In concluding my column last Thursday, I urged President Muhammadu Buhari to address the nation in view of the EndSARS protests that had been hijacked by opportunistic criminals and the shooting of protesters two days earlier at the Lekki tollgate in Lagos. I was therefore elated when I received the Villa statement that the president would indeed address the nation that day.
Before that notice came, the National Security Adviser, Babagana Monguno, had alerted Nigerians of a pending intervention from the highest political authority in the country. “The president himself, I have just left his office, is going to deal with these issues in a specific manner apart from what has just taken place in council” said Monguno who added: “I believe in the next couple of hours, Mr President will come up with certain solutions that will be agreeable to the entire federation.”
What this suggested was that the president had been fully briefed on events and the military and security chiefs must also have counselled him on an appropriate response. In a Twitter post the night before, Vice President Yemi Osinbajo had expressed grief and regret, especially on the Lekki shooting, in a manner that reflected public mood. So my expectation was that the president would show empathy for those across the country who were injured or lost their lives, present the exact narrative of what happened in Lekki and efforts to bring the culprits to justice, propose timelines for the promised police reform and arraignment of the 35 SARS operatives indicted more than a year ago by his own committee, read the riot act to criminals who had hijacked the peaceful protests, and offer hope and comfort for a nation in distress.
Instructively, in the first line of his broadcast, the president admitted that it became necessary “having heard from many concerned Nigerians and having concluded a meeting with all the security chiefs.” But if the counsel he received was what the president reflected in his speech, it left many of his admirers shocked. For sure, he was not well served. Deliberately avoiding to speak about Lekki was a major blunder. It is also typical. For months following the December 2015 killings in Zaria of the Shiite Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) members by soldiers, the president also refused to talk about the tragedy we later learnt claimed no fewer than 347 lives, including women and children. Then, as now, all manner of excuses were invented for him by his aides. In the end, the president outsourced his responsibility on the issue to the Governor of Kaduna State, Mallam Nasir elRufai, who has no control over the military. The same thing is now happening with Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu of Lagos State.
In last Thursday’s national broadcast, the president addressed the law and order component of the challenge we now face. It could not have been an accident that in addition to setting afire the property of political leaders in Lagos and looting food centres across the country, the hoodlums targeted prison facilities to release criminals into the society, razed police stations and killed their personnel. After letting loose no fewer than 1,993 inmates at two correctional centres in Edo State, hoodlums attacked the Okitipupa correctional facility in Ondo State where an unspecified number of prisoners were also set free. The Ikoyi custodian centre in Lagos was torched, although security agents prevented a jailbreak. A warder was killed at the Warri correctional centre in Delta State in another attack. The assault on Afara Umuahia correctional centre in Abia State was foiled by the army and police. What the foregoing reveals is that while our young people were organizing their civil protests with a leadership that has proved to be accountable (as demonstrated by statements from the Feminist Coalition during and after the protests), other forces were also working to take advantage.
It was therefore appropriate for the president to sound the right note of warning to these criminal elements. But his refusal to address the hearts and minds component of this crisis is where I take issue. And nothing exemplifies this more than what happened at the Lekki tollgate on the night of 20th October. Tuesday’s statement by the army was a clear after-thought which raises several questions. Besides, it merely echoed what is fast becoming the official line on this tragedy. Even before the army came up with their statement, I had been told by people in government that ‘the so-called Lekki massacre is all propaganda and fake news’.
Given the fictitious stories being peddled by some people, ostensibly to discredit a government they oppose, there may indeed be a dispute about the number of protesters that died and/or were wounded at Lekki tollgate. But to say there was no shooting by soldiers is as ludicrous as the counter-accusation that it was government that released miscreants to the streets to cause havoc across the country. If there was any doubt about the shooting of protesters by soldiers, they have been dispelled by Governor Sanwo-Olu in his interaction with CNN’s Becky Anderson on Monday. “From the footage that we could see, it seems to be…there would be men in military uniform, who should be Nigerian Army or something,” said Sanwo-Olu. Pressed further by Anderson, the governor admitted, “Yes, they were there. That’s what the footage shows.”
Now that we are learning that governors can order deployment of military troops, silence cannot be an appropriate response to the Lekki tollgate incident that has dominated both local and international media reports and brought our nation to disrepute. Nor can the president rely solely on information supplied by a military that is complicit. With the manner in which this tragedy has been handled, we need a public enquiry. Afterall, it was only in the course of such exercise that the gory details of how 347 corpses were given mass burial in a single grave on the night of 14th December 2015 emerged. Which is why the president must understand that this ‘espirit de corps’ response whenever soldiers misbehave—which we also witnessed many times under President Olusegun Obasanjo, another retired General—cannot advance the cause of our democracy.
I believe the federal government misses the import of this tragedy that has been grossly mismanaged. Regardless of whether or not protesters died at Lekki, something died. As my friend, Kingsley Omose, said last weekend, ‘massacre has already occurred in the hearts of many of our young people who would see the fruitlessness of unarmed civil disobedience to protest genuine grievances.’ No matter the outcome of any investigation into the Lekki incident, the scars of such a metaphorical massacre, as aptly described by Omose, are deeper than that of the physical ones inflicted by cudgels and guns. And they sometimes never heal.
