A well-intended peaceful protest against notorious law enforcement agents snowballed into national controversy such that international community and organisations had to take a stand, which should serve as a stern warning against a repeat.
Nigerians are in this dilemma today because of the complete disregard of the foresight, in fact, warning of a leading Nigerian nationalist, Tony Enahoro, on the floor of House of Representatives in Lagos on May 29, 1962, during the debate on the proposed declaration of state of emergency in the defunct Western Region. In Enahoro’s words, the Federal Government-proposed emergency “would set into motion a chain of events, the end of which nobody knows.”
Enahoro was deemed an alarmist but, to his credit, an estimated over two million dead were recorded in a subsequent civil war. Yet, there was a tinge of irony later, in the sense that the same Tony Enahoro also led the hawks on the federal side of the war by going to the defunct Soviet Union to purchase MIG fighters, mostly flown by Egyptian mercenaries, against the Biafrans. Enahoro was later to regret his role, for sheer political opportunism, in the system he created. For the last 20 years of his life, Enahoro unsuccessfully tried to correct his mistake till he died in exile abroad.
Fifty years after the civil war, we are back drumming another war with Nigerian Army arrogantly threatening hell and brimstone. Surprisingly, everybody is either unaware or too afraid to speak. That was the decisive moment of the protest at Lekki in Lagos in which harmless, unarmed agitators were violently crushed in furtherance of an earlier boast not to allow series of rights guaranteed every citizen under Nigerian Constitution. The right to assemble, the right to speak, the right to hold political views, the right to express same, the right to fair hearing, the right to be tried in a court of law for any perceived criminal offence, etc.
It was, clearly, in recognition of these rights that both President Muhammadu Buhari and Police IG Adamu Mohammed upheld the acton of the protesters at Lekki as legitimate and acceded to their five-point demand, the main of which was the scrapping of the murderous Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). So far, the protesters at Lekki were and remained peaceful throughout. Yes, obviously buoyed by those concessions, they put up fresh demands including the call on President Buhari to go. So what? Who, since the days of Yakubu Gowon, was that predecesssor of Buhari, except General Abdusalami Abubakar and deceased Umar Yar’Adua, not similarlly called on to go? Did they necessarily go? It is a common demand of political critics, more humorously, all over the world and very often too. Did that mean Buhari would or should necessarily resign? Faced with a similar situation/speculation, a former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson disarmed everybody humorously in his reaction that “I know what is going on. I am going on. Your government is going on.” What followed except deafening applause? Buhari must free himself from the hawks around him. Unlike him, such right-wing elements are not accountable to Nigerians.
Lately, in different parts of the world, Kyrgistan, Israel, Ecuador, France, Britain, Belarus, even United States, elected leaders had been demanded by protesters to quit. They are still in power without the army of the countries concerned getting involved in politics.
There is this risk posed by the army. As the Lekki stand-off progressed without violence and quite unusually beyond a week, there was a strange development by thugs breaking the law on mainland Lagos, looting and destroying public and private property. Noticeably, the culprits were not part of the protesters at Lekki. Also, much as they posed danger and should have been arrested by the police, soldiers expoited the situation by getting involved in politics, tactics which are fast spreading. Very often, in any national controversy, the army makes policy statesments, ordinarily, exclusive preserve of politicians and civilian administrators.
Instead, the army waded in by publicly expressing its loyalty to the President, Commander-in-Chief, as if that sychophancy and self-service were necessary. Still undone, the army announced its determination to ensure stability/security in the country, a mere inherent statutory unannounced duty of any army anywhere in the world. More daringly, the army announced its annual Operation Crocodile Smile. Nigerians raised the alarm that all the body movements were targeted at crushing the unarmed peaceful protesters at Lekki. Indeed, a self-styled ambassador of peace called on President Buhari to use force to disperse the peaceful Lekki protesters.
