Aftershocks of the brutal killings that took place at the Lekki Toll Gate on Tuesday, October 20, 2020, are still being felt across the country. Many government officials and security agents are now ill at ease over their role in that horrific incident. Expectedly, there have been angry exchanges, allegations, denials, and speculations between Lagos State government officials, senior police, and soldiers over the identities of the men who killed unarmed protesters, as well as the identity of the person who authorised the killings. That heinous crime will never be forgotten, forgiven, or erased from our history books.
As recriminations grow, frantic efforts are being made to conceal the truth from reaching the public. The killings were inexcusable. The cold-blooded murder of Nigerian youths by criminals in uniform demonstrates how brutal, how callous, and how uncaring security forces in Nigeria are. But they did not need to massacre that many defenceless youths to confirm to the world how ruthless and cold-hearted they were.
The search for the truth about the killers of the protesters at Lekki marks the beginning of responsibility and transparency in government. The investigation must be swift and thorough. It must go through a process that is legitimate, honest and open. It was the 19th Century spiritual leader and founder of the Sokoto caliphate Usman Dan Fodio who said: “Conscience is an open wound, only truth can heal it.”
Human lives matter. Everyone has a fundamental right to protest, including the right to stand up to express their views when things are going wrong in the country. We live in a new age.
It has been claimed that the #EndSARS demonstrators were compelled to turn violent because of the killings at Lekki. The brutal murders spawned unprecedented violence, looting, destruction of businesses and homes, robberies, rape, and a general state of anarchy. Spurred on by the anger of watching their fellow citizens cut down at the prime of their youth, many people abandoned the predominantly peaceful protests and took the law into their hands.
There is certainly some validity in that line of argument. In a situation in which the relationship between citizens and security forces has been fractured because of police abuse of people’s human rights, it is easy to see why the killings in Lekki served as gasoline to an already tense situation waiting to explode.
Nevertheless, the lack of a visible leader of the protests must have aggravated the situation and contributed to the violent response to the shootings. Perhaps a credible leader would have calmed the protesters, called them to order, and reminded them of the need to focus on the main objectives of the demonstrations. Above all, a highly respected leader would know when to push forward and when to retreat from a battlefront. If a leader were present at Lekki, perhaps the leader would have urged the protesters to move back, to avoid any temptation to exchange angry words with the armed outlaws who eventually opened fire on the protesters.
At a moment like this, I am reminded of the saying that the hallmark of maturity is the ability to remain calm in the face of provocation.
Someone said the protesters would have considered appointing a leader but dismissed the idea on the ground that the Nigeria Police Force has an unparalleled record of extrajudicial killings that were never investigated or resolved. In other words, the protesters worried that the police could target the leader, arrest him, incarcerate him or even murder him on trumped-up charges.
Against this background, the question arises: Does leadership matter in a protest movement? Can an identifiable leader contribute to the success or failure of a national protest? My direct answer is, Yes, leadership does matter. And yes, an identifiable leader is essential to the success or collapse of any uprising. Here is why.
The reason why leadership is necessary in every uprising is that a leader serves as the arrowhead of the protests through planning, mobilising, recruiting, and raising funds. The leader makes things happen. The leader represents the engine room of all activities. The leader can negotiate with security agencies and government officials, as well as with foreign governments and international organisations. History shows that leadership is critical in the success of any social movement, regardless of threats to the lives of such leaders.
The leader of a protest movement can rouse the citizens to action. The leader can also pacify an angry crowd. Without doubt, clear leadership is critical in any uprising. Last week, I used the metaphor of the conductor of an orchestra to reinforce the point about the role of a leader before, during and after mass protests. A national protest movement without an identifiable leader is like a suburban train without a driver. That train is destined to crash somehow and somewhere.
Owing to the sudden end of the protests, some people have asked the question: Is this the end of the protests? Is this all we sacrificed our time and efforts to make Nigeria great again? Have all our efforts come to nought? These questions are appropriate but they also indicate the level of frustration with the government, and uncertainty over an inconclusive national uprising.
Surely, the demonstrations ended quickly. However, the government must not be deluded to assume that public anger has eased and that everything must continue to operate with the same degree of carelessness and impunity that gave rise to the mass protests. No one should underestimate the scale of public resentment that was displayed during the #EndSARS protests, or the capacity of youths to rise again whenever they feel the situation has degenerated. The future remains uncertain. Tomorrow is as volatile as yesterday was decisive.
I would like to end by citing an appropriate quote that has been attributed variously to ancient Chinese philosophers Lao-Tzu and Confucius, and other Asian philosophers. Regardless of the accuracy of the source of the quote, there is a message in it for the killers of unarmed youths at Lekki Toll Gate. The quote states: “It is only when you see a mosquito landing on your testicles that you realise that there is always a way to solve problems without using violence.”