That a blood-stained flag is being used to symbolize what happened at Lekki tollgate on the night of 20th October 2020 is a sad commentary on our country. The story behind it is that when soldiers arrived the scene, protesters took a knee, waved the Nigerian Flag and began singing the National Anthem. The shots that reportedly followed stained the flag. In these days of alternative facts, nobody can be sure that exactly was what happened. But it really doesn’t matter. To feel safe and secure in your own country is a basic right. The EndSARS protests resulted from the denial of those rights by agents of state. To be shot by soldiers (with or without a flag) while protesting is a stain on the conscience of any nation.
In his broadcast last week, President Buhari talked about Tradermoni, Farmermoni, Marketmoni and palliative measures targeted at young people at a time they were hurting very badly. It’s like going to the house of mourning and talking about house rent. This crisis of mission which has in the past five years manifested in acts that confirm habitual indifference, aloofness and arrogance is a burden for the president who should now be concerned about his legacy. At a time like this, the people need to see their president demonstrate that Nigerian lives in fact do matter to him. That is the beginning of accountability.
In 2017, presidential spokesman, Femi Adesina, wrote a piece while his principal was in the United Kingdom on medical leave titled ‘President Muhammadu Buhari and the descendants of Shimei’. Adesina likened the president to King David, easily one of the most important Bible characters; and his critics to “descendants of Shimei’’, a member of the family of the displaced King Saul who once publicly humiliated King David. A famous quote from the piece reads: “President Buhari has tolerated people who have called him all sorts of names in the past two years. If he didn’t move against them directly, he could have allowed many Abishais to move against them, ‘and take off their heads.’ But not our President, a reformed democrat, a pious man, who has resolved to leave the people suffused by hatred unto God.’’
Many were critical of the ‘take off their heads’ allusion which spoke to intolerance, but there were also Christians whose exceptions were anchored on the comparison between President Buhari and King David. I saw the piece in a different light. In my disquisition, I drew parallels between President Buhari and King David, before dwelling on their differences. I argued in my column that the president of a republic should see himself in the least of his citizens while their joy is his uplift and their sorrow his personal anguish. In a monarchy, the leader is king. He is above the people and sees gestures of empathy even in dire circumstances as condescension. “Nigerians elected a president to lead them in a republic but Buhari and his handlers have manipulated the presidency into a monarchy,” I wrote.
It is instructive that the same Biblical text I used to illustrate my point in that column, ‘Of President Buhari and King David’ was used by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, in his Monday piece on the Nigerian crisis titled ‘A Time for Heroes’. Welby, a personal friend of our president wrote: “The heroic leader knows that he or she is fallible, has feet of clay to some extent. They are self-aware, they know themselves. In consequence they appoint people who compensate for their weaknesses.” And then Lord Welby added: “King David, in the rebellion of Absalom, took the advice of Joab (I Kings 19: 1-8). Honour matters to heroes but they are not proud about always being right for they have conquered the fear of letting others have credit or letting others advise.”
Every democracy carries within it an active seed of dictatorship, just like every dictatorship carries a potent seed of democracy. What often makes the difference is the moral stature of the leader and his personal ethics. These ethical standards were the major reason our youths mobilised and voted for Buhari in 2015 even if the little they knew about him was what they were told by their parents. This #EndSars protest presented the president an opportunity to demonstrate to these young Nigerians that he has their back. Sadly, at a time they most needed him, the president did not turn up for them.
We can go on and on about what should have been. But that would be academic. The more productive approach is to focus on the lessons that this crisis teaches on all sides. Embedded in everything that has happened are important opportunities for nation building. This must begin with police reform aimed at making us all feel safer and allowing their personnel to wear their uniforms with pride. I am aware that everybody is hurting at the moment. It appears that the police themselves have resorted to retaliatory abdication of responsibility, the reason looters have operated largely undisturbed. The process of rebuilding must therefore give police personnel the confidence that they are not being witch-hunted. And that we are only out for those bad eggs who have given the police a bad name.
As an aside, managers of the EndSARS protests spent just N60.4 million of the N147.85 million raised, a fraction of which was expended on consumables. Yet there was so much for some young people to eat and drink (as we saw on video posts) that they wished the protests would last forever. In contrast, we heard about the billions of Naira earmarked for COVID-19 palliatives that were only ‘eyemarked’ when looters descended on some hitherto-hidden warehouses to help themselves. Imagine what would have happened if our young people were given a quarter of the money available for the COVID-19 palliative to manage. Help would have reached the vulnerable of our society. They have therefore proven their expertise in running efficient services in different areas of our national life if we are ready to dispense with the old and its corruptive tendencies and embrace the new.
Perhaps the most important lesson from the past ten days is that hunger and poverty can strip otherwise good people of their humanity. We have described those who have gone on looting sprees as hoodlums. Yes, there are criminals and hoodlums among them. But if the hordes of people (men, women, children, including security personnel) who have engaged in maniacal looting across the country are all hoodlums, then something is terribly wrong with the soul of our country. The orgy of looting we have witnessed in the past ten days is also in some ways an act of retaliation against the government and political elite generally. If we don’t do something now, and allow this to happen a second time, we will have a full blown class war on our hands.
In all, President Buhari may have been led to believe that what happened was a matter of law and order. It is not. Getting people off the streets should therefore be seen as a starting point and not the end of a mission. Legacies are made of moments like this. Regardless of how this situation is being interpreted to him, the president must be guided by how he wants to be remembered. In the two and a half years left for him in office, he should do everything to ensure that the blood-stained flag at Lekki or the video of desperate looters in Jos do not become the memorial emblem of his stewardship in Nigeria.
*Adeniyi is a former presidential spokesman and Chairman of the Editorial Board of THISDAY. You can follow him on Twitter: @Olusegunverdict.