By: Henry Odunayo Esq
There is no history without an event and the events of today are the history to be told tomorrow. That the 20th day of October 2020 will go down the memory lane as another black day in the history of our dear nation is without doubt. It will be remembered according to a foreign journalist, as “a day when Nigeria killed her citizens.” That day has found itself among the group of days like the day Ken Saro Wiwa, Kudirat Abiola, Mr. Arogundade, Mr. Femi Best and a host of other unarmed, defenseless and unsung Nigerian heroes and heroines paid the supreme sacrifices in their struggles for egalitarian society for Nigeria. It would also be remembered like the day of “Ali must go” of late 70s because it was a day when those that are felled by state bullets were mainly youths and promising Nigerians who were demanding for a better future for their dear country, Nigeria.
The beginning of a peaceful protest.
There have been complaints and agitations from individuals and many civil society organizations against police brutality in Nigeria over the years. Although, issues of brutality being meted out to Nigerian citizens by security agents ( the military, the DSS, the NSDC, the Customs etc) is a common phenomenon in Nigeria, the most worrisome brutality complained of, are the ones being perpetrated by the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) across the country especially in the southern part of Nigeria.
ENDSARS protests has been staged on and off for over a decade but the recent successive killings of innocent young Nigerians drew the ire of Nigeria youths which eventually led to the mother of all protests in Nigeria history, tagged #ENDSARS protest. This protest started peacefully in Lagos, Abuja and some other parts of the country on the 6th day of October, 2020.
It was a protest that many observers, analysts and commentators local and international adjudged to be peaceful, well organized, well planned, well strategized, well articulated, although ‘leaderless’ for a reason best known to them. It must be however noted that memberships of the #ENDSARS movement was drawn from the civil societies, the human right groups, professionals bodies, artists and entertainers, business men and women, artisans, skilled and unskilled workers and several other volunteers. According to reports, #ENDSARS is meant to demand for complete police reforms that would put an end to all forms of police brutality in Nigeria. The protest was going on daily basis and by the time it got to the fifth day, #ENDSARS demands were later enlarged to include demand for good governance, good roads networks, affordable education, an end to FGN-ASUU face off, electricity tariff and fuel pump price, end to insecurity challenges and so on and so forth. The protest was simultaneously going on in various parts of Nigeria and there were no reports of violence or casualties. Gradually the protest was gaining worldwide recognition and similar peaceful protests were organized in the Diasporas by Nigerian citizens in places like London, Canada and some other parts of the world. The demands remained the same with #ENDSARS as the main tag but better life for all Nigerians as the overall demand. The peaceful protest went on for fifteen days with the protesters observing their Jumat and Sunday prayers on the protest ground. It was a protest without ethnic or religious discrimination.
On the 13th day of October, 2020, the Inspector General of Police, on behalf of the FGN announced the disbandment of the SARS but promptly replaced it with another police outfit called SWAT. This move further fueled the anger of the youths because according to them, it was a move that shows that the government is not sensitive to their demands. At that point, they added #ENDSWART to their demands.
The climax of this protest was the “candle night” processions. It was well planned and excellently managed. Despite the fact that it was a night event, it was given a wide coverage by both conventional and social media in and outside Nigeria. The most prominent candle night are the ones conducted in Abuja (FCT) and at the Lekki toll gate in Lagos. One would be thrilled by the video footages of these events. It attested to the fact that countless youths of this country have so much to offer given the ‘necessary facilities’ and the ‘enabling’ environment. They accounted to the last Kobo all donations received among themselves. They volunteered and provided free medical services, free meals, free legal services, free ambulance services, security services and did all within their means to ensure that the protests remain peaceful and hitch free.
A peaceful protest turned violent
At what point did a peaceful protest turned violent? Which one preceded the other? This is the puzzle and the shroud. Everything went well on the day of the candle light,16th October,2020 and no casualty was recorded even though it was an all night affair. Then on the 20th day of October, 2020, the Lagos state governor, Mr. Jide Sanwoolu imposed a curfew which was to commence by 4pm that same day, but there was another announcement which shifted the commencement of the curfew to 9p.m. again.