Either by accident or by design, activities of hooligans intensified on the outskirts of Lagos. The criminals could have taken advantage of the peaceful protesters at Lekki or they could have been hired by vested interests as agent provocateur to discredit the Lekki agitators and thereby create the conducive atmosphere for the eventual butchery at Lekki.
Seeing the lawlessness spreading to many parts of mainland Lagos, Governor Jide Sanwo-Olu either panicked or allowed himself to be stampeded into declaring curfew in Lagos, rather awkwardly, with the announcement made at 12 noon for the curfew to start at 4pm. It would never be clear why Governor Sanwo-Olu was so naive not to realise that he was unconsciouly setting himself up (if not being set up) to create the necessary atmosphere for violent clampdown on nthe protesters at Lekki, in the guise of enforcing the curfew even from 9pm, the new time to which commencement of the curfew was extended by Sanwo-Olu, almost unknown to Lagosians.
The subsequent Lekki tragedy centred around enforcement of the curfew, be it 4pm, 7pm or 9pm. Unknown to Governor Sanwo-Olu, he had been displaced, or so he claimed. When it became clear that protesters had been killed at Lekki, Sanwo-Olu denied any knowledge or responsibility. If a state government declared curfew, it was not the business of either the Federal Government or the army to enforce the curfew. But if the Federal Government took it on itself to enforce curfew in any state, it could only be part of regulations in an emergency approved by the National Assembly. Nigeria must be the only federation where states are overawed anyhow and at anytime by the Federal Government.
In the early stages of COVID-19 crisis in United States, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo locked down the state and President Donald Trump threatened to open up the state for normal activities. But Governor Cuomo countered that such a move would be a declaration of war on the state of New York. He was right. Without further argumentation, President Trump withdrew.
However, in the matter of the protesters killed at Lekki, there was so much confusion. The latest is that 81st (Lagos) Division of Nigerian Army claimed that its intervention at Lekki was at the invitation of Lagos State government. All along, Sanwo-Olu conveniently absolved himself on the ground that he, as governor, has no power to order troop movement or operations. Nigerian Army must have decided to disclose everything as it happened, a candour that threw Sanwo-Olu off balance to such an extent that, at the time of writing this piece, the governor was yet to respond.
The fact remains that it is dangerous for the army to be involved in politics, specifically, by publicly taking a stand on purely political policies. Nigeria is a democracy, rather than a military regime. In any democracy, the military is seen but never heard. Intermitent political mishap is not peculiar to Nigeria. The cost of theft and damage caused by thugs in the recent looting pales very low, compared to similar events in many American cities to highlight the Black Lives Matter protests. Did US Army/National Guard hierarchy necessarily jump into the political fray with self-serving expression of loyalty to President Trump? Did American Army/National Guard publicly offer unsolicited pledge to ensure security throughout United States? Equally, for seven consecutive months, France experienced political upheaval from unpopular government policies. Law enforcement agents (perhaps including soldiers) performed their duties by suppressing the anarchists. Even then, the French army never got involved in political statements on the country’s direction.
In a democracy like Nigeria, the elected head of government is empowered by the Constitution to appoint ministers to assist him in administering the country. It is the responsibility of these ministers to affirm government policies publicly and not the duty of Chief of Army Staff and his officers. In all matters of security concerns, such as the Lekki stand-off, where were Defence Minister Brigadier-General Magashi and Interior Minister Rauf Aregbesola? Both either abdicated their responsibility or were cowed into complete silence.
What reputation did the army carve for itself in the unfortunate Lekki protest controversy? The army intimidated Nigerians with ridiculous arrogance to ensure the country is run its (army’s) way. Ordinarily, Nigerians are not the enemies. And in any case, there is still the target set for the entire armed forces in 2015 by Commander-in-Chief, President Muhammadu Buhari, to neutralise Boko Haram within three months. Strangely, we are into the sixth year and Boko Haram still defies the armed forces in northeast of Nigeria till today. With that disgraceful non-achievement, the army rubbished itself at Lekki with inconsistency, if not blatant lies.
