By Bamidele Ibeyemie
The event of October 20, 2020, in Lekki, Lagos, would not cease being topical in a short while.
Even if the nagging questions surrounding it are answered, it may still be a debatable topic any day.
To some, it is the Lekki Shooting. Others termed it Lekki Massacre while another set of people do not agree with the appendages.
The multiplicity in nomenclature points at the controversial nature of the incident, which has left mixed accounts in its wake.
For unexplainable reasons, what was a genuine national security effort is attracting attacks for the Nigerian Army, NA.
That the army, an institution committed to the territorial integrity of Nigeria became in the middle of an issue that has the Police as a central figure, is still surprising.
However, this analogy gives a clearer understanding of what passes as attempts to scapegoat the NA.
Up until the night of October 20, 2020, Lagos had been the hotbed of the #EndSars protest for police reforms, with the Lekki Tollgate as the unofficial headquarters of the exercise.
Before that ‘’Tuesday in October’’, protesters had been at the Lekki Tollgate for two weeks, demanding police reforms.
While this was going on, other parts of the country where protests had spread to, were already recording violent attacks by those who masqueraded as protesters.
In Benin, suspected hoodlums had hijacked the exercise from genuine protesters, and invaded two prisons, setting nearly 2000 prisoners free. About two police stations were burnt in the process, sparking off a trend that saw many police stations being set ablaze across the country.
In Lagos, Orile Police Station and Adekunle Police Station were the first victims, leading to the imposition of curfew by Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu.
Understandably, the restriction of movement was done to forestall further breakdown of law and order. It was a constitutional obligation, timely executed by the chief security officer of Lagos State.
Governor Sanwo-Olu, who made this known on his Twitter handle, said the peaceful protest had become a monster that is threatening the social lives of Lagosians.
The governor lamented that criminal elements were hiding behind the peaceful protest to unleash terror on the state.
He said: “I have watched with shock how what began as a peaceful #EndSARS protest has degenerated into a monster that is threatening the well-being of our society. Lives and limbs have been lost as criminals and miscreants are now hiding under the umbrella of these protests to unleash mayhem on our state.
“As a government that is alive to its responsibility and has shown a commitment to the movement #ENDSARS, we will not watch and allow anarchy in our dear state.
“I, therefore, hereby impose a 24-hour curfew on all parts of the state as from 4 pm today, 20th October 2020. Nobody, except essential service providers and first responders, must be found on the streets.”
If you were in Lagos, especially on October 20, 2020, you needed no prompting to know how tensed the atmosphere was. You could feel it in the air and even see it physically. It was a rapid descent to the anarchy that unfolded before millions.
From every standpoint, the curfew was needed to arrest the spreading chaotic situation.
No one was in doubt as to whether Lagosians, especially protesters would comply with the order.
Reason: People needed to stay off the streets to prevent further escalation.
Also, being an order of government, people were bound to comply as obedience to constituted authorities is a civic duty.
But that was not the case in most parts of Lagos including Lekki Toll Gate.
Since the police were already victims and an irritating sight to the public at the time, sending them to restore normalcy couldn’t have been a rational decision.
Against this backdrop, the argument that soldiers ought not to have been drafted to ensure compliance with the curfew doesn’t stand.
Note that at the time, many policemen had been murdered across the country. Therefore, sending them to ensure compliance could have meant putting them in harm’s way.
From the beginning of the protest to the time it ended, the army tried as much as possible to ensure that bad elements didn’t subvert national security.
This, it did with the highest adherence to its rules of engagement.
Recall that at a certain point, the army issued a warning to “subversive elements and trouble makers” to desist.
Army spokesman, Col Sagir Musa, said in a Facebook post: “The Nigerian Army (NA) wishes to reassure law-abiding citizens that it is highly committed to the sustenance of peace, security and defence of democracy in Nigeria.
“As a responsible and law-abiding organisation, the Nigerian Army reaffirms its unalloyed loyalty and commitment to the President, Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces of the Federal Republic of Nigeria President Muhammadu Buhari and the constitution of the country.
“The NA hereby warns all subversive elements and trouble makers to desist from such acts as it remains highly committed to defending the country and her democracy at all cost.
“The NA is ready to fully support the civil authority in whatever capacity to maintain law and order and deal with any situation decisively.
“All officers and men are directed never to be distracted by anti-democratic forces and agents of disunity.”
This crucial warning didn’t come without criticisms from a few quarters. But the bashings were baseless because the peacetime activities of the army have a bearing on its relations with the civil society.
In other climes, the army is sometimes invited to restore normalcy when different layers of policing fail in maintaining law and order in times of unrest.
And in the case of Lagos as of the day of the so-called Lekki shooting, superior law enforcement was needed to arrest the chaos that had descended on the city.
As far as I am concerned, this reason justified the presence of the army at Lekki Toll Gate.
As an institution committed to its rules of engagement, the personnel drafted to the hotbed acted according to the high professional ethos the army subscribes to.
Allegations of killing protesters leave every right-thinking person confused as to where, when and how the incident happened.
Already, the NA has clarified that it was invited by the Lagos State government to ensure compliance with the curfew. And this duty was performed with uttermost respect to the right of people to protest as enshrined in the 1999 constitution.
In a statement by the Acting Deputy Director, 81 Division Army Public Relations, Major Osoba Olaniyi, the Division explained that the intervention of the soldiers was on the request of Lagos State government.
“The attention of Headquarters 81 Division of the Nigerian Army has been drawn to a viral video on social media in which it was alleged that civilians protesters were massacred by soldiers at the Lekki Toll plaza.
“This allegation is untrue, unfounded, and aimed at causing anarchy in the country. At no time did soldiers of the Nigerian Army open fire on any civilian, “ the NA explained.
Apart from the army’s position, as things are becoming clearer, it is obvious that pictures of purported victims of the phantom shootings being circulated on social media are nothing but misleading.
They have no direct bearing with #EndSars protest just as some whose images were used have come out to debunk the claims that they are dead.
If the allegations against the army must stand, its promoters should provide answers to the following questions:
What are the names of the said victims? Who are their relatives?
Where are their corpses? Which mortuary were they kept in? Has anyone come out to say that his loved one is missing?
As simple as the questions appear, they are key to defining what actually happened on the night of October 20, 2020, in Lagos.
Nigerians and the international community await the answers as anything short of it strengthens the growing belief that the allegations are unfounded and handiwork of mischief-makers.
•Ibiyemie, a human rights activist, writes from Lekki, Lagos.