Governor Simon Lalong of Plateau state, in his capacity as chairman of Northern Governors’ Forum, further deepened the row over soldiers’ shooting of unarmed peaceful protesters at Lekki, Lagos, who were demanding scrapping of the murderous Special Anti-Robbery Squad, notorious as SARS. In what was obviously the latest in the desperation to whitewash the tragedy, Lalong accused the protesters of pursuing regime change, which instantly portrayed them as engaging in rebellion against the state. Lalong got it wrong, as will be revealed later below.
If there was any doubt on the mission of soldiers at a peaceful protest gathering of well educated young ones at Lekki, Lagos, such doubt was removed by the stand of Northern Nigeria on the tragedy as read out by Lalong in their communique after their meeting in Kaduna. Inherent in the communique are traces of overlordship, intimidation and total lack of concern for the bereaved families.
Where is the starting point? Lalong himself? Not long after being elected for the second term, the Plateau State governor woke one morning only to be briefed on the news of another massacre of his people overnight by ever unknown armed men, a common occurrence in the state. Lalong lost his cool and vowed to henceforth speak his mind critically because, as he put it, he no longer needed anybody’s assistance. What subversion did the people of Plateau State commit to deserve regular massacre every time?
Governor Lalong described the Lekki protesters as subversive elements. The same protesters both President Muhammadu Buhari and Police Inspector-General Adamu conceded as legitimate? The reality of soldiers’ crime against humanity at Lekki could only be lost on the unwary or the callous. In other words, if only surreptitiously, the army has sneaked on the country the legitimacy of murder as instrument of crushing protests in Nigeria. And yet, such crime is justified on the ground of crushing subversion. Throughout, the protesters at Lekki were peaceful and unarmed. Biafran agitators/protesters were shot on different occasions in Enugu, Onitsha and Port Harcourt while the tragedies were covered up by police, which intimidated the survivors by arraigning them at Port Harcourt for alleged treason. When did it become treasonable to agitate for political causes?
Shiite protesters along Kaduna-Zaria road were shot by soldiers for allegedly obstructing the convoy of an army officer. How many were killed? Tens? Scores? Hundreds? We are a nation of nobody cares, as the deceased were secretly buried in mass graves. In the matter of crimes against humanity, there is no discrimination in age, religion or ethnicity. The stand off at Lekki was, therefore, another major occasion where unarmed fellow Nigerians were unlawfully shot by the army, a sad event, which, after an initial shameful denial, was eventually confirmed by the army to be at the invitation of Lagos State government. It is unfortunate that the North did not see tragedy for what it was.
When did peaceful protest become subversive in society? If Lalong’s communique could concede that the peaceful Lekki sit-down protest was hijacked or infiltrated by thugs and looters far away from the protesters at Lekki, should the protesters have been made to pay for the crimes of thugs and looters with their lives? The sensible thing to do was to arrest the looters or even shoot them with robber bullets, while protecting the peaceful protesters as long as they remained well-behaved without destoying property. Why are we ever bloodthirsty like vampires?
Since Simon Lalong read his communique with some baseless righteous indignation, it is not out of place to submit that the shooting at Lekki was pre-meditated, judging from indisputable facts. By October 18 (a Sunday), a Coalition of Northern Groups announced that it was going to embark on its own protest in Kaduna on Monday, October 19. Then, suddenly, the Northern Coalition Group called off its protest planned for Kaduna. What were the reasons for the cancellation of the protest? Who advised the coalition to cancel their planned protest and why? Then on the D-Day, the following day, October 20, army shot into the peaceful protesters at Lekki, Lagos, clearly as carefully planned and leaked to the Northern Coalition.