Despite all convincing circumstantial evidence of the participation of the army in the brutal killings at Lekki, the crime against humanity was initially denied. As the lies went, no Nigerian soldier was involved. Then Governor Sanwo-Olu implicated the army as he tried to save his own neck. Eventually, the army claimed it was invited by Lagos State government. In short, army unleashed the violence among the protesters at Lekki. That being so, why did the army not own up from the beginning? What type of reputation is that? Honourable? Enviable?
The less said about switching off of street lights and CCTV cameras beaming the lawful and unarmed Lekki protesters, the better. The really worrying aspect was the mischievous campaign of disinformation aimed at stirring bloody ethnic conflict between the two major residents in Lagos State, during which it was hoped the battle for the scrapping of SARS would be abandoned and lost. The mischief almost worked, especially among the unwary. What with the listing of four major television stations in Lagos State, and wondering why only one burnt down was owned by a Yoruba and the remaining three owned by non-Yoruba southerners were not touched. It was a desperate and uneasy task explaining to innocent ones not to fall for the dangerous ploy to incite otherwise two harmonious groups against each other or allow the focus on getting rid of SARS to be lost. A few hours later, this mischief was followed with another dangerous propaganda listing the state of origin of owners of almost all business premises damaged or burnt in Lagos. Former Governor Bola Tinubu rose to the occasion by promptly enlightening the public that his losses in terms of destroyed assets were inflicted by his political enemies in the state rather than a maliciously maligned particular ethnic group. Ohanaeze and Afenifere top-notchers also rose to the occasion.
The most ridiculous of the disinformation propaganda unleashed in the social media was the one disingenuously disputing any idea of fatal shootings at Lekki. The questions were asked “Where are the bodies? Which family ever complained of missing or dead ones?” etc. Such unintelligent questions could only trigger a reminder on the fate of a Saudi journalist, a fierce critic of his home government, exiled in United States, Jamal Khashoggi, who, on October 2, 2018, innocently went to his country’s embassy in Ankara, Turkey, to renew his passport.
Shown by CCTV to be entering the embassy, that was his last day on earth, as he was murdered and dismembered, while the whole place was washed clean. Saudi embassy in Ankara, in its initial response to concern for Khashoggi’s disappearance, was that the man had left the embassy after concluding his business. Thanks to the Turkish government, which alerted the world that the journalist was murdered and dismembered inside the Saudi embassy. Obviously, with concrete evidence. Only then did the Saudi government carry out a mock trial with jail sentences for some security operatives.
Accordingly, questions sponsored in the social media demanding the corpses of the fatal victims of the Lekki shootings did not impress. There was ECOWAS, for example, calling for dialogue over the Lekki controversy. Such plea, obviously, was attempted repair work for big brother Nigeria. It was even worse that African Union took a similar line, calling for dialogue. The language is pregnant. Nigeria must even feel most uneasy by the stand-off United States and Britain as well as United Nation, the three which refused to buy the impudence of no fatal shooting at Lekki. Not in the light of live transmission of satellite television stations like AlJazeera, CNN, BBC, NBC and Sky News.
Nigeria must particularly take note of the concern inherent in UN’s call for dialogue with critics. On more than four different occasions, Nigerian authorities had been warned in this column to discard the half a century old barrack mentality that citizens could be mowed down on the moribund ground of internal affairs or preservation of territorial integrity by all or even any means. There is, despite the bloodshed, the blessing of the Lekki massacre. Henceforth, on any issue, Nigeria is now on the radar of strategic world powers and internal institutions.
Any continued or routine bloodshed in these shores may trigger unpleasant consequences. Agitation of one kind or the other exists in almost all nations in the world. Nigeria is not an exception. Dialogue and concession are the only way out. It is preferable to continue to live together but the living cannot live with the dead. The deceased from the Lekki massacre are gone and there must never be a repeat. Just don’t try it because it is now expensive.