I don’t know how they missed the information that was passed on.
Envoy: Just to be clear, you are not saying that people should have been opened fire on because they disobeyed the curfew?
Governor: Absolutely not. There were no instructions to that effect. I am not a party to that. I would never instruct people to open fire on protesters.
What kind of security setup do we have in Nigeria which could allow a sitting Governor, the Chief Executive Officer of the state, not be the dominant voice in deployment of forces of intervention in matters whose ugly repercussions are entirely for his state to bear? Notwithstanding his disavowal, however, Governor Sanwo Olu and those who supported the drafting of soldiers to quell the peaceful protests, even if the soldiers had gotten their timing right, grossly underrated the inevitability of the maximum damage that the military are trained to inflict in battles.
International condemnation of the brutal crackdown
The condemnations that trailed #BlackTuesday have been massive, coming from prominent voices everywhere. At home, former President Olusegun Obasanjo, Nobel Laureate Prof. Wole Soyinka and the opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party, among others, reprimanded the government for its heavy-handedness and called for restraints on all sides. Internationally, former US presidential candidate Hilary Clinton, Twitter’s CEO Jack Dorsey, Archbishop of Canterbury, and current US Democratic Candidate Joe Biden, condemned the development in the strongest possible terms, calling for the perpetrators to be brought to justice.
The European Union said it was shocked by the killings in the wake of the #EndSARS protests. In a Statement by the High Representative / Vice-President Josep Borrell on Wednesday 21 October said that “it was looking forward to seeing the sort of reforms that would be put in place to ensure police reforms. It is crucial that those responsible for abuses be brought to justice and held accountable”.
Nigeria’s Vice president, Prof. Yemi Osibajo SAN promised this much on Thursday 22 October when he received at the Presidential Villa, Abuja, an American government delegation including the US Assistant Secretary, Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights and Labour, Bob Destro; US Assistant Secretary, Bureau for Conflict Stabilisation Operations, Denise Natali; the Counselor of the US Department of State, Thomas Ulrich Brechbuhl; and the Charge d’Affairs, US Embassy, Kathleen FitzGibbon as well as Foreign Affairs Minister, Geoffrey Onyeama.
According to the Vice President, at-least 13 states in the country including Lagos, have since established Judicial Panels “to seek justice and to compensate those whose rights have been breached.”
Plans are afoot to investigate all cases of police brutality including any extra-judicial killings, prosecute erring police officers, create new state-based Security and Human Rights Committees, as well as provide compensation to victims of the disbanded Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) and other police units.
Pervading frustration: how much time do we have?
The Nigerian government is running out of time to quell the growing dissatisfaction among the populace. There are those who believe that a slice of the monstrous emoluments of the few in power, starting with those members of Assembly, the atrocious entitlements of ex-governors and the financial leakages in all tiers of government, would make a telling difference in the sectors of education, social amenities and police welfare. A Senator of the National Assembly, Ali Ndume – Chairman of the Senate Committee on Army in an interview on Channels Television said, the problem goes beyond the emoluments of the National Assembly alone, “the overall cost of governance is too high. Right now, Nigerians are spending N13 trillion on less than 5% of the people”.
Surprisingly, even in the midst of the current national crisis, no less than four large warehouses were discovered in Lagos and other states, between Wednesday 21 and Friday 23 October, stuffed to overflowing with essential everyday foodstuffs which were meant as palliatives for the masses during the recent Covid-19 lockdown. There are reasons to believe that similar yet-to-be-discovered storage facilities are in many other states. People suffered hunger and deprivation during the 4-month Covid lockdown, and still do. Yet, several million dollars worth of foodstuffs provided by the government, and with local and international donations, which would have assuaged their hardships, were kept locked-up by conscienceless politicians for whatever reasons – perhaps to gain political leverage at a later date when distribution would have more electoral value.
It would be interesting to understand on whose orders these foodstuffs were stored? Why did they remain in safe keeping several weeks after they ought to have been distributed?
These issues are galvanising a generation already disillusioned with the ruling class. The government needs to take concrete action to assuage people’s widespread discontent or there will be plenty of protests to come.