By Ogaga Ifowodo
As news of outbreaks of arson and looting started taking over the reports of the hitherto peaceful EndSARS protests, I hoped and prayed that for once, government would buck the trend and resist the temptation to send soldiers and anti-riot policemen to clear the streets by mowing down protesters.
The reported incidents were indeed worrisome: police stations set on fire and guns allegedly stolen, the gates of the prison in Benin broken down and its inmates set free, streets and highways blocked and commuters and travellers stranded, among other actions. But these pale in the light of the cold-blooded massacre of peaceful protesters at the Lekki Toll Gate in Lagos.
The account of the mass murder, corroborated in the main by phone-shot videos that have gone viral on social media, show that soldiers had, prior to shooting, removed the closed-circuit cameras and killed the floodlights, clearly with the aim of concealing their identity and any incriminating evidence. At least nine persons were murdered but there’s testimony that the soldiers carried away many corpses.
There had been no account of rioting at the Toll Gate, the protesters conducting themselves in the generally acknowledged peaceful manner they have gone about expressing their grievances for two weeks against a nation that has seemed to delight in shaming and degrading the vast majority of its citizens since independence. Thrown into sudden darkness—the darkness that has symbolically enveloped the country—the protesters sat down or stood quietly, many waving the flag and singing the national anthem.
Yet the soldiers pumped live bullets into their midst. Out of that blood-curdling scene has now emerged the truly ominous emblem of a blood-spattered flag making its gloomy rounds across internet chatrooms. Some have even replaced the white of the flag, standing for peace, with the red of the blood now being spilled gratuitously by the army, deadlier than SARS whose atrocities sparked the protests in the first place.
It was indeed Bloody Tuesday in Lagos as protesters in Alausa, according to eye-witness accounts given to Amnesty International, were also shot at by a team of policemen from the state’s Rapid Response Squad. At least two people died and one person was critically wounded.
Since October 8 when the protests began, ignited by the brutalisation of a victim by SARS operatives in Ughelli, Delta State, no less than 56 fellow Nigerians have been killed but the figure is most probably higher. Nigerian policemen and soldiers, nurtured by the culture of shooting first and last and never asking questions, cannot be expected to know of anything called irony.
But I hope that President Muhammadu Buhari, and certainly Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, a professor, sees the inescapable irony of ending SARS by SWATting the life out of even more of the younger citizens who have borne the greater brunt of police brutality. Swatting citizens as if they were just so many flies massed at the gate to one of the well-appointed abodes of the rich and privileged ought not to be any empathetic or responsible government to popular expressions of grievance. SWAT, the knee-jerk acronym-cursed replacement for SARS, has been dubbed Sars With Another Title. A timely clarification.
The chorus of the official lament of the violent turn of the otherwise peaceful protests has underlined it the idea that the use of deadly force is now justified. But because the reported violent turn is so sharply out of character with the undoubted peaceful conduct of the thousands and thousands of protesters who have insisted on staying in the streets until concrete action is taken on their demands — after all, SARS, as checkpoints, has been disbanded several times before since the clamour against it began three years ago — the talk in the streets and on social media is that the violence is sponsored.
Fifth columnists, or “hoodlums and miscreants,” in the words of Governor Babajide Sanya-Olu of Lagos State, have “hijacked” and tainted a legitimate and frankly overdue explosion of anger and frustration. But this begs the question of who is organising the hoodlums and miscreants into such well-coordinated forces of brigandage. Or why soldiers ordered to do police duties while Boko Haram and rampaging herdsmen sack whole towns, murder farmers and take over their lands will not merely make arrests or shoot in the air to disperse rioters but choose instead to shoot to kill unarmed protesters.
The view that the perpetrators of violence are sponsored saboteurs whose goal is to create a ruse for ending the #EndSARS revolution budding in the streets gains credence with videos circulating across social media of gleaming black SUVs with fully-tinted windows conveying thugs to protest sites or ferrying them away after they had sown mayhem.
It appears the army has denied any involvement in the Lekki massacre. For their sake and the sake of us all, I hope they had no hand in it. But the army must know that at this point nobody outside government circles will believe them. So, the onus is on them and the government to prove that no soldier was within shooting range of the peaceful protesters at the Lekki Toll Gate after dark on Tuesday, October 20, 2020. More than that, an independent enquiry into the massacre must be conducted, including a ballistics report on the ammunition pumped into the crowd. Photos of some of the bullets which missed their targets are on display on the internet and will be available as Exhibits A.
It is obvious that the resort to infiltration and sabotage through orchestrated violence as being credibly alleged by the protesters, not to mention the resort to the use of lethal force, is driven by irritation and anxiety. Despite promptly disbanding SARS, the plucky youths have remained in the streets.
Rather than go home and congratulate themselves and continue to wallow in their joblessness and despair, they have broadened their demands to include accountability and good governance. Thus, providing the perfect opportunity for a potentially unstoppable uprising fuelled by the pent-up anger and frustration of these many, many unrelenting years of poverty, hunger, dehumanisation, death and despair.
Every state governor who has received a delegation of the protesting youths has acknowledged their intolerable ordeal. But the agony and anguish of the youths are the same that their parents and guardians feel, perhaps even more acutely given their more onerous responsibilities.
This is what Governor Ifeanyi Okowa of Delta State admitted in his response to the Lekki massacre. We cannot, he says, “suppress the voice of the Nigerian youth. They have suffered untold pains and expressed their frustrations in the last two weeks,” adding that as leaders, “our duty is to start to right the wrongs. We need to start the process of rebuilding a nation that works for all. We need to take steps to recreate hope for our people, the youths inclusive.”
This is the proper understanding of the militant fervour defying guns in the streets. Those youths may very well be the saviours of a nation teetering once again and perhaps for the fateful last time on the precipice of self-destruction. As, indeed, they have done periodically since the Anglo-Nigerian Defence Pact protests of 1962, the misguided but idealistic Five Majors Coup of 1966, the (Colonel) Ali-Must-Go Free Education Jihad of 1978, the Great Anti-SAP Protests of 1989, down to their critical role in the June 12 (1993) pro-democracy struggles.
It would be a grievous mistake to see the inchoate revolution in the streets as a mere protest for police reforms. SARS which had long forfeited any reason for its existence—I read somewhere that the man who set it up now regrets his work, but it is not his fault, really —was merely a catalyst for the opening of the floodgates of the citizens long-suppressed but seething sorrow borne of deprivation and demoralisation. SARS was just a notorious part of the whole called the Nigerian edifice: it symbolised the unmitigated violence of governance in the lives of the people.
Call #EndSARS, then, a synecdochical revolution. At any rate, President Buhari must now accept the urgent need to speak to the crippling heartache of the youths in the streets. He cannot delay any longer to announce a bold course of change that would restructure— okay, re-engineer since restructuring seems such a forbidden word in the corridors of power —the country to do what Governor Okowa says must be done to make Nigeria work for all of her citizens.
That is the only way to calm the streets and make the youths go home. Time is running out. And the nation, slowly shutting down due to the increasing number of states imposing curfews, waits with bated breath. Act now, Mr President!