Special to USAfrica magazine (Houston) and USAfricaonline.com, first Africa-owned, US-based newspaper published on the Internet.
Dr. Chidi Amuta is Executive Editor of USAfrica — since 1993
Youth going out to sing the national anthem and wave the flag in open protest should not be rewarded with death. Nor should an open protest against police bestiality by unarmed citizens qualify as such a grave threat to national security to warrant the invocation of the full war powers of the state. Worse still, for the Nigerian state to feel so frightened at the sight of its own innocent unarmed citizens as to deploy combat army troops and wild police detachments with live ammunition and an order to shoot to death indicates an unusual type of state power nervousness. All these and more are what happened during the ENDSARS protests at the Lekki Toll Gate in Lagos on 20th October, 2020. The Nigerian state, instead of behaving like a democratic authority, displayed the traits of a banana garrison republic.
What began as an innocent peaceful protest against a rogue police unit ended up as a drama of blood and tears. The protesters were mostly young. They were unarmed. They were of innocent soul and pure heart. Some of them were artists, entertainers and diverse social media influencers. Their many voices rose in unison against the evils of a deviant state. They gave voice to an optimism that shattered the pessimism of a world ruled by their fathers and grand fathers. At the height of the protest, their united voice rose with an inspired version of the national anthem to lift the gloom of the dark night of our days. In the cold of the night, they covered themselves with shrouds of the national flag and lay on the floor of the Nigerian earth, their own earth. The common good of all Nigerians deserved a night of vigil by ambassadors of the future. This piece of the Nigerian earth was now theirs for a short memorable while. They raised their voices only hoping to be heard. They carried neither guns nor knives. They declared their innocence with open arms and even extended their hands of patriotic fellowship to law enforcement, sharing their snacks with them. They did not hurt anyone neither did they intend to revenge the cumulative violence of SARS with any form of violence.
They were exuding the idealism that is the entitlement of all youth. They shared the optimism that the ill of Nigeria can be chased away by the united voice of optimistic youth. It was a tacit rejection of the old society created and presided over by the population of geriatric leaders. For a brief while, we old ones at home raised a voice in praise of our youth. They had found the courage to raise the questions that most of us had spent a life time merely contemplating and too timid to name. The social media had made their world smaller, imbuing in them the confidence of global solidarity. Citizens of a world without borders, they believed that what is possible in Washington, London, Cairo, Tunis and Paris can happen in Lagos, Benin, Kano and Abuja. They were armed with the eternal hope that if youth of all nations cry out loud enough against our police brutality perhaps things could change for the better.
At the approach of dusk, all hell was let loose. Truck loads of armed soldiers and police personnel arrived to shred the peace and vigil tranquility of Lekki Toll Gate. The protesters mistook them for protectors of the innocent. But multiple shots rent the air. The tranquil solemnity of a night of songs and speeches was converted into a cacophony of cries of anguish and death. A place of innocent communal protest had become a blood spattered canvas.
Before dawn, officialdom tried to clean up the scene, tom water hose the blood and bullet casings in preparation for a cascade of denials and lies. But word had gone round the country. Our children who went out to peacefully protest an unjust police unit had been bitten by the dogs of war. Incendiary anger swept through the length and breadth of the nation. Irate mobs took to the streets. The hungry, the angry, the unemployed and assorted crowds from hell unleashed an orgy of looting, arson and brigandage. Government and its movable and fixed presence became targets. Soldiers and policemen became unsafe and tossed away their uniforms just to take cover in the anonymity of civilian ordinariness.
Thereafter, an elaborate and sloppy show of shameful denials followed. Untidy cover-ups, serial denials, staged lies even by armed forces personnel on oath and in uniform followed when investigative panels was convened. There was of course the usual federal government knee jerk denials. “No one was killed at Lekki Toll Gate! No live ammunitions were used”! The ubiquitous Lai Mohammed, George Orwell’s Animal Farm Squeler, even picked an open quarrel with CNN over its evidence based report of casualties and repressive stampede at Lekki Toll Gate. All these were taking place in a world ruled by instant satellite and digital imaging techniques of instant reporting.
In all fairness, Governor Sanwo Olu of Lagos did the logical thing for any responsible government. A young governor whose popularity rating was quite high was in trouble. He needed to look good in the eyes of his youthful admirers while discharging the obligations of a responsible state to guarantee peace and order. He may have panicked by inviting the army but had no control over the rules of engagement.
He set up a judicial investigation panel headed by Justice Okuwobi with a membership that looked credible, including representatives of the youths who powered the ENDSARS protests. He was intent on finding out the truth. All participants, victims and relevant agencies testified in the open. At some point, the public almost lost track of the proceedings as torrents of testimonies and crowds of witnesses came forward with unnerving revelations.
At last the investigations have been concluded and the report of findings has gone public. The quantum of killings at Lekki qualifies as a ‘massacre’. A total of 48 persons were either shot dead or maimed by soldiers and policemen. Nine were confirmed killed and four persons remain missing and presumed dead. In the words of the report: ‘The atrocious maiming or killing of unarmed, helpless and unresisting protesters, while sitting on the floor and waving their Nigerian flags, while singing the National Anthem can only be equated to a ‘massacre’ in context”.
Other significant findings include the fact that soldiers and policemen used live ammunition on innocent protesters. The army used its vans to remove corpses from the scene of the protest and refused ambulances to help take victims to receive help. The police, on its part, assaulted, shot at and battered unarmed protesters which led to injuries and deaths.
While the protests raged, the federal government initiated actions towards some reform of the police. It hurriedly disbanded the controversial criminal SARS unit and replaced it with a new anti crime unit called Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) unit. Since after the ENDSARS protests, however, not much has been heard or seen of the new unit. Arguably, there has been a statistical reduction in SARS- type police harassment and brutality. Yet there have been reported instances of police brutality, robbery and extra judicial killings especially in the troubled South Eastern states where special security operations against IPOB militants has invoked old police habits.
On the scale of government investigation panels, the Lagos ENDSARS panel is one of the few times in Nigeria where a panel set up by government has come up to indict government and the security agencies. The series of indictments begins with the Lagos State Government itself which invited the army in the first place. There is no evidence from the proceedings that the invitation to the army was preceded by any indication that the protests were of such a violent as nature to overwhelm the Lagos state police command. There is also no record that the local police detachment at Maroko or its environs had requested for reinforcement at Lekki Toll Gate. Similarly, there was no mention by any of the witnesses that the protests were in any way violent or a threat to public peace. The understandable obstruction of traffic at the Toll Gate was only temporary. And yet armed soldiers were called in with conflicting rules of engagement. An order to arrive the scene and start shooting live bullets indiscriminately at unarmed protesters cannot pass as a ‘rule of engagement’ by any definition.
The panel clearly indicted the military, the police and the Lekki Concession Company which owns the toll gate. In the case of the latter, they were found guilty of evidence tampering by interfering with the close circuit television camera recordings of the proceedings and events on the said dates.
The implications of the Lagos ENDSARS judicial panel go far beyond the immediate context of the 2020 ENDSARS protests. They once again raise questions as to the character of the Nigerian states especially in its use of force to manage the freedoms and rights of citizens under the law. The most critical question is that of the right of citizens in a democracy to protest and express themselves in matters of public concern. The corollary is of course the obligation of the state to maintain law and order in situations where the free expression of the right to protest and expression leads to an upset of law and order. On this most important ancient question of democracy, the Nigerian state failed flatly even on the scale of banana republics in its handling of the Lekki Toll Gate incident.
While government has the ultimate responsibility to restore law and order in situations where there is credible evidence of a breach or collapse, it must do so in a manner that respects the right of citizens to openly process and protest public policies that they consider inimical to their lawful interests as a public. Of course the immediate recourse of government in such situations is to the police as a civil law enforcement agency. Police response in all such situations must be calibrated in response to the degree of the threat to public order. Where the conduct of the public at a public procession or protest is peaceful and sedate, the role of the police becomes protective, to prevent a peaceful protest from deteriorating into anarchy or mayhem. Ordinarily, this should have been the case in the Lekki Toll Gate incident. The usual police argument that a peaceful protest could be hijacked by riotous hoodlums and criminals is only a ready made alibi to be deployed in case the police over reaches its peaceful mandate.
The involvement of the military is a totally different dimension. The general rule in a democracy is that the military can only be invited by the civilian authority into a civil law enforcement role only in a situation where the threat to public order has escalated into a national security threat. In such a situation, the available police strength and capacity is overwhelmed to a level that necessitates a higher level of coercion to restore order. In such an eventuality, the protocols of authorization must obey the chain of command between civilian authority and the echelons of the various service chiefs. Similarly, the rules of engagement must be clearly spelt out. In most democracies, where soldiers are drafted to civil law and order assignments, they are subordinated to the command and control of the police hierarchy. It is squarely the call of civilian authority.
Ultimately, the central concern that has arisen from the report of the Lekki Toll Gate investigation panel is an interrogation of the doctrinal basis of the use of force by the various levels of government in Nigeria. Repeated events have shown that the culture of Nigeria’s security forces in their relationship with the civilian populace has remained instinctually adversarial. This is a carry over from the colonial heritage in which the public has now replaced the ‘natives’ as objects of police and military rough treatment. It is noteworthy that the Nigeria police retains the epithet of ‘force’ in its very name. This colonial tradition has been reinforced by decades of military authoritarianism in which a presumptive superior military order was out to instill discipline on an ‘idle’ civilian populace. The spontaneous reflex of the Nigeria military, like the police, is brutal hostility towards the civilian public that pays its bills. Repeatedly therefore, the Nigerian state has retained a certain unsavoury character as a ‘garrison’ state in dealing with citizens.
Nigeria would ordinarily want to parade the credentials of a democratic state. What the international interest in the Lekki Toll Gate episode has done is to call out Nigeria to fully account for its democratic credentials. We cannot hoist the banner of a democracy and expect the world to erect a different set of standards and value system for measuring our behavior especially in the way we treat our citizens. Nor should we expect the world to look the other way while we deploy soldiers and policemen to mete out medieval sadisms on our citizens.
Unfortunately, the federal government stepped forward to take the bullets for the Lekki Toll Gate and the international responses to it. Mr. Lai Mohammed and the Abuja cohort saw this as another opportunity for grandstanding in a ‘we’ versus ‘them’ Cold War type propaganda contest. Managing the information around ENDSARS became a federal government business. Unfortunately, our federals lack the technological know how to contest facts adduced by media and governments with superior digital and social media capabilities. In this regard, Lekki Toll Gate happens to be within earshot of the Lagos diplomatic precinct. Nearly every major nation has its consul or effective diplomatic outpost around Victoria Island. Those of them interested in security threats in Nigeria had their operatives on the ground at Lekki Toll Gate with all the technological capacities to capture the happenings in real time.
Now the verdict is out. The indictments have been handed down. Remedies have been recommended. This is no moment for arrogant posturing. It is time for sober and penitent compassion. The federal and state governments should apologize openly to the public: for the lives cut short, for destinies altered permanently through maiming, for careers disrupted and for the public trauma of televised authorized mass murder by agents of the state. For these and more, our governments must find the humility and grace to show respect for Nigerians for once. It is an opportunity to revise the reputation of the Nigerian state from a garrison state to a truly democratic republic in which the rights of a peaceful people matter. Most importantly, those we put in uniform and armed to protect us must NEVER AGAIN turn their weapons against us.