If the Northern Coalition Group commenced their protest on Monday, October 19, only one of two options was open to them. Northern protesters would either have copied their counterparts at Lekki, Lagos, by being peaceful or they too would have been infiltrated by thugs/criminals or the latter would have been sponsored to infiltrat the Northern Coalition protesters to discredit them and create the necessary atmosphere for soldiers to shoot into them. Either way, had the Northern Coalition commenced their protest, the army would have been faulted for allowing Northern Coalition to protest unhindered and shooting into protesters at Lekki. But for whatever reasons, with Northern Coalition protesters safely off the streets, the road was clear, if not cleared, for those who died in the Lekki shooting to be sent to their graves somewhat untimely as subversives, so implied in the infamous communique. For a repeat, no reason has so far been advanced why and how potential Northern Coalition protesters called off their action at the last minute and escaped the experience of their unlucky counterparts at Lekki, Lagos.
In any case, even subversives must be subject and subjected to due process of law, as guaranteed under Nigerian constitution. Any citizen faulted for any crime must be tried in a court of law to give him or her the right of fair hearing. Where is the law that unarmed protesters should be summarily executed, as was done at Lekki? It is immaterial whether the deceased were two, 12 or 20. A week earlier, curfew was imposed all over Edo State. Why did the army not move in to enforce the curfew? The label of subversives placed on peaceful protesters at Lekki was, therefore, plain blackmail on the dead, not in a position to clear their names. Governor Lalong must reflect and guard against being done in.
For the moment, he may be engrossed in the zeal of being a good voice of the North. But he should learn from his Lagos colleague, Babajide Sanwo-Olu, who innocently took the advice to invite the army to cope with the spreading problem of criminals during the otherwise peaceful process in Lagos. That was a normal inter-government affair, which earned him blame eventually and he found himself all alone. For now, the Plateau governor may find it easy to legitimise soldiers’ shooting into unarmed protesters, without any proof as subversives.
There was this allegation that the peaceful protesters in Lagos sought regime change and, perhaps, that was the background of the allegation of subversion against them. Struggle for regime change is neither a crime nor a secret matter. Section 22 of Nigerian constitution confers on the media the duty to make government accountable. That duty also extends to Nigerians the right to hold political views, the right to criticise and the right to demand amenities like education, security, health and, above all, the right to criticise government harshly but correctly with a view to getting that government voted out at any next opportunity. Again, it is cheap blackmail to label such human and constitutional duty in frightening terms as if it is rigidly only by armed rebellion a government can be changed. That is why there is limited tenure of two terms of four years each for elected public office holders under a presidential system like Nigeria’s. Even in a parliamentary system, it is never eternity for prime ministers, as the holder of that office must seek a fresh mandate every five years, subject to the confidence in him by members of his party in parliament.
The experience of former President Goodluck Jonathan vividly illustrates legitimacy of the pursuit of regime change. He was criticised for most of his last 30 months in office. The gravity of such criticism could never have removed him or effected a change of his administration as, strictly, only the National Assembly could remove Nigeria’s President and, where that happens, such impeached President must deserve such removal as long as the decision is in line with provisions and processes of the constitution. Indeed, what paved the way for President Buhari’s return to public office as an elected leader was that Nigerians fully and freely exercised their right under the constitution to make him (jonathan) accountable for perceived unsatisfactory performance for which he was legitimately and democratically voted him out in an election. Nobody ever faulted critics for seeking him out of office because Nigerians exercised their right in an election.
It is, therefore, even wrong and sycophantc to accuse Lekki protesters of seeking regime change for a man whose limited tenure ends on June 12, 2023, and he is not seeking a third term. Even if Buhari is going for his second time in 2023, no agitation can get hm out of office, except his impeachment by the National Assembly. Yet, Nigerians have their inherent constitutional right to criticise or even discredit his performance in office. Just as that is done, Buhari’s supporters also have the right to counter with appreciation of his record in office. What is wrong and unacceptable is the blackmail that such critics are necessarily seeking regime change as in armed revolt.
Correction: According to a reader, contrary to the information in this column last week that Nigerian nationalist, Tony Enahoro, died in exile abroad, the old man died in his house at GRA, Benin City, on December 15, 2010.