However, by around 8 pm of that same day, according to reports, the military arrived Lekki toll gate, venue of the #ENDSARS protest. Initially, the protesters thought the military has come to provide additional security but that was not to be! The next thing they heard was the ‘horror song’ coming out of the ‘mouth’ of military sophisticated guns. Pandemonium ensued. The protesters were shouting “sit down, they cannot shoot us, we are not violent, we are holding the national flags in our hands and singing the national anthem in our mouths”. All these entreaties fell into deaf ears of the men in khaki uniform. They continued to shoot sporadically up, down, in and around the protesters. What we later heard was ‘the soldiers are shooting us! they are killing us! they are killing us’! The rest is history.
The numbers of casualties are yet to be officially announced but it was glaring that many youths paid the supreme price that day simply for demanding for a better condition of living for themselves and their future children. Up till the second day, there were sporadic gunshots everywhere around Lekki toll gate. Both local and foreign media have footages of the horror and carnage that happened on that fateful day. Truly, a black Tuesday for Nigeria, a day when Nigeria killed her own children!
Allegations and counter-allegations
This avoidable and unnecessary loss of lives of many innocent youths attracted angry reactions from many well meaning Nigerians, people and organizations in and outside Nigeria. Human Rights activists, social and public commentators, Human rights organizations like the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), the Amnesty International (AI), American Embassy, and Members of British parliaments all condemned the massacre and demanded that whosoever is responsible should be held accountable.
Expectedly, there were allegations and denials of who ordered the shootings at the Lekki toll gate and there were corresponding counter-allegations of who did what and who did not. This should not surprise anybody. Nigeria is a country where nobody takes responsibility for any mistake. The military denied, albeit in vain that its officers never shot at the protesters in Lekki toll gate. There were reports that the military even denied the death of any person at the scene. But in this ICT era, it is one thing to release a statement to the public; it is another thing for the public to be convinced about the veracity of claims in such a statement, the court of public opinion is now very powerful. Some pro-military reports even mulled at the idea that there was no shootings, that there was no death and that the pictures of dead bodies and wounded youths were ‘photo shopped’. That is to show the extent at which people can go to avoid taking responsibility. They would rather impose their views by coming up with any proposition no matter how weird.
Then after much persuasions from many Nigerians and international community that the President should address the nation on the Lekki shootings, the President eventually made a speech on the 22nd of October, 2020, two days after the ugly incident.
To #ENDSARS protesters and many Nigerians, the President’s speech was like adding salt to an injury. Many Nigerians became speechless after hearing or reading Mr. President’s speech. The speech was something else. Gen. Muhammadu Buhari is a fortunate man. He has been in and out of power for more than five decades. The opportunity he has is not common. He rode to power in 2015 on the goodwill people had for him over years but he is not that lucky in choosing his media and policy handlers. One begins to wonder who made that speech and who proofed read it before the President finally read it as a national broadcast. I tried all I could to find a single word that has to do with Lekki toll gate or shooting in that speech but my efforts yielded no fruit. Honestly speaking, the President can only act based on the information available to him, so there was likelihood of misinformation or misrepresentation of the event of that day to Mr. President from certain quarters.
Let me not forget to add this puzzle. The governor of Lagos state, Mr. Jide Sanwolu said that he was not in a position to order the military to shoot at innocent citizens on that fateful day, he may be right. But in every state, there is Security Council comprising all the heads of government and security’s apparatus in that state including, the military, the para-military, the police and the state security services. The state governor being the chief security officer of the state is usually the chairman of that council, so the military cannot be deployed down to any part of that state without his knowledge.
Now, how on earth do you think some military officers will go on assignment without the authorization of their superiors? Moreover, the constitution provides that the President of the country is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces. Therefore, every military operation no matter how minute must and should have the approval of the commander-in-chief though through the appropriate military organ. This means that the presidency cannot claim ignorant of the unfortunate incident.
It was the mindless shootings and killings of the innocent youths at the Lekki toll gate on the 20th day of October, 2020 that gave hoodlums and miscreants the opportunity to hijack the protest under the pretense of reacting to the killings of their compatriots. There erupted violent destructions of public and private properties in some parts of Lagos state and within a couple of days the acts of looting, vandalism, destructions of public and private properties spread like harmatan fire to many parts of the country.
This dastardly and unlawful trend spread like a wild fire and it became an ill wind that does nobody any good. May be this mindless looting and arson could have been avoided, had the peaceful protesters changed their tactics by withdrawing especially when Lagos state government had declared a curfew on the 20th day of October. The reason why the men in military uniform chose the Lekki venue of the protest is yet to be unraveled after all there are other protest venues all over the state.
How on earth could somebody invade a royal palace, media houses, police stations etc. in the name of a protest? It is highly condemnable and I hereby condemn this sacrilege in a very strong term. The constitution of Nigeria only guarantees peaceful protest and lawful assembly. It never does for a violent and ‘arsonous’ or riotous protest. It amount to constitutional breach and criminal actions. Their actions should be properly investigated and the culprits be made to face the full wrath of the law. More than five days after the fateful day, wanton looting and vandalization of warehouses, storage facilities, and public as well a private residences continued unabated in many parts of the country. The sad thing was that in the process of carrying out these nefarious activities, many lives were again lost. This is morally repressible and legally unlawful.
The gains and the pains
In #ENDSARS protest and the unfortunate incidence of 20th day of October, 2020 has the various actors gained anything? Yes. What are their pains? Many.
The protesting youths must have learnt that in a struggle like this, there is always the need to evaluate at intervals and change strategy if need be. As soon as they realized that the situation has become tense as a result of the imposition of curfew by the Lagos state government, they should have retreated for the purpose of adopting another means of struggling probably by making use of media (social and traditional), dialogue, advocacy and lobbying with local power brokers and the international community.
They should have realized that different regimes have varying degrees of tolerance. Not many regimes can tolerate what the government of Goodluck Jonathan tolerated in the 2014 protest in Lagos and Abuja and some other parts of the country. I also believe strongly that their lack of trust in the government could have been allayed if they have nominated some trusted individuals among themselves as their representatives to dialogue with the government. After all, no matter how bad the society may be, we still have some few individuals among them who can still walk with their shoulders tall.
Be that as it may, the youths of this country have shown that they are not ‘lazy,’ they have shown that they are the ‘Sorosoke’ generation. They have made leaders at various levels realized that they (our leaders) have ‘messed up with a wrong generation’.
The youths have succeeded in putting our leaders on their toes only if they will learn their lessons from this incident. The youths have sent a red signal to those in the positions of authorities that they (the youths) will henceforth be acting as their watchdogs.
Within a spate of three to four days after the incident, many states have constituted panels of inquiry on police brutality and human rights abuses. I read a report to the effect that the Cross River state governor has directed each local government in the state to employ 1,000 youths and that the state government will employ 2,000 youths with immediate effect. Government at various levels now realizes that the issue of youth unemployment has reached a dangerous dimension which needed to be pragmatically addressed.
The government has a lot of lessons to learn from this ugly incident. The menace of police brutality (and the military’s abuse of people’s right too) must be addressed without wasting time. By now, the government must have realized that issue of youth employment is to be tackled holistically. A common adage says “devil finds work for an idle hand.” The outcomes of these numerous panels must not go the same direction which some other panel reports have gone in the past.
The government must have realized now that there is hunger and poverty in the land and that a hungry person is an angry person. What happened across the length and breadth of this country has shown that hunger and poverty knows no boundaries whether ethnic, religious or political.
There is no doubt that government has come to terms with the threat posed to the society now by another army of youths, i.e ‘okada riders’ and something urgent has to be done to curtail this threat. The government must have realized that its reforms must be beyond police reforms. It need to urgently address economic, infrastructural, health, energy, education and various forms of reforms for sustainable development. The government must have come to face the reality that it can no longer continue to pay lip service in the area of good governance, fight against corruption and accountability.
The government must have learnt that it is not in the interest of us all to wait till issues get out of hand before taking steps to address it. The government must also have learnt that what we witnessed in that last few days resulted from its failure over years in the area of education and youth development.
To our political class, many of them should bury their heads in shame. These ‘hoodlums,’ ‘thugs’ and ‘hooligans’ are styled as “youth leaders” during election campaign rallies but as soon as the election is over they will be regarded as thugs and hoodlums. In the words of the late Sage Obafemi Awolowo, “The children of the poor you failed to train will never let your children live in peace.” What an apt assertion, youth leaders during campaign, hoodlums after election.
In the final analysis, I hope our government at various levels would wake up from their sinister sleep of neglect to be more responsive. It is my expectation that our political leaders will remove from their head, toga of pride, arrogance, recklessness and corruption and put on a garment of humility, accountability and selflessness for efficient service delivery. What we witnessed in the past couple of weeks in Nigeria is an off-short of bad governance and financial recklessness on the part of our leaders for many years which may find a lasting solution in political, constitutional and economic restructuring. Whether our lessons would lead us to take pragmatic steps as a nation, time will tell.
Odunayo Kolawole Henry is a legal practitioner
and a social commentator. (27th day of October, 